By: Bill Tewes
The NASCAR XFINITY Series makes its third and final road course stop today for their late August trip to the famed Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI for the Road America 180 Fired up by Johnsonville. NASCAR has been coming to Road America since 2010 and while the course has been notoriously known for its open-wheel racing, the quality of competition among the XFINITY Series drivers has been can’t miss racing.
Over the past five races at Road America, there have been five different winners. Also many of the races have been extended to overtime and have feature some dramatic finishes. The 2014 race saw road course regular Alex Tagliani drive from 23rd to 2nd in all of eight miles (two laps) and come up just short of victory.
If racing has been extremely competitive and fans seemingly love everything about Road America, then why has NASCAR been reluctant to include Road America as part of its Sprint Cup Series schedule? Attendance has been dwindling at many of the “traditional” tracks that NASCAR has kept on its schedule. I think it would behoove NASCAR to consider reworking the schedule and entertain new options as fans are beginning to lose interest. The minor tweaks NASCAR has made in its scheduling process over the years have not been enough to reengage a fan base that has been fed up with the wrong type of change.
The IndyCar Series made an adjustment to their schedule and returned to Road America after an over seven-year absence, largely due to the fact that the Milwaukee Mile is now non-existent as far as an operating venue for both NASCAR and IndyCar. IndyCar’s return is important to NASCAR because the estimated attendance figures for the June 28th race were quite impressive for a series that is not nearly as popular as NASCAR. Elaborating further on that race, IndyCar.com writer Mark Robinson suggested: “Track officials didn’t release attendance figures, but estimates ranged at 50,000 or more on race day.”
I cannot begin to imagine how wildly popular this course would be with NASCAR fans, who are craving something new in the Sprint Cup Series. While there is somewhat of a stigma against road courses as far as NASCAR goes, I think the unique combination of speed as well as Road America’s reputation for being a track that tests even the best of road course drivers would be enough to engage even the casual fan. The mammoth 14 turn, four-mile tricky configuration would offer a different challenge that the Sprint Cup Series has not seen since the days of Riverside International Raceway, which ran Cup races from the mid 70’s to late 80’s at its famous nine turn course.
Another potential advantage Road America would have as far as the Sprint Cup Series is that it would be a chance for fans to see Wisconsin native Matt Kenseth in action. The 2003 Sprint Cup Series Champion has not been on a Wisconsin based NASCAR sanctioned track since he raced the XFINITY Series race at the Milwaukee Mile back in 2001. While Kenseth is not exactly the best road course racer around, it would give some extra incentive for Kenseth fans state-wide to make the trip up to Elkhart Lake.
In a 2015 interview with USA Today, Sprint Cup driver Carl Edwards gushed about the possibility of the Sprint Cup boys racing at Road America. Edwards won the first ever XFINITY Series race at Road America back in 2010 and said: “If you said the Cup series was going to Road America next year, there would be 200,000 people there,” Edwards said. “If you had a Cup race at Raceway Park (now Lucas Oil Raceway) in Indianapolis, it would be the biggest thing that ever happened. I went to the XFINITY Series race at Milwaukee, and it was like going to the state fair.”
While I love Edwards’ enthusiasm, his attendance figures are a little bit of an exaggeration. But after the aforementioned IndyCar race I think it is realistic to think that NASCAR could pull 80,000-90,000 fans. The 2017 Sprint Cup Series schedule was recently released and there are still no plans for an expansion to Road America. But with attendance continuing the fall at tracks all across the schedule, NASCAR may not be able to avoid adding Road America to their Sprint Cup Series schedule for much longer.