ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Road America's unique 14-turn layout requires precision, while providing drivers some fun behind the wheel.
Successful rides around the "Carousel" on Sunday in the 202-mile Kohler Grand Prix could offer handsome rewards. It's a two-turn twist in the middle of the 4-plus mile road course that leads cars into another slight bend called the "Kink." A successful maneuver through that stretch shoots cars in the "Kettle Bottoms" straight.
It is one of the best parts of the track for Tony Kanaan.
"I would say the Carousel and the Kink in the backstretch is the most fun on the track because it's the fastest ... I just like that part," Kanaan said.
But it must be handled with care, as Josef Newgarden learned. He spun out in the Carousel during qualifying on Saturday to push him back to 20th in the 22-car field.
"I made a mistake. I feel pretty silly for doing it, but that happens sometimes," Newgarden said after qualifying. "You're going to overstep sometimes, and that's what I did right there. I got a little bit wide and got too greedy."
Road America requires drivers to be proficient in a little bit of everything. Elevation changes and three appealing straightaways interspersed among the 14 turns offer unique variety. Some corners are especially fast, with tight braking zones.
"I think the combination of the corners, the undulation in the grounds, the fact that there's a lot of fast corners," said retired driver Dario Franchitti, who won at Elkhart Lake in 1998. He got a refresher after walking the track on Thursday.
"It's a combination of things that makes a great track," he said Saturday. "It rewards precision."
The open-wheel series has returned to the rural Wisconsin track for the first time since 2007. There's a campground-feel at the woodsy venue that creates a fan-friendly atmosphere.
"The race, to be honest — whatever happens, happens — but just to have so many people here, I'm just excited," Helio Castroneves said. "But at this point I'm just glad we're back in this beautiful place."
He was so excited to be back that he joined Scott Dixon in a cruise through the campgrounds on Friday night.
The fans were back on a warm Saturday afternoon to watch qualifying and a day full of lower-series racing.
"I think there (were) a lot of unknowns coming back for the first time," Dixon said. "It's so cool to see everybody back here and everybody embracing this race."
The twists and turns of the track might make it especially appealing. Veteran driver Juan Pablo Montoya said too much attention is paid to the Carousel, and not enough on other tight corners.
Those turns may put passing at a premium on the long straights, which could make the timing of when drivers use their 10 "push-to-pass" boosts especially critical.
"I think it will be tough to pass. The braking zones are unbelievably short," pole-sitter Will Power said. "It's just tough to get close, it is. Even in the old cars, it was tough. It's a narrow place, lower grip.
"'Push to pass', a big chunk of speed," Power said.
In contrast, the Carousel turns cars 180 degrees. But the downforce on cars now allows for higher speeds through the two turns. Sebastien Bourdais, who won the 2007 race, said "maximum commitment" was needed to get through the area, alternating from brake to throttle and throttle to brake.
"It's really, really committing and demanding," Bourdais said about the track. "You finish a three-lap, or four-lap run and you're out of breath."