By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
On Friday, the Verizon IndyCar Series hit the track for a race meeting at the picturesque Road America Circuit, and it was a welcome return. Open-wheel Indianapolis-style cars last raced on the 4.048 mile, 14-turn track back in 2007 when the OWRS/ChampCar Series ran there for the final time, ending a tradition that began in 1982.
That tradition is now reignited after an agonizingly long wait, and motor-homes and campers are already lining the hillsides for the KOHLER Grand Prix that is slated to run on Sunday afternoon. With 100,000 fans projected over the course of the weekend, and an incredible amount of buzz in the paddock, the return of the IndyCars is shaping up to be everything that we had hoped it would be.
“It’s awesome to be here at Road America,” said Graham Rahal, driver of the RLL Racing Gehl- Honda. “On the out laps you see all the fans and it’s spectacular. It’s far better than I ever remember a Friday being here. There are people everywhere and we can’t thank the fans enough. This proves to everyone that has never been here what Road America is all about.”
Rahal, who is one of only four current drivers that were on the grid for that last event in 2007, led the field in Friday’s practice sessions with a lap speed of 140.265 mph. The combined practice times showed considerable parity, with three Hondas and three Chevys comprising the top six.
Team Penske drivers, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, both of whom were also in the 2007 ChampCar field, were closely behind Rahal, followed by Andretti AutoSports’ Carlos Munoz, Jack Hawksworth in the A.J. Foyt car, and Tony Kanaan’s Ganassi entry.
“The tire never feels in the road, never feels like it has a lot of bite. That is just the surface. It makes it interesting. I mean, it makes it good, ” said Will Power. “You really have to get your balance right and drive it right to get the time. You see a lot of people making mistakes and pushing the limits. These cars are crazy fast in the corners now, the Carousel. Almost makes you wonder if you could be flat around there. I enjoy this track a lot.”
Having come home victorious in the 2007 ChampCar event, KVSH driver Sebastien Bourdais is the only driver in the field with a Road America win on his résumé. The Frenchman was understandably disappointed with the 16th quickest time, but he took it in stride.
“We improved the car from this morning, but we are still trying to get it back in the zone with the tire we are using this week, which isn’t easy,” said Bourdais. “Overall, the field is very tight, so every little bit we gain is going to count. We will just keep working on it and see what we can do to improve the car for tomorrow.”
The track, located in Elkhart Lake in the Kettle Moraine area of Wisconsin, drew high marks from a number of the drivers.
“I really enjoy the track. It’s old. It’s a long, big track, longer than two-and-a-half miles, three miles,” said Jack Hawksworth, who, for the first time this season, is showing some real speed in the A.J. Foyt ABC Supply-Honda. “It’s a proper racetrack, so it’s fun, good fun to be here.”
Hawksworth’s teammate, Takuma Sato, echoed the same sentiment, saying “It’s great to be coming back to Road America. It’s a favorite of everyone’s and the fans have waited so long for this. Look. It’s only Friday and it’s already like race day as a lot of crowds have come out which is fantastic. Great weather today, a great circuit which is a classic type , very narrow and very fast, and it feels really good.”
“I’m happy to be back at Road America,” said Andretti Autosport driver, Ryan Hunter-Reay, who last ran on the circuit in 2004. “This is such a fun track and the fan support this weekend will be great. Now, I’ll have to tell you tomorrow after qualifying exactly how happy I am though.”
Dale Coyne Racing’s Conor Daly put it best when he said, “It’s cool to be on track here, it’s a really fun place to drive around. It presents new challenges for us though, since it’s a totally different road circuit than what we’ve been on all year.”
Daly’s summation is indeed correct. Road America is a totally different animal compared to the rest of the schedule. With a course length nearly double the norm, and sufficient run-off areas to allow the drivers to really test the limits of their machines, Road America offers a unique experience that will allow the drivers and teams to put the spotlight on North American Road Racing at its best.
Practice resumes Saturday at noon EST, with qualifying scheduled to begin at 4:00 pm EST. NBC-SN will televise qualifying (tape-delayed) beginning at 5:30 pm. The race will be broadcast live on NBC-SN beginning at 12:30 pm EST on Sunday.