If 2016 hadn't been the scene of the 100th Indianapolis 500, the most anticipated weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series season could easily be the June 24-26 KOHLER Grand Prix at the fast and challenging Road America.
Talk to pretty much any Verizon IndyCar Series fan over the past few years and they'd tell you the race they wanted to see was a battle on the challenging and undulating 14-turn, 4.048-mile road course located in the Kettle Moraine area of east-central Wisconsin.
And they are not alone in thinking it was a long wait.
“It's my favorite racetrack in America. It's a beautiful, natural road course that I enjoy very much,” said No. 11 Team Hydroxycut-KVSH Racing Chevrolet driver Sebastien Bourdais.
“Road America takes the perfect car because it's all about flow and speed. I was fortunate enough to win there in 2007 and I'd love to do it again, but it's just an absolute commitment racetrack where the car has to be there for you.”
Those wanting to see Indy cars return to Road America got their wish last summer when INDYCAR announced that the race would be on the schedule in 2016 following a nine-year absence.
"We know how revered Road America is by our drivers, teams and fans and we're confident it will be a great event on the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series calendar,” Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co., the parent of INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said at the time.
That's because if a racetrack designer wanted to create a circuit that would allow drivers to show what a Verizon IndyCar Series car can do, it would probably be Road America.
The track puts huge demands on the car and forces drivers and engineers to walk the knife’s edge as they try to find the balance the need to go fast as possible.
“The biggest challenge is the downforce question: How much do you run?” said No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda driver James Hinchcliffe.
“You've got long straights sure, but you also have wicked fast sections and some really big brake zones so you can pile on the downforce and kill them on the brakes and in the carousel, or do you trim it out for the straightaways and hope you can hang on in the twisty bits?”
Over the years, Road America tested the mettle of some of the greatest Indy car drivers, with several champions tasting victory there, including Mario Andretti (1983, 1984, 1987), Michael Andretti (1990, 1991, 1996), Bourdais (2007), Cristiano da Matta (2002), Emerson Fittipaldi (1986, 1988, 1992), Danny Sullivan (1989), Paul Tracy (1993, 2000) and Alex Zanardi (1997).
It was also the scene of maiden career wins for series champions and Indianapolis 500 winners Jacques Villeneuve (1994) and Dario Franchitti (1998). Four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion Franchitti holds the lap record of 1 minute, 39.866 seconds (145.924 mph) set in qualifying in 2000.
There's also little doubt that the 50-lap tilt at the racer's racetrack will offer tons of action, with the fast and twisty circuit offering several great passing opportunities, including Turns 1, 5 and 12, better known as “Canada Corner,” all at the end of long straights.
“The top of the hill at Turn 7 is going to be just flat out for us, which is going to be gnarly in traffic and on worn tires. It will be easy for guys to drop tires there,” Hinchcliffe said.
“The lap being so long, there are so many opportunities to make time up but to also make mistakes, so getting that perfect lap there is tricky.”
On top of that, there's a deceptively tough Turn 3 where it's easy to lose the back end of the car and go for a trip through the grass as well as the high-speed, 180-degree carousel, which may be the fastest road course corner the drivers will see all season.
“I was so amazed at the test in October, it was flat – it was the first time I ever went through there flat – you could feel the car just kind of flex and everything. It was truly amazing,” Bourdais said.
“It was just crazy. I have never driven like a madman as I did in the October test. It was like a go-kart: brake-throttle-turn and maximum aggression getting around there. It was a great feeling and I think the fans will see some seriously fast cars there.”
Take a test lap around Road America with James Hinchcliffe here: