The 4 mile, 640-acre slice of heaven called Road America was not something I grew up with from a very young age. As anyone who’s listened to the podcast will know, I didn’t grow up a “car guy”. I was even reluctant to get my license when I had the chance in high school. I was very nearly dragged, kicking and screaming, into the car by my dad to go practice. I had the feeling it was, for him, a deep... DEEP disappointment. Therefore, this track was not a must-see destination for me...
However, as you heard on our Father’s Day interview with my and Nick’s dad, a lot of that changed when I was taken to International Autos in Milwaukee that day that now seems so long ago. I got to exist in the presence of the indomitable racing machine that was the Audi R8. This car would go on to win Le Mans 5 times consecutively (officially, even though the Bentley Speed 8 thrown in the middle was essentially the same car). Only Porsche has more consecutive wins and they did it with three different cars. It also started off the fourteen year run from 2000-2014 that would see Audi (or the imposter Bentley) win thirteen races out of fourteen, interrupted only once by their worthy opponent, Peugeot. This run would see them to six fewer wins in those fourteen years than Porsche (with the current most overall wins at 19) could manage since 1976.
I know, I know, all boring statistics. What this is meant to drive home is the fact that this was an impressive car, driven by rockstar drivers that I still fanboy over today. The effect that had was for me to IMMEDIATELY want to go see this car race, and, it just so happened, I would have the perfect opportunity. The reason the car was even at a mid-tier, midwestern Audi dealer is that it was bound for Road America, just up the interstate and made a pitstop for some meet and greet time. So, my dad and I immediately made plans to go up to Road America for the main event that Sunday. Although I could revel in the details of that day for probably WAY too long, I don’t think it would serve the goal of me finally getting to the point here. I will give you a picture though. it was an ideal, Wisconsin, summer day. We had seats in the Audi corral. Our cars won, my dad got some great pictures (a pastime he STILL engages in when he goes to the track) and he got to pass on what little knowledge he had of Road America and sports car racing. That’s where it gets interesting. He knows some stuff, but not... all the stuff about car racing. He had been to Road America a couple times and knew generally how the system worked. However, after that trip, both of us realized what an attraction both the track and the spectacle on it provided. We were hooked. We needed to know more. This is where my co-host and lifelong friend Nick comes in. As a veritable walking encyclopedia of all things involving a steering wheel and checkered flags, we decided it would be a good idea for Nick to come with us from here on out. This was the kickoff of a father-son bonding experience where we both learned more than we ever would have imagined about cars, drivers, race tracks, and all the other stuff that I had no interest in just a year prior. Very rarely is there a situation where your dad gets to learn with you. Usually, he already knows everything. This experience was rare and one that sticks out to me, over my whole life.
This new-found obsession sent us to such far-flung and exotic places as Braselton, GA and Sebring, FL. The weird thing about it, though, is that I always felt kind of unique in the fact that I was doing this with my dad. BACK IN MY DAY (gross...) the track was a haven for cut-off jeans and old racing t-shirt wearing, cigarette smoking, beer swilling men in their 40’s and 50’s. At the sports car races my dad and I went to you MIGHT be able to see an improved quality of beer or a switch to the standard-issue BMW polo, but still. I maybe recall seeing, like, two or three young people at the track per day. Considering how much of a blast I was having sharing this experience with my dad, I was surprised not to see more kids there. Combine that with the fact that the majority of racing occurs during the summer in the united states and it would seem like the perfect way for dad to “do something with the kids” on a nice summer day or even the whole weekend. You’d think that, but it... just wasn’t. As we have discussed in previous podcast episodes, it was a land of old men leering at grid girls. Like a lot of other things (like taking my friends and I TO and buying us tickets FOR Blackhawk Down and then LEAVING) this was probably something my dad could have skipped doing with me, as far as my mom was concerned. However, it lead to either keeping alive or otherwise encouraging some of the best friendships in my life, the birth of this podcast, and, probably the most important, some of the best father-son bonding time I’ve ever had. All reservations about the environment aside, I look back and wonder why more kids weren’t there.
However, that has been subtly and slowly changing. So much that I almost missed it. I was initially writing this post to go up during our weekend at Road America, so I’ve had to change some of the tense here, but being able to come back to this post after our trip has given me the ability to confirm something that I have been seeing for the past few years. Since the merger of the American Le Mans Series with Grand Am, I’ve seen a push to bring young people into the fold. More of a push for hearing protection. The definite scaling back of practices like grid girls. The children’s special events and play areas popping up at the tracks during race weekends. Even a change in the types of concessions and merchandise. Who would have seen a Road America baby onesie anywhere ten years ago? Honestly. In the past five or six years, there has been a slow slide away from the boy’s club, men’s weekend retreat feeling of the track and a swing towards more of a petrol-powered Disneyland. Children are welcome. Whole families are going to the track. However, it all happened so slowly that I almost missed it. The fact that it’s happening was one of the most exciting things I had realized in years. It portends good things for this series, and racing in general, that younger generations are both attending and (apparently, based on the number of laughs, grass stains, and ice cream cones around) having a fantastic time at these weekends. It also, more personally and selfishly, means that it is also very unlikely that I will have to give up these race weekends should I ever have a family. Or not. If I do, they’ll be welcome. If I don’t, that’s fine. The influx of young fans means that this series will be around for quite a while yet, and that’s good. I’ll get to see my racing at my little slice of heaven in Elkhart Lake with my dad and the rest of my family, if they want. Everyone’s welcome now. And that’s the way it should be.