That was my reaction upon arriving at Elkhart Lake's Road America with my dad and 13-year-old son, Connor, to watch the Verizon IndyCar Series in the Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday. IndyCar last raced at the famous track in 2007, but my dad and I hadn't been to a race there since 2002, about three months before my son was born.
Upon arriving at a gate on the south side of the track (a little trick we learned years ago to avoid the traffic fiasco at the main gate), we drove right in and parked near the Sargento Bridge that takes fans over the back straightaway to the paddock. Realizing that nobody checked our tickets on the drive in, I stuffed them in my pocket in case we had to show them upon entering the paddock. To our surprise, nobody ever asked to see them, perhaps because the turnout looked to be so large that there was more concern about getting people into the track.
We headed into the paddock area and it became evident that it was going to be a very hot afternoon. It was raining when we left home earlier in the morning, but by now (about 10:30 a.m.) the sun was out and the temperatures were rising fast.
As we walked through the paddock area, the Pirelli World Challenge cars were on track for its second race of the weekend. The sound of cars racing on the 4-mile track made it seem like we had never left, even if the amount of walking was much more than we remembered.
We stopped to get some drinks at the Gear Box, a permanent concession stand down the hill from the pit area. We were disappointed to realize there were no Miller products available (in Wisconsin!), only Budweiser. But, beggars can't be choosers so Bud Light it was (except for Connor, who had a root beer). After that, we set forth to the IndyCar pits to take a look at the cars and see if we could get a glimpse of any of the drivers.
We got up close to some of the cars as the crews were putting them through the final shakedowns before the race, but didn't see many drivers. We did see Ryan Hunter-Reay chatting with some of his crew before retreating to his hauler, probably to keep cool before the race.
Crews were starting to wheel the cars out to the starting grid as we were heading back out of the pit area and we were able to get some good up-close pictures. No matter how many IndyCar races my dad and I have been to (between the Milwaukee Mile and Road America, this was our 31st race since 1991), it's always so cool to see the cars up close.
Figuring we should grab a bite to eat before finding a place to watch the start of the race, we headed back to the Gear Box. After finding out it would be over a half-hour wait for food, and the race would be starting in about that long, we decided to go stake out our spots for the start.
By this time it was clear that there were many more people in attendance than we expected. While the last few IndyCar races at the Milwaukee Mile probably had between 15,000-20,000 fans, Road America is much larger so it's hard to get a good estimate. One thing we knew for sure was that there were far more people than we had seen at any IndyCar race in nearly 20 years. It was great to see so many people excited to watch a series my dad and I love so much.
We decided that turn five would be a great spot to watch the start of the race as it's a tight left-hand turn at the end of the long back straightaway. There's usually a lot of passing coming into that turn, especially at the start, and you can watch them go around the turn, come up the hill and head under the Corvette Bridge into turn six.
To get a good vantage point, we trudged up a long a set of stairs and meandered uphill through some trees in order to get a full view. It was at this point that my dad and I realized there were far more elevation changes than we remembered. Surely it wasn't this bad all those years ago?
As we were stood overlooking a hill filled with fans above turn five, a gentleman rode up on a scooter and parked next to Connor and me. He was wearing Ed Carpenter Racing apparel and as soon as I saw him, I was pretty sure it was J.R. Hildebrand, who was a full-time IndyCar driver from 2011-2012. Over the last couple of seasons, Hildebrand has run only the Indianapolis 500.
Hildebrand was at the track in case Josef Newgarden, who broke his right clavicle and a bone in his right hand two weeks ago in a crash at Texas Motor Speedway, needed a relief driver. As it turns out, Newgarden qualified and ran the race, eventually finishing eighth.
While I was too embarrassed to ask Hildebrand if he was indeed who I thought he was, my dad snapped a photo of Connor and me with Hildebrand in the background. A photo posted by Hildebrand on Twitter that appeared soon after he got back on his scooter to head back to the paddock confirmed it was him standing next to us. We had a laugh about it with the fans in sitting in front of us as none of us wanted to ask him if it was really him.
Anyways, the race was underway and we saw some exciting action in the first few laps at turn five. After watching a handful of laps, we decided we needed some sustenance since we (me, especially) had sweated out a few pounds due to all of the walking in the heat. Lucky for us, there was a Plymouth Optimists tent just down the hill where we were able to get some brats, which tasted about as good as any brat has ever tasted.
Since the name of the game at Road America is to walk around as much as you can to see different sections of the track, we followed the track from turn six so we could see the drivers go into the high-speed turn seven. Connor found a nice rock to sit down on (we didn't want to lug chairs around the track) and my dad and I walked right down by the fence. It was pretty incredible to see how fast the cars were going past us into turn seven. We hadn't been that close to the cars at speed since the Milwaukee races in the late 1990's.
We meandered up a hill and found some bleachers to sit on where we could see the cars come through turn seven into the Hurry Downs and into turn eight, which is the start of the long carousel section. It was a great location with the race telecast on a screen right across the track and a wonderful breeze that almost made you forget it was close to 90 degrees.
At this point, the race was about halfway through and there was yet to be a caution period. Will Power, the pole sitter, was running away with it and it didn't look like anybody was going to be able to catch him. Since we happened to be near Perl's, another permanent concession stand, Connor decided he wanted a hot dog.
While we were waiting on the food, we were watching the telecast and saw Conor Daly crash into the turn one tire barrier, which brought out a full-course caution. With only a dozen or so laps to go, we figured this was the perfect time to head over to the back straightaway where the cars are traveling over 200 mph. Seeing the cars come around turn three down the straight is just awesome, so it would be a perfect spot to catch the end of the race.
We were able to get back over to the Sargento Bridge while the yellow flag still waved, so we didn't miss any action. Before too long, we heard the over the PA that the green flag was out and we waited to see the cars scream around turn three, roar past us under the bridge and head down to turn five. There was a lot of action throughout the field between drivers jockeying for position and it was incredibly exciting.
Luckily, because of our close proximity to the PA speakers, we could hear what was going on in the race on the rest of the track. It sounded as if one of our favorite drivers, Tony Kanaan, was going to be able to get past Power and take the win. Over the last few laps, Kanaan closed up the gap to Power and it looked inevitable that he would be able to squeeze past.
On the last lap, it looked like Kanaan was going to pass Power just down the straight from where we were standing on the bridge, but we couldn't tell if Kanaan got him before they disappeared from view. Alas, we heard over the PA that Kanaan just wasn't close enough to pass and Power took the win, which was well deserved.
With that, we headed back down the bridge into the sun-baked car and headed home. We were able to get out of the track within five minutes and arrived home less than two hours later.
All in all, it was a fantastic day at one of the greatest racetracks in the world. If it had been 10 degrees cooler, I think we would have enjoyed it a little more. Not that I'm complaining, but when you're doing that much walking up and down hills all afternoon, the heat seems to get to you quicker.
It was so much fun to see IndyCar back where it belongs and almost even greater to see the number of people that came out to support the race. Following the checkered flag, track president George Bruggenthies said it was “likely the largest event ever hosted by Road America” and announced that the series will be back June 25, 2017.
Even though Connor did say that he enjoyed the Milwaukee race more (we took him to his first race in 2013), I think we might have to return to Road America next year. Maybe Kanaan can get the victory and we can have cooler temperatures. Either way, it was a memorable day of racing.