ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – There are many reasons why a trip to Road America is one of the highlights of the year for the INDYCAR circuit.
The most important reason is the fans.
For the first time this season, the drivers and teams in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES will compete in front of spectators. Because of its massive size, the 640-acre facility gives fans room to space out and watch the action around the 4.014-mile, 14-turn road course.
This weekend, they will see twice as much racing as the REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR will be a doubleheader for the first time. Practice, qualifications and the first race make for a very busy Saturday. Teams will have a quick turnaround, as Sunday morning includes qualifications followed by the second race just after 11 a.m. local time.
Saturday’s race telecast is 5 p.m. (ET) on NBCSN, with Sunday’s telecast at noon (ET) on NBC.
“It’s awesome to have the fans back,” said NTT INDYCAR SERIES points leader and five-time series champion Scott Dixon. “There are different periods throughout the weekend that you notice the fans. Without them, it’s like turning up for a test.
“Luckily enough for us, we have won, so we miss that portion of it, especially at Indianapolis last weekend. When you get up on that stage for the road course, you typically see thousands of people and what I think would have been an amazing weekend for Xfinity, Cup and that whole combination.
“Without fans and our partners, we wouldn’t be able do to what we love. The fans are the biggest part of what we do.”
Dixon believes the return of fans the next two weekends, at Road America and Iowa Speedway, is an important step in the 2020 season. He believes INDYCAR has done an outstanding job keeping the paddock isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Trust me, all of us want is to get back to normal, but we have to make sure we do it in a way that doesn’t create any more problems,” Dixon said.
Because of that, the INDYCAR paddock will be closed to spectators at Road America and Iowa. In the past, fans could stroll through the area, ride their bicycles or even golf carts and get a close-up look at their racing heroes and a photo or autograph.
But several teams and drivers still want to let the fans know how much they are appreciated at Road America and Iowa.
“The fans are what keeps this thing going,” defending REV Group Grand Prix winner Alexander Rossi said. “From what I have read online, people are excited to be allowed to go. If they are there and making the effort, we will acknowledge that to the most that we can.
“The fans are very important to the drivers in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES,” Team Penske star Simon Pagenaud said. He will be one be on the adopted “home-state heroes” as he drives the Menard’s-sponsored entry. Menard’s headquarters is in Wisconsin and is owned by former INDYCAR team owner John Menard of Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
“I’m excited about going to Road America, and for the first time, we are going to open up the gates. I look forward to it. It is a great place to have people and for them to camp and see us racing around that beautiful track. I’m very excited for that. For us, being back in Menards’ backyard, it is very important.
For rookie driver Rinus VeeKay of Ed Carpenter Racing, a weekend at Road America also includes the sights and the smells of Wisconsin cuisine, included the famed bratwurst, roasted corn dipped in butter and the other local delicacies that can tempt even the most diet-conscious individual.
“Normally when you drive through there, you can smell the barbecues,” VeeKay said. “It would be less fun if we had no fans there. Of course, it's different still. At least there's people that will be able to see us drive in real life.
“I'm happy with that, and I think the fans will be happy with it, too.”
For Marcus Ericsson at Chip Ganassi Racing, Road America is also special because it takes him back to his racing roots. The driver from Sweden honed his racing skills on the picturesque road courses of Europe.
Road America has similar characteristics to those venues and has earned the title, “America’s National Park of Speed.”
“It reminds a lot of the tracks when I started my single-seater career in the mid-2000s in the United Kingdom,” Ericsson said. “I was racing on a lot of tracks that remind me of Road America. It is definitely one of those tracks that bring memories back. It’s also one of the nicest tracks we go to. It’s a beautiful track and a driver favorite that everyone likes.”
This will be the first weekend of back-to-back doubleheaders. After running full events Saturday and Sunday at Road America, the NTT INDYCAR SERIES returns to action next weekend at Iowa Speedway with short oval contests Friday and Saturday night.
“That’s the thing with the schedule we have now, not a lot of practice,” Ericsson said. “When you are on the track, it’s risk-versus-reward thinking, as well, what you do out there. The NTT INDYCAR SERIES is a championship that rewards consistency. It’s going to be important to race hard but race clever out there. With doubleheader races and back-to-back races, there isn’t a lot of time for the team to rebuild cars.
“It’s going to be tough for all of us. That is what we have been training for all winter. We all knew it was going to get busy. I feel really strong. I’m in good shape and have been training and preparing myself for this. I’m ready to take on the double doubleheader.
“It’s perfect, in my opinion.”