ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The results are in and it’s unanimous: Verizon IndyCar Series drivers, teams, fans and officials are all ecstatic with the sport’s return to Road America and want it to remain a staple of the schedule for years to come.
Indy cars raced on the iconic sweeping permanent road course Sunday for the first time in nine years. A track-record crowd welcomed the sport back for the KOHLER Grand Prix won by Will Power. Following the race, Road America president George Bruggenthies announced next year’s competition will take place on June 25.
It was music to everyone’s ears.
“I am just so stoked to be back here,” Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, said after his win. “We should have been back here a long time ago.”
Tony Kanaan, now with six starts on the 4.014-mile permanent road course following his second-place finish Sunday in the No. 10 NTT Data Chevy, echoed Power.
“If you ask any driver about this road course, it's one of their favorites by far, and the fans’, too,” said Kanaan. “It's a great combination, and hopefully by putting a show like this, we can come back here for many years.”
Graham Rahal spent many a year as a youngster wandering Road America while his father, Bobby, drove Indy cars at the track. Graham finished third Sunday driving for the team co-owned by his dad and loved every minute of it.
“When you see a crowd like this, it's electrifying, I think, for all of us, and we love it,” he said. “We love it.”
Even Sebastien Bourdais, the 2007 Road America winner who finished 18th Sunday after his rear wing was damaged in a first-lap incident, was glad to be back. “The atmosphere this weekend was fantastic,” the KVSH Racing driver said. “Fortunately, we will be racing here again.”
Bruggenthies said the track invested $4.5 million in upgrades since the Indy car race was announced in July 2015. Among the improvements were a more welcoming main gate entrance, new gift shop, fan engagement center, improved track fencing and more. Family atmosphere was stressed. Fans could enjoy zip lining and go-karting on the grounds. Children 16 and under were admitted free with a paying adult.
The response was tremendous. Drivers enjoyed being hounded for autographs as early as Thursday of race weekend. Kanaan, Power and Scott Dixon ventured into the camping area Friday night to mingle with fans.
“Some of them were sober, some of them not that much,” Kanaan said with a laugh. “But it's great and that's what we want. It definitely reminded me a lot when we used to come here between '98, '99, 2000. It's awesome.”
Track president Bruggenthies said the goal was “to engage (people) to come and have fun at the ‘National Park of Speed.’” Track officials didn’t release attendance figures, but estimates ranged at 50,000 or more on race day. “It was a monster event,” Bruggenthies added, “and I think we did a good job with it.”
INDYCAR and track officials had been in discussions for years about returning to Road America, but couldn’t make it all work until this year.
“I think this is proving that we don't need to be trying to overthink the destinations we need to race at,” said Rahal, whose No. 15 Honda was sponsored by local company Gehl for the race. “They're right in front of us and we've just got to go do it.”
Kanaan said Rahal’s longevity visiting Road America – “Graham has been coming here forever, since he was like pooping his diapers, I guess,” Kanaan joked – makes him an expert on the subject.
“We just need to go find the places that people want to come and watch us,” Kanaan said. “We have a great product. Our racing is good and we prove that when we come to places like this, we go to Indy, we go to Mid-Ohio, that we have places packed.”
Sunday’s race was the first in a three-year deal. If everyone has their way, that will be just the beginning.
“I think we put on a great show for the fans and there seemed to be an amazing crowd,” said Josef Newgarden, who finished eighth in the No. 21 Direct Supply Ed Carpenter Racing Chevy in his first race at the track. “I hope we come back to Road America for many, many years to come. This is one of the best tracks with the best racing.”