The year was 1955. Lucille Ball was all the go on television. The microwave oven and “clicker” remote went on the market. And in Elkhart Lake—an eastern Wisconsin resort town, where well-heeled families have been vacationing for a century—a new racetrack opened on 640 acres in the scenic Kettle Moraine. The 14-turn circuit replaced a road course through town, where the Sports Car Club of America had already been racing, its cars meandering through historic buildings and businesses, past the lake and through farm fields.
Road America has become one of the country’s top race tracks, with IndyCar, NASCAR, International Motor Sports Association, MotoAmerica and the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association hosting major annual events there.
Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and Mario Andretti have raced on it. Dario Franchitti (IndyCar) set the track record there in his Championship Auto Racing Teams’ open wheel car in 2000. But for one weekend a year, it’s host to the Weathertech International Challenge (WIC) with Brian Redman presented by HAWK. It’s a four-day vintage racing festival where the cars and drivers on track boast as much history as the road beneath them and the charming hamlet of Elkhart Lake a few miles away.
“The WIC has a different vibe because vintage competitors … come year after year for the event. Date equity and longevity play a big part in the success of the WIC,” says John Ewert, Road America communications director. While fans of national series, like IndyCar, come to Road America as one of many stops, amateur vintage drivers and their fans may only take part in one or a handful of events per year.
Elkhart Lake is worth a road trip any weekend of the year, but for Twin Cities’ car enthusiasts—or anyone who loves a quaint town with great lake views—it’s the place to be in late July. It’s just a scenic five-hour drive from Minneapolis—more with a stop at Leinenkugel Brewing Company or Nueske’s Applewood Smoked Meats. During the WIC, enthusiasts descend on Elkhart Lake from across the country, towing cars that span the 1930s to the early 2000s.
Dubbed the National Park of Speed, the track at Road America tops four miles in length, with elevation changes and a variety of turns and chicanes between wooded, rolling hills. During the WIC, eleven race groups—categorized by car specs to make them competitive—take turns on the track.
Each turn has its own amenities and die-hard groupies. Turn 1 is great for high speeds coming off the front straightaway. Try Turn 5 for its infamous 90-degree left turn into a huge hill. For drivers, braking enough to stay on the track after a long straightaway—but not too much to lose speed going into the hill before Turn 6—takes some serious finesse, and many end up in the “kitty litter.” For spectators, Turn 5 offers a massive screen for watching replays and a grandstand. Check out the Hurry Downs—between Turns 6, 7 and 8—to see cars take a meandering trip downhill. Turn 12—Canada Corner—is a wooded spot with another exciting view.
If you don’t love the view, take a walk or hop on the free shuttle to try somewhere new for the next race group. Visit the paddock—where drivers park and work on their cars—and head to the concession stands and vendors. The Paddock Shop features track- and event-related items and more. A Family Fun Zone and a go-kart track are on site.
After the Race
On Friday night, racecars parade from the track and park along the old race circuit in downtown Elkhart Lake. There’s live music and local restaurants and bars sell food and beverages from open-air stands. On Saturday night, there’s a variation on the theme, with street cars—some quirky and some high-end—on display. Both get crowded!
Where to Stay
Book lodging early. Hotel options are limited, and race teams book blocks of rooms well in advance.
Check out the Osthoff Resort for classic amenities in the iconic white resort overlooking the lake. The historic Siebkens resort is right in the heart of Elkhart Lake, or head to the American Club in Kohler, Wis. (15 minutes away)
Consider an Airbnb. Local residents and businesses capitalize on summer crowds by renting out extra space. If you want to stay closer to the action, the track rents sites for tents and campers, with public shower facilities, or stay at one of the other local campgrounds.
Where to Eat
On Saturday morning, check out the farmer’s market in downtown Elkhart Lake. Stop off at Off the Rail for a latte or breakfast sandwich in an eclectic setting. Check out Brown Baer for an ultra-laid-back bar vibe. Lake Street Cafe and The Paddock Club skew more upscale. The Tiki Bar makes a great lakeside watering hole, or head back to Siebkens for more traditional fare in a historic building. Finish the night at Switch Gear Brewing.
Photo by Rachel Nadeau
The WIC features drivers from across the country, behind the wheel of cars that differ as much as the drivers. One of them is Eileen Wetzel, who’s a Plymouth dental assistant by day.
OK, tell us about the car.
I race a 1966 Austin Healey (third Healey in her garage). They are an extremely fun car to drive. Our local Minnesota Austin Healey Club has amazing members that provide awesome support.
How long have you been driving?
This is my fourth season of road track racing, and the vintage group has a unique mindset. The courteous attitudes cannot be improved upon, and we are all looking out for one another. As we say, “Safety fast!”
What do you love about driving there?
It has many types of challenges: hills, curves and straightaways, all in a park-like setting.
Favorite spot to watch a race?
... it would be a tie between the very technical Corner Five and the bird’s eye view of Six, Seven, Eight.
Best trackside food?
The chicken salad on a croissant from The Gear Box. After the race day, the five Minnesota Austin Healey drivers celebrate with T and Ts before we head to Schwarz Supper Club. Tradition and camaraderie at its best.