WeatherTech International Challenge: Vintage Racing At Road America

Australian George Vidovic, shown cresting the straight, brought his Python, a “down-under Cobra,” to the bucolic environment that is Road America (Photo: Bill Holland). (Lead photo above: Les Tension).

Road America, the fabled facility nestled on 640 acres in the hilly countryside near Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is no doubt on the “bucket list” of many a racer. At just a tick over four-miles long, with 14 turns, it provides a range of challenges that are alternately rewarded by power and finesse.

While the first racing event in Elkhart Lake was held in 1950 on blocked-off local roads (and for several years thereafter), a statewide ban on racing on public roads lead to the creation of Road America in 1955. The first race was an SCCA National, won by future F1 World Champion Phil Hill of Santa Monica, California. SCCA’s June Sprints came the following year, and have been an integral part of Road America’s calendar ever since.

Thundering Can-Am cars were a major attraction from 1967-74. Trans-Am races began in 1970, and their spirit lives on in the IMSA/Continental event. NASCAR (Xfinity series) is on the schedule, while IndyCars have also played a prominent role. Most recently, Josef Newgarden won the 2018 Verizon Indycar series Kohler Grand Prix.

The WeatherTech International Challenge for vintage racers is often the largest attended event at Road America, with thousands of spectators camping out for the event. (Photos: Les Tension)

Vintage racing made Road America’s calendar in 1982. The July event has grown to be embraced by the community and consistently draws large crowds — sometimes the biggest of the year for the storied venue. A popular adjunct of the event is a police-escorted parade of competitors from the track into the quaint town of Elkhart Lake. There, the cars are on display for a couple of hours while thousands of spectators mingle with racers on the streets. The locals have truly taken to the event, and thank racers for bringing their cars to Elkhart Lake.

A huge throng of race fans viewed the race cars up close and personal in downtown Elkhart Lake. The Friday night activity is a big local favorite. (Photos: Les Tension (upper left/right); Carolyn Coughlin-Grimm (lower left); Bill Holland (lower right))

This year’s running of the WeatherTech International Challenge with Brian Redman, presented by Hawk, boasted a large contingent of competitors from many parts of the globe. Unfortunately, Mother Nature was not as cooperative as in most prior years, with rain showers hampering the schedule and curtailing some of the racing action. Needless to say, this also impacted attendance.

Inclement weather played a part in the event, but didn’t dampen the spirit of the competitors. (Photo: Bill Holland)

Some 450 cars were entered, categorized in 16 Run Groups that ranged from small-bore production cars to big-inch Can-Am, Trans-Am, GTO, and NASCAR speedsters.

Group 1 was comprised of Historic Can-Am cars, with Craig Bennett (1970 Shadow Mk1) nabbing the checkered flag with a best lap time of 2:02.41 and average speed of 119.04 mph. Runner-up was Kirt Bennett (1973 Shadow DN2), with Warren Briggs (1971 McLaren M8E) from the UK rounding out the podium.

Historic Can Am cars are always a big fan favorite at Road America. Craig Bennett prevailed in Group 1 with his 1970 Shadow Mk.1. (Photo: Les Tension)

Small-bore cars made up Group 2, with Jeffrey Parnell (1970 Datsun 510), James Jackson (1964 Porsche 356), and Nick Clemence (1960 Porsche 356b) taking the top spots on the damp track.

Group 2 had no less than 60 cars grid up at the start of the event, and when it was all over the black/gold Datsun sedan (3rd back) was on top, while the 356 Porsche of Nick Clemence (#18) came in Third. (Photo: Les Tension)

Historic Sports Racing cars battled it out in Group 3a/5b, with Steve Forrer’s 1985 Lola T598 taking the checkered flag, followed by Fritz Seidel (2004 Carbir CS2), and Paul LaHaye (1989 Lola T89/90).

Another of the sleek Historic Formula cars in Group 5a was the 1972 McLaren M21 driven by James King of Telluride, Colorado. (Photo: Les Tension)

Historic Formula cars (Group 5a) featured the likes of Australia’s Grant Perryman in a Chevron B27 and Floridian Howard Cherry in a 1976 March 76B. (Photo: Les Tension)

Run Group 4 consisted of Monoposto Classic Formula, Super Vee, and Formula Continental entries, with Fletcher Belt prevailing in his 1979 March 79B. Steve Grundahl — who had the quickest lap time of 2:21.57 in a 2001 Mygale SJ-01 — came in Second, and Jim Victor (1970 Chevron B17) got Third.

The Bennetts dominated the Formula 5000 segment of Group 5/7 — Craig (1975 Shadow DN6) topped the field, scoring a 2:09.93 (112.15 mph) best, and Kirt (1974 Lola T332) coming in second, with Rick Parsons (1976 Lola T332C) Third. Rain hampered the Monoposto F70 action, with Robert Satake, James King (1972 McLaren M21) and Kyle Buxton (1977 March 77B) cruising to podium spots.

Craig Bennett topped the Formula 5000 contingent with his 1975 Shadow DNC with a best lap of 2:09.93 around the 4-mile course. (Photo: Les Tension)

The CanAm podium consisted of (l to r) Warren Briggs, Craig Bennett, and Kirt Bennett.

Brian Redman (center) is flanked by Formula 5000 competitors in the featured event. The blue/white Lola T332 driven by Kirt Bennett came in Second, while Craig Bennett prevailed in his UOP Shadow. (Photo: Les Tension)

Historic Big-Bore Production cars, Modern GTU and Cup/Challenge cars were lumped into Group 6/10b, with Jody O’Donnell taking the checkered flag in his 1969 Corvette, followed by Larry Ligas in his sleek E-type Jaguar. Les Long (2011 Porsche 997 GT3) rounded out the podium.

The thundering 1969 Corvette coupe of Jody O’Donnell prevailed in the combined Group 6/10b action. (Photo: Les Tension)

One of the more colorful entries at Road America was Wisconsin’s own Travis Pfrang and his Group 6 Corvette. (Photo: Les Tension)

Frank Beck was the man of the hour in Group 8, driving a 1972 Porsche 914/6. The Historic/Post-Historic Production squadron found George Balbach (1966 Porsche 911) coming in second and Steve Grundahl (1972 Porsche 911 RS) Third.

In addition to the Trans-Am cars, Group 6/10 action featured cars like the #50 Datsun Z-car and Steve Sanett’s Porsche RSR. (Photo: Les Tension)

Only two cars out of two-dozen Modern F1/Indy/Indy Lite/GTP/LMP and Daytona cars took the green for the weather-influenced flag race, with Robert Blain (2009 Oreca FLM-09) tip-toeing around the course to take the checkered, followed by Jack Donnellan (2007 Lola B07/90).

Robert Blain, driving a 2009 Oreca FLM, prevailed in the Group 9b race in a mixture of modern F1, IndyCars, GTP, LMP, and Daytona cars. (Photo: Les Tension)

Modern GTO, Trans-Am, IMSA, and NASCAR types were lumped into Group 10a, with the flag race abbreviated thanks to a shunt on Road America’s .8-mile straight that required a bunch of clean-up. Colin Comer was the leader of the pack in his 1995 Mustang GT1, followed by Ron Malec in another ’95 Mustang, and Gunnar Pfrang in a 2007 Corvette.

Group 6/10a lumped together Modern Trans-Am, GTU, and Cup/Challenge cars, as well as Historic Big Bore Production cars. Here’s RaceQuip‘s Patrick Utt in his Camaro trying to hold off eventual winner Ron Malec’s Mustang. (Photo: Les Tension)

The Historic Trans-Am cars engaged in spirited competition, with Bill Ockerlund taking the Group 11 checkered flag in his 1970 Plymouth AAR ‘Cuda. Karman Cusack came in Second, but the 1968 Mustang driver did set the best lap time of 2:41.79 (90.07 mph average). Drew Alcazar came in Third in his 1969 Ford Boss 302.

Nothing like a podium finish to make your day! A happy Drew Alcazar drove his 1969 Boss 302 Mustang to a Third place finish in Historic Trans Am. (Photo: Les Tension)

Group 12 featured Pre-War and Select Post-War cars, with August Grasis (1933 Studebaker Indy Special) edging out Brad Tank by a mere four seconds. Tank, driving a 1950 MGTD, had the quickest lap at 3:32.91 (68.44 mph average).

The man of the hour in the Historic Prewar group was August Grasis and his unique 1933 Studebaker Indy Special. (Photo: Les Tension)

(Left photo: Bill Holland) Coming in Second in the Group 12 action was Bob Turk and his 1950 MGTD, complete with aerodynamic “tricks” like reversed headlights. (Right photo: Les Tension) More Group 12 action with Les Neidell in a 1933 Plymouth Speedster and Abigayil Joseph in a 1952 MGTD.

The CanAm Cup, given by race organizers to the competitor who contributes the most to the class, was presented to Warren Biggs for 2018.

Plans are being made for the 2019 edition of the WeatherTech International Challenge, which will be held on July 18-21 at Road America. It will feature a special MG focused category, along with a number of other special events to be announced. Keep tabs on everything at RoadAmerica.com.

About the author

Bill Holland

Bill Holland has been involved in racing and the performance aftermarket since the 1960s in the capacities of racer, speed shop proprietor, journalist, street rodder, designer and advertising/PR/marketing professional. Along the way he’s raced Top Fuel and Funny Car, been editor of NHRA’s publication, National Dragster, was involved in off-roading as publisher of SCORE News, built a variety of Featured Vehicles for the SEMA Show, as well as a Track “T” that was a Contender for the AMBR award. He currently races vintage sports cars. Bill was inducted into NHRA’s California Hot Rod Reunion Hall of Fame in 2017.
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