Starting our special coverage of the 50th SCCA National Runoffs, Rick Corwine looks at the history of racing at Elkhart Lake which would lead ultimately to the construction of the magnificent Road America circuit.
It's a scene that happens all across the country: Someone from the county shows up and says that the road you live on needs improving. The road needs to be straightened, widened, and we need cut down trees to make it conform to our standards. Sometimes they're right, but often the local residents don't think the project is entirely necessary. The residents go though the normal channels, showing up at planning commission meetings, signing petitions and, in most cases, the best they can expect is a compromise to the original plan.
If, however, you happen to live on Sheboygan County Road A, just outside the town of Elkhart Lake, Wis., and this happens, you've got an ace up your sleeve. Sheboygan County road A is part of the original open-road course used in the early 1950s to hold the first races around Elkhart Lake, eventually leading to the construction of one of the premier closed course tracks in America: Road America. Who are those special allies? How about the board of directors of Road America, and the Milwaukee Region of the SCCA. Those are good friends to have.
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Historic Race Circuits of Elkhart Lake
What happened back in the 1950s to make this all worth saving? In the winter of 1949, Jim Kimberly and C. Bayard Sheldon, along with a few other Chicago Region members, flew to the area in southeast Wisconsin to scout a place to hold races. After flying over Elkhart Lake and liking what they saw, they landed in Sheboygan and drove to the Village
of Elkhart Lake. They stopped in at the Elkhart Lake Bank and talked to then-president Jim Johnson.
At the time, Elkhart Lake was struggling economically. Johnson figured the races in town could help revitalize the area. He joined with Fire Chief Ray Kramer and resort owner Ollie Siebken Moeller to spearhead the races from the town's side. Fred Wacker and Karl Brocken joined Kimberly and Sheldon to take care of organizing the race from the Chicago Region side. Finally there was Wisconsin Governor Walter Kohler who had a cabin on Elkhart Lake who kept the bureaucratic wheels greased.
The first race, held in 1950, was on what's known as the North Course, 3.5 miles in length running on the north side of town. It was a typical road-racing event for the day with most of the 33 racers coming from SCCA's Chicago Region. There were two classes, over and under 1,500cc. Splitting the racers into Expert, Novice, and Ladies, they ran five races varying in length from 15 to 60 miles.
The event ended up attracting about 5,000 spectators. Jim Kimberly, the now-SCCA Hall of Famer, won the first main event in his Ferrari type 166 Barchetta. Immediately, they began promoting the next year's event nationwide to entice celebrities and professional race teams to come to the village of Elkhart Lake.
Photo courtesy of Courtesy Historic Race Circuits of Elkhart Lake
In 1951, they expanded the course to 6.5 miles and it went through – and around – the town. Racers came from all over to compete in the three races held that day. The first race is a 32-mile, five-lap event for novices. The final race of the day was won by John Fitch in a Cunningham CR2, beating all the experts in a 30-lap 200-mile jaunt. The crowd estimates soared to 50,000, making this an undeniable success.
The race in September 1952 was a two-day affair, attracting 238 entries for the three races. Saturday's race, The Sheldon Cup, named for one of the race founders C. Bayard Sheldon, was won by Phil Hill (still an up and comer headed for Formula 1) driving a C-type Jaguar. Two more races held on Sunday, a 100 miler for the smaller cars and a 200-mile event for cars over 1950cc. Bill Spears, driving an OSCA, won the 100-mile Kimberly Cup. John Fitch returned to win the 200-mile main event called the Elkhart Lake Cup driving a Cunningham CR4.
This year, a massive crowd estimated at well over 100,000 showed up for the two-day event. At this point, spectator safety became an issue and the open road races came to an end. But the racing in Elkhart Lake was far from over. In 1955, just to the south of town, the four-mile closed course Road America opened for business.
Keeping history alive
(photo by Rick Corwine)
Getting back to the problems of the residents along county Road A, this all started in 2002, and by early 2004 the county began to remove trees. The county had recognized the historical arguments put forth by the locals, but this wasn't enough for the construction to be stopped. Things needed to happen fast in order to save the area.
The board of directors for Road America filed a formal request for eligibility for preservation of the historic circuits under the Preservation Act. In July 2004, the request was granted and construction was halted.
But this isn't the end of the story – there was still a lot of work to be done. The Historic Preservation Act required that the highway department seek input from the public and negotiate with interested parties. This took place in September 2004, and the following February the county withdrew its request for federal funding of the County Road A improvements. Somewhere in the midst of all of this, the local action group morphed into the Elkhart Lake Historic Race Circuits Preservation Society (HRC).
With the improvement project stopped, the HRC needed to get the old race circuits declared historical sites. First they got the Elkhart Lake Open Road Race Circuits in the Wisconsin Register of Historic Places. This made them eligible for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. After review by the federal agency on Feb. 17, 2006 they were added to the National Register of Historic Places, taking a spot next to Watkins Glen as the only other historic open road race circuit declared a national historic site.
At this point, the HRC needed to take advantage of the historic designation and really preserve the old circuits. The society set about fundraising and organized for markers to be placed at significant and named locations around both of the old circuits. Jaguar of North America provided a generous grant with additional funds coming from private donors and organizations. The Wisconsin Historical Society erected a marker in the Village of Elkhart Lake.
Planning started for a dedication celebration, and the HRC set out to find some of the original cars that competed in the old course races. Both of John Fitch's Cunninghams were located, as was the Jaguar that Phil Hill drove to victory. John Fitch and Phil Hill were contacted and accepted invitations to the dedication. The word was also put out that historic and vintage cars were needed for the celebration. In all, 82 classic sports cars showed up for the festivities.
On July 13, 2006, Lake Street was closed and lined with all the vintage iron in attendance. State Senator Joe Liebham opened the ceremonies along with a representative from the State Historical Society and Jim Dentici, speaking for the Milwaukee Region. After them, Phil Hill and John Fitch entertained the crowd with stories from the old course races. Then, finally, Augie Pabst joined Hill and Fitch to unveil the historical marker.
So, the next time you're in Elkhart Lake for a race at Road America, take a moment to read those historical marker signs. After all, the HRC, Milwakee Region, Road America, and the Village of Elkhart Lake put in a lot of work to make that happen.
For more information or to join the Elkhart Lake Historic Race Circuits Preservation Society, go to www.historicracecircuits.com.
• This story was originally published in the October 2013 issue of SportsCar magazine, the official member magazine of the SCCA. www.SCCA.com
• For detailed coverage of the 50th SCCA National Runoffs, go to scca.com/runoffs.