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DiZinno: Road America’s IndyCar return is real, and it’s spectacular

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. - To understand why the return of Road America to the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar means so much, you have to understand how surprising and unlikely it is for a race that’s been gone so long to make it back.

The race has been gone since 2007, when the last Champ Car weekend occurred there in August. From a personal perspective, there was a sense that the race would never come back - rarely are races re-introduced to calendars after long hiatuses. If they are, they don’t necessarily have huge mass appeal.

As an example, although Houston came back in 2013 after a six-year hiatus, and it was nice to see a major media market added, but there wasn’t exactly an outpouring of media or fan support about returning to a glorified parking lot of a race track.

But Road America? A.k.a. a national park that happens to be regarded as one of the iconic North American permanent road courses? It’s only been something nearly the entire North American open-wheel community has been salivating for since the end of 2007, and has left folks hungry for more.

Whereas the actual announcement of the race’s return in August on the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship weekend felt hurried and forced, Tuesday’s test felt like the proper re-introduction of IndyCar back to one of its most hallowed grounds.

To start, the test was on a Tuesday. This is not exactly the best day to have a test, since it takes you away from your day job in most cases.

Yet upon my arrival about 15 minutes after the green flag flew, there was already a line of cars waiting outside the gates, anticipating getting in. It was a glorious, sun-splashed, 72-degree day that couldn’t have been scripted any better for this most perfect of returns.

Getting out of the car to pick up my credential stirred the soul as it brought back memories of years gone by.

Road America and I for CART/Champ Car races have had something of a checkered past. I’d been due to go in 2001 but had a last-minute commitment come up; I finally went for the first time as a fan in 2003 and it was a water-logged deluge that delayed the race and forced us to go home early; finally in 2007, the first race I’d actually covered on site after turning 18, as we know, it was the final straw until next year.

But knowing the sound was real yesterday morning - hearing the pop of the gears on downshifts into Turn 14 and the hard acceleration up the hill out of the final corner - made the reality that this wasn’t a dream, wasn’t a facade, actually sink in.

Heading to pit lane for the first time, there were fans lining the catch fencing, and a number of familiar faces on the pit lane side of the wall as you’d expect.

Watching Simon Pagenaud light it up upon leaving pit lane was great. People can say “oh, these aren’t the Panoz DP01s,” and they’re right... they’re not.

They’re approximately 12 freaking mph faster in the corners than the beloved, hallowed 1,000-horsepower beasts that shaped the face of the earth and were speed demons in the late 1990s, early 2000s.

And if, as Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull figures is possible, that 1:39.8 mark set by Dario Franchitti in 2000 could fall next June.

Driver comments yesterday said it all about how much this place means to them.

“I think it’s real important to be here,” said Team Penske’s Will Power. “There’s a lot of history here. I think it’s important to carry that on. The Indy 500, we have Milwaukee, we have Long Beach… this is a no-brainer in terms of history for how long we’ve been racing.”

“It was awesome, man. Good to be back,” added Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. “You forget how damn fast it is in these cars. It’s very quick. Way quicker than I remember the Champ Car being on cornering side. It’s cool. Gonna be a lot of fun.”

From fellow young American Josef Newgarden (visor cam, done by INDYCAR, linked below): “Man I love this place. It’s awesome. It’s first time I’ve driven anything with power and grip. It’s incredible. It’s so fast. It’s all high speed corners. Yes some low speed corners. But every corner is fast. High commitment, very flowy track. You can’t mess up the rhythm. I like that it’s penalizing. You have to be precise. It’s just a damn cool track.”

Tony Kanaan sums it up nicely: “If you follow every single interview that I’ve done, when people ask me; if you could choose three or four tracks to come back, Elkhart was always one on my list.”

Forget the times that were turned (Dixon estimated a 1:43.0 was his best, which ultimately led the days running).

Just appreciate the moment.

The cars hauling ass through the trees, on the brakes, and accelerating again, just sounded better.

The lines at The Gearbox for food were 20 to 25 people deep, as fans awaited their double brats and potatoes.

The grounds, while not packed, certainly had a decent number of folks around the 4.048-mile facility - Turn 5 in particular was a hot spot.

Tuesday’s test laid the groundwork for a successful event next June 23-26, when not just IndyCar, but the Mazda Road to Indy and Pirelli World Challenge GT/GTS ranks join the party.

Unlike in August, this was the re-introduction IndyCar at Road America truly deserved, as the first chapter in the renewed love story of a series and its cars, to a facility and its fans.

Follow @TonyDiZinno