by Jeff Pederson
for The Beacon
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced most major events to be cancelled last summer, Road America in Elkhart Lake took advantage of its sprawling outdoor road course racing layout to stage a revamped season of racing action, while remaining open to fans.
Despite facing unprecedented circumstances, Road America adapted and excelled in 2020, while setting the benchmark as one of the few Sheboygan County venues to stage major public events last summer.
“We had a good season in 2020 even though we had to do some rescheduling and push a few events later in the season due to COVID-19,” Road America Communications Director John Ewert said. “In working with the Sheboygan County Health Department and in following the CDC guidelines, we used the best practices and safety protocols throughout the season and it turned out well for us. It helps that we are a 640-acre outdoor facility that allows people to spread out and be socially distant.
“Last summer there were not many major events going on and many people in our community were really struggling due to the pandemic, which we recognized by raising money for charity during the season, which we used to support Meals on Wheels of Sheboygan County, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Sheboygan County, the Elkhart Lake Fire Department and the Plymouth Optimist Club, as well as many other worthy community organizations.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic remains in place, Road America officials are eager to keep the fast-paced competition going strong in 2021 with a “business as usual” approach featuring a strong commitment to recommended health and safety protocols and practices.
“We want everyone to be safe, so for the 2021 season we will be continuing to recommend social distancing, hand sanitizing, face coverings when people are not able to be socially distant or indoors at places like our paddock shop,” Ewert said. “We will not have any capacity limits in place this season and we proved last year that we can put on large events safely. We are heading into the 2021 season with a ‘status quo’ mindset, while continuing to stress safety and the good health of everyone that attends a race at Road America.”
As it typically does, Ewert says Road America has once again invested in several track updates and improvements to help improve the fan and competitor experience at Road America.
“Every time we have a good year, we reinvest funds in the facility to help make the next year even better for those coming to Road America for a race,” Ewert said. “Although 2020 was an unusual year, I’m pleased to say that it was still a good year for us.
“For 2021, we’ve made some improvements in the areas around gates 3 and 5 and we’ve added a new restroom facility in the paddock area,” he said. “We’ve upgraded some of our corporate entertaining areas and we’ve improved our public address system in turns 3 and 5. All of those improvements go along with our normal track upgrades that we do from year to year.”
The major addition to the 2021 schedule is the long-awaited return of the NASCAR Cup Series to the four-mile, 14-turn road course facility for the first time since 1956 on Sunday, July 4 as part of a four-day weekend July 1-4 also featuring the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Trans Am Series.
“NASCAR reached out to us when it decided to expand the schedule with more road courses and dirt tracks for 2021,” Ewert said. “Road America had been on NASCAR’s table for many years and of course it had been discussed in fan and racing industry circles going back many years.
“NASCAR is the quintessential form of American motorsports and, for course, Road America is known as ‘America’s National Park of Speed,’ so there couldn’t be a better weekend to welcome back the NASCAR Cup Series to Road America than the July 4th weekend,” he said. “Ticket sales have been strong and the excitement level for the Cup Series’ return is huge.
“We will have preferred parking in place on the grounds and we will also offer parking at the Sheboygan County Fairgrounds on Sunday with a shuttle to the track for the Cup Series race on Sunday only.”
The rest of the nine-event 2021 Road America major public event racing schedule is again shaping up to offer a little something for every motorsports fan, starting with the SVRA Spring Vintage Festival weekend May 14-16.
“We are pleased to again have the most diverse and dynamic schedule of any road course racing facility in North America,” Ewert said. “The season will get underway with our SVRA Spring Vintage Festival weekend in the middle of May and then we have our oldest continuous-running event – the WeatherTech Chicago Region SCCA June Sprints June 4-6.
Ewert notes that the IndyCar weekend will again include a special ticket offer for first responders and emergency medical service personnel courtesy of event sponsor REV Group.
“All active-duty first responders will again receive free entry to the REV Group Grand Prix presented by American Medical Response weekend,” Ewert said. “First responders, including law enforcement, fire, paramedics and emergency medical technicians, will be admitted free of charge by showing valid identification indicating active service in the form of a department issued ID, badge, copies of certifications or an active roster copy from their department on department letterhead. Free admission must be redeemed at the gate and is only valid during the event weekend.”
Sprawled out over 640-acres, Road America’s park-like grounds provide for a number of eye-popping viewing opportunities.
The fan experience is further enhanced by the various onsite camping areas, 18-hole disc golf course, highly diverse concession options, zip line area, outdoor movie nights, go-kart track, motorcycle license training, Sunset Cruise fan tours, Paddock Shop merchandise shop, Caffeine and Gasoline car shows, teen driving and collision avoidance programs and 4 Miles of Fitness events.
“One of the newer offerings we have is 4 Miles of Fitness, which runs every Monday and Wednesday night from 6-8 p.m. from May through the end of September,” he said. “This gives people the opportunity to walk, bike or run the track and the service roads and paved areas on the track grounds. Group discounts are available and all kids 16 and under are free for all 4 Miles of Fitness events.
“Something else we have been doing a lot of lately are weddings, especially now since we have ample outdoor space that we have dedicated to weddings,” he said.
Kids 16 and under are admitted free with a paid adult for all race weekends.
“It is a great value to be able to bring your kids for no extra cost,” Ewert said. In addition, students 17 and over can get $10 off the admission price by displaying their student ID at the gate.
With the promise of the 2021 season on the horizon, Ewert is eager to see a gradual return to normalcy.
“We have an advantage over the typical sports stadium like Lambeau Field, AmFam Field or Fiserv Forum in that our spectators are not dedicated to a seat and are able to walk to different areas to view the track,” Ewert said.
“That has really helped us during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“With the NASCAR Cup Series coming this year, we’ve received a lot of questions about if the event might sell out,” he said.
“The answer is ‘no.’ We could have our best crowd ever and still be at 40 percent of our capacity, so there should be no concerns.”