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Road America Shines with Nationwide Series

Stock car racing got cheesy during the Nationwide Sargento 200 at Road America.

What’s the likelihood that two major racing circuits would be arguing over a patch of land hidden away in the woods of Central Wisconsin? It’s pretty good when you discover that clearing in the forest is home to Road America.

Both NASCAR’s Nationwide bosses and IndyCar big shots love the 4-mile road course track in Elkhart Lake – about halfway between Green Bay and Milwaukee. In fact, when foreign officials cancelled a schedule IndyCar race in China, that racing series looked to book an emergency race at Road AMerica to fill the gap in the schedule.

But, it couldn’t come together due to logistics. You can’t pull together a major professional race in less than two months. I understood that when the Nationwide Sargento 200 got a firsthand view of the complexity and scope of Road AMerica.

The track has hosted races from multiple circuits since the 1950s. Throughout the summer months, racing fans can take in American Le Mans, AMA Superbike and NASCAR Nationwide. I took in the latter as Danica Patrick, Kurt Busch and others  took their stock cars around the tight turns and short straightaways.

The track is more or less how they built it back in the 1950s. It runs 4.048 miles and includes 14 turns. As with Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, the course is also marked by altitude changes of more than 100 feet from pole to finish line.

There are few sights in racing as entertaining as watching Nationwide cars try to negotiate Road Americas. Stock cars are built for straight line speed and tight racing built on trading paint. ROad America demands tight handling and controlled speed. When you consider stock cars run on slicks and naturally slip and slide around a track – even while pushing 200 mph on an oval – the resulting race on the Wisconsin track looks like well-sponsored bump ‘em cars.

During the Sargento 200, Patrick was a late victim of that bumping as Jacques Villeneuve collided with her on the last lap. Both drivers were fighting for fourth place after an effective day of racing for Patrick. But the collision forced her to spin out. Villeneuve finished sixth, while Patrick regained control of her car to come in 12th.

It was another late bump and disappointment for Patrick. In the post-race presser, she didn’t hesitate to blame Villeneuve:

"Where Villeneuve goes, there tends to be cars that have problems, whether it's his fault or the other car's fault – or it’s stock car racing at the end of the race. You all can make a decision for yourself, what you think happened there."

Whatever happened, Nelson Piquet, Jr. (son of a Formula 1 racing legend) took the checkered flag.

It’s that kind of excitement and controversy Nationwide and IndyCar seek out when they wrestle for dates on the track. Road America had a 26-year, 25-race love affair with CART (old IndyCar racing) since 1982. While Nationwide has been coming to the track for various events since stock car racing exploded in the late 1990s. And stock car racing is set to come back in 2013.

While IndyCar will return to the Milwaukee Mile for the IndyFest 200 in 2013, there’s no word yet if open wheel racing will return to Road America. Whatever the verdict, midwestern racing fans always turn out in force.