INDYCAR Voices: Jeff Olson

If you were camping at Road America during the weekend, you probably met a dog wearing a black-and-white tutu. You read that correctly. A dog wandered around the campground wearing a tutu, and that wasn’t even close to the weirdest thing you saw.

Camping is what defines Road America. It’s certainly not the only track on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule that encourages fans to live on property for a few days during a race weekend, but it’s one of the best. Its 640 wooded acres practically beg you to pitch a tent, start a fire and pop open a cold one. And race fans oblige.

If you took part, you probably made new friends. Inside the sweeping Carousel section of the track, between two crossover bridges and not far from the Family Fun Zone, was a group of people who’ve been camping during races at Road America for decades.

Scenic shot of Road America campersThey were set up in all types of campers – RVs, tents, fifth wheels and pop-ups – quietly enjoying the comfortable weather as the smell of bratwursts wafted through the campground. The temporary town was alive with laughter, children and pets, occasionally drowned out by the scream of race engines.

Dan Hajek of Waukesha, Wisconsin, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’ve had the same spot every year,” Hajek said of his place in the Carousel Campground. “During the weekend, we’re driving and walking all over the track. This is the same place we’ve stayed at since the beginning. Our group all likes racing. We’re here three or four times a year for races.”

Just across the track, on a hill not far from the drivers’ motorcoaches, you’d find Scott Davin, the jackman for Colton Herta’s No. 88 Harding Steinbrenner Racing Honda. Like Hajek, Davin is a veteran of camping at Road America, but his campground was a bit more subdued than other areas around the track.

“It’s pretty quiet,” Davin said. “That’s why we like it. We stayed here last year and got the same spot this year. They make the same campsites available, so if you stayed there and liked it, you can reserve the same spot for the next year. That’s what we did.”

As drivers prepared for their first laps of practice Friday, campers were settling in for three days of on-track – and off-track – activity. Drivers also got into the act, making impromptu visits to campsites and taking part in the unique social aspect of their sport.

“Here and Mid-Ohio are kind of the two races that have that big camping culture, and it draws out a certain kind of fan,” said driver James Hinchcliffe, a regular visitor to campgrounds during the weekend. “It's a passionate fan. It's a knowledgeable fan. We love places like this and races like this. Most nights after I get released from engineering, I'll hop on my pit bike and kind of go cruise around some of the campgrounds and just check it all out. This kind of reminds me of how I grew up racing.”

Road America appeals specifically to fans who want to stay at the racetrack throughout the weekend. Golf carts with “Camp Host” signs traveled the roads that wind through the woods surrounding the circuit, making sure campers had what they needed.

“It’s awesome,” Davin said. “This track really caters to campers. They have camp hosts to help you find your spot and make sure you have everything you need. If you need something, they help you find it. They come back and check on you. It’s nice to have that.”

Road America campers with driver gardenIndy cars first raced at Road America in 1982, competing in the series for 34 of 35 years through 2007. After a nine-year break, they returned in 2016. So, too, did the camping tradition. This year, in fact, the track sold out of its normal campsite capacity and had to open additional sites to meet the demand.

“We’ve been here forever,” Hajek said. “When INDYCAR came back here, it was at the very top of our list. We must be here. … I don’t even remember when they opened up camping here during the Champ Car days, but we’ve been here every year since then.”

Hinchcliffe was reminded of his youth, when he’d camp at racetracks with his family while his dad, Jeremy, participated in vintage races.

“I love that culture,” Hinchcliffe said. “I love that people come here and make a weekend out of it. It really is a family atmosphere. You see kids playing games outside their tents or the motorhomes or whatever and go to the fence during the sessions. That was me as a kid, so this place really resonates with me a lot in that way.”

If you stuck around the campgrounds long enough, you saw some good-natured weirdness, like a golf cart with an inflatable pink flamingo on top. Or the dog and his tutu. Some folks got into the late-night shenanigans known to take place, while others, like Davin, kept a lower key.

“The atmosphere is wonderful,” Davin said. “Everybody says, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ If you need something, somebody’s got it. Maybe in the heyday, we would’ve torn it up, but we’re pretty laid back. Plus we’re working our butts off all day, so we tend to be fairly quiet.”

As the final laps ticked down Sunday and Alexander Rossi’s lead expanded, campers gathered around the stage in the infield to watch the end on a huge TV. They remained there through the post-race champagne spray, even as rain began to fall.

Only then did they return to their campsites to fire up the grill and talk with their neighbors about what they witnessed. Just as it should be. Just as it always is at Road America.

Scott Dixon drives past row of Road America campers