Two events occurred in 1955 that would forever change the face of American road racing: Chevrolet introduced its new small-block V-8 engine, and the good citizens of Elkhart Lake, Wis., opened a new road racing circuit near their quiet rural town. The Chevy small-block went on to become America's most successful production-based racing engine, and Road America became one of the world's most revered race tracks.
On Sunday, August 22, Road America will host the seventh round of the 2010 American Le Mans Series, and the roar of Corvette Racing's 5.5-liter V8s will echo through the rolling hills of the Wisconsin countryside.
In the early days, sports cars raced through the streets and county roads surrounding the village of Elkhart Lake on temporary circuits until enthusiasts found an enduring home with the opening of the permanent Road America track in 1955. Like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans circuit in France, Road America's extended straights are a test of horsepower and its high-speed curves are a test of bravery.
"We do a lot of our testing for the 24 Hours of Le Mans at Road America, particularly the aero package, tires and dampers," said Ken Flory, chief engineer for the No. 3 Compuware Corvette C6.R driven by Johnny O'Connell and Jan Magnussen. "Road America's long straights and sweeping turns share many characteristics with Le Mans. The corners don't replicate specific turns, but in general, Road America is very similar to Le Mans.
"The most important aspect of the car setup is the aerodynamic balance," Flory explained. "Getting the aero balance right is crucial at Le Mans. If we get it set up right for Elkhart Lake, it's generally pretty good for Le Mans as well."
The 4.048-mile, 14-turn Road America circuit has earned the respect of the Corvette Racing drivers.
"The data that we get from Road America carries over to Le Mans, and it seems to work because Corvette Racing is always strong at Le Mans," Magnussen said. "You run as little downforce as you can get away with at Road America because it is such a high-speed track. The more downforce you take away to find top speed, the more exciting the Carousel and the Kink become because the car moves around a lot."
Magnussen and O'Connell finished third last year at Road America after the GT2 field was split by a safety car that gave the class leaders a one-lap advantage in the opening minutes of the race. New safety car procedures were subsequently initiated to prevent a reoccurrence.
"We tested at Road America this year in preparation for Le Mans, and I'm looking forward to going back to a track where we raced the GT2-spec Corvettes last year," Magnussen noted. "We are probably starting at a higher level because of the amount of testing we have done there, but it will still be a very tough, difficult race. We know what we can do, and we also know what our competition can do. We'll try to be smart and take advantage of the knowledge that we have gathered there."
Road America figures prominently in Corvette’s rich racing history. It’s been the backdrop for events that strengthened Corvette’s standing as America's favorite sports car. Bill Mitchell, GM’s vice president of design, was an avid racer who fielded the original Sting Ray racer driven by John Fitch and Dick Thompson at Road America. When Mitchell chose Elkhart Lake as the venue to preview his stunning Mako Shark concept car in 1961, the Shark’s sharp-edged body and hidden headlights foreshadowed key features of the production 1963 Sting Ray. The lightweight Grand Sport Corvette created by legendary Corvette chief engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov rumbled through Road America’s rolling hills in 1964 with racing luminaries Roger Penske, Jim Hall and Hap Sharp sharing the driving chores. Wisconsin-based racer Augie Pabst contributed to the Corvette’s racing reputation with his Corvette-powered Meister Brauser Scarabs and Lola GTs, while Jim Jeffords frequently campaigned his championship-winning “Purple People Eater” Corvette at Road America.
More recently, Corvette Racing notched six class wins at Road America in the GT1 class, but the team now faces its most formidable challenge yet in the GT (formerly GT2) class. Corvette Racing’s next event is the American Le Mans Series powered by eStar at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis. The two-hour, 45-minute race will start at 2:05 p.m. CT on Sunday, August 22, and will be televised live on SPEED at 3 p.m. ET. Live radio coverage will be available on American Le Mans Radio, Sirius Channel 127, and XM Channel 242.
Team Chevy Ride and Drive at Road America: Race fans at Road America can get behind the wheel of Chevy's hottest new vehicles and receive a complimentary Corvette Grand Sport T-shirt at the free Team Chevy Test Drive located at the Briggs and Stratton Motorplex. Fans who test drive an Equinox, Traverse, Silverado or Malibu can try out a 2010 Corvette Grand Sport or a 2010 Camaro. The Chevrolet ride and drive event is open to the public on Saturday, August 21 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, August 22 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Participants must be at least 18 years of age and have a valid driver's license.