By Max Papis Racing | June 27, 2012 at 11:29 am


Elkhart Lake – Two confessions – by:┬áMichael Hunt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Although I grew up in heart of NASCAR country, I had been to only one stock-car race before Saturday. I know it was in Darlington. I think it was the Rebel 500. I’m pretty sure Darrell Waltrip won. I’m positive they took a bunch of left-hand turns.

And before Saturday, I’d never been to Road America.

I’m kicking myself for that one.

Like nearby Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits, the breathtaking golf courses that have brought world-class events to our little corner of the planet, Road America is an absolute gem. You could fly to England to watch ’em run Silverstone, or you could take a short detour on the way to Green Bay and see maybe the closest thing in this country to the classic European road courses.

All that, and the beauty of the glacier-cut Kettle Moraine State Forest envelops the 4.048-mile track shaped like a cartoon monster head, with its 14 serpentines and abrupt elevation changes. Not only do the drivers turn their wheels in both directions with all the regularity that astonishing speeds require, they run in a delightful clockwise direction.

But don’t just take my word on Road America’s splendor.

“It’s the greatest road course in the United States,” Italian driver Massimiliano Papis said.

“Mad Max” – I wish I’d known they called him that before I got into the 580-horsepower Chevy Camaro pace car with him before the Sargento 200 – casually relayed the Road America endorsement as he was taking us through a hairpin turn.

“How fast are we going?”

“Oh, about 100,” he said. “It’s about a quarter of what I feel in my car.”

As the G-forces were pressing me against the door, Papis looked as relaxed as if he were taking a leisurely Sunday drive on Lincoln Memorial Drive.

“If we’re going 100 now, how fast would you be going here during the race?”

“185 here, yep,” he almost yawned. “Blind, second gear, up the hill. I love this car. It’s awesome.”

“Corvette engine?”

“Yes, sir,” Mad Max said. “Ca-mare-o.”

Papis passed some emergency vehicles on the side of the track and offered a couple of courtesy horn toots. It was a vaguely comforting gesture.

From the back seat, my colleague, Erin Richards, asked Papis what kind of training regimen he followed to wrestle a race car around a course as demanding as Road America.

“Oh, weightlifting three times a week,” he said just before dropping us off. “Riding my bike 150 to 200 miles a week.”

Thirty minutes later, I was still feeling the fearsome Camaro’s vibration surging through my body. I felt like I had just emerged from a jet-fighter simulator. And that was after just one lap as a passenger in a street-legal car. Later, on the track, the Nationwide Series drivers were negotiating minimalist stock cars 50 times around that physically demanding track.

Never, ever think these people aren’t athletes.

The race itself matched the surroundings. In one of its most dramatic moments, Danica Patrick was running strong until Jacques Villeneuve pretty much ran her over near the end. My pre-race chauffeur, Mad Max, explained it this way after finishing fourth: “I enjoyed the battle with Danica. Then she got a little tangled up. That’s racing.”

Eventually, Nelson Piquet Jr. negotiated the lovely hills of Sheboygan County better than anyone. The Brazilian, whose father won three Formula One championships, held his checkered and homeland flags through the window net as he did some really nifty burnouts on the main straightaway.

A Brazilian winning an American motor sport event is almost like an American team winning a cricket match. Fittingly, along with his first national-series NASCAR victory, Piquet was presented a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

“My father is a motorbike collector,” Piquet said. “For sure, he’s going to ask me to ship it over to Brazil.”

It would be nice if the elder Piquet could come to the lovely Wisconsin countryside to pick up the bike and take it for a leisurely ride around Road America. For ambience, it doesn’t get much better than this.

“Monaco, Silverstone, everywhere you can imagine,” Piquet, a former F1 driver, said of the places he’s driven. “This is a great facility, just a beautiful track.”

Click on the link below to see the video of a pace car ride at Road America:


Send email to mhunt@journalsentinel.com




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