Living the Dream at Road America – Part 1

Road America 2
*bleeeeeep* All photos by Randy Stern

How do I describe attending the largest of the annual events put on by the media association I belong to?

For the first timer, it is perceived to be part-theme park, part-convention and a lot of work mixed in. I just so happen to be that first-timer.

The event in question is the Midwest Automotive Media Association's Spring Rally. Every May, MAMA's largest journalist event is held at one of this country's premier motorsports venue – Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. The track alone presents a very daunting challenge in itself.

Having never driven on any track, Road America might not be the right venue for a rank novice. I am certain there were plenty of newbies who used this hallowed ground as their breaking training into motorsport. I was not sure if I would be able to do a lap on it. A part of me believed that by getting in some track time, I would be considered a more competent automotive writer by you.

Then, there was a part of me who was scared to death. I look back at my history to see where this fear came from. I have never learned to swim because I feared the deep end. I never drove a motorcycle in fear of blowing the clutch and losing balance at high velocity. I am not a fan of horror films or anything related to them.

But, I drive for this art, this work. The ultimate driving venue is a race track. Banked ovals look scary compared to road courses, right? One look at the Corkscrew at Laguna Seca would strike fear into the meek – a piece of tarmac that laughs at the laws of physics.

What would be the worst that could happen? An accident, but I rather take care of the vehicles I work with than be careless in one. Vomiting, but they should actually impose the same rule for anyone taking the track as they do to swimming pool use – get on the track an hour or more after you eat.

My fear talk was on mute through my drive from my Day Job into Wisconsin. Yet, it was hard to not think about it. Perhaps it was the stress of getting out of the Twin Cities, crossing the St. Croix River and enduring miles of complete boredom along Interstate 94 heading east to my first overnight stop in Madison.

I mentioned before how my time in Madison a decade ago formed the genesis of this work. Again, Wisconsin's state capital became the staging area for another story, as I conducted an interview remotely for another piece I am working on. Despite my not being at my usual desk in Minneapolis, I am ever grateful to work this more rewarding occupation wherever I can get a wireless connection and mobile signal. The warm air was welcoming after a grueling drive on Interstate 94 the night before. All I had ahead of me is another two hours on US-151 and the state highway leading out of Fond du Lac towards Road America.

Osthoff Resort 7

Upon arrival, I was greeted by perhaps the most luxurious location I ever laid my hat at. The Osthoff Resort is the place to go if you have an appointment at Road America. Three buildings look out on Elkhart Lake with a pond in its huge courtyard. The resort is self-contained, but listing all of the amenities would take up precious bandwidth here.

I arrived into the largest room I ever was put for at least a night. It was more than just a two-bedroom suite. Each suite has its own bathroom, while the shared living space would equal a typical apartment somewhere in the suburbs. I felt I had won the lottery somewhere in East Central Wisconsin.

There was a catch, however. Because these suites cost a pretty penny, you get to have a roommate. If you do not choose one, one is chosen for you. In my case, he was fellow member of MAMA from the Twin Cities – a newbie to the group from Car Soup. It was cool to have a local cohort to share space with through this experience, but I was not prepared for it.

Then again, the Spring Rally experience was full of surprises – at least, to me. I always consider that it is my first one and that everything is relatively new in my world. One clue was given that the Wednesday dinner was to have a higher dress code than the other events. Someone forgot his sports coat to go with his best jeans and button-down shirt. This is what I get for not asking questions in advance.

Then again, I do consider myself a rank outsider to this group. Consider the following: I write for Lavender and a so-called blog. One foot is in traditional "lifestyle" media while the other is a small-time automotive site lead by some middle-aged, "Bear-identified" gay man. This was one of my thoughts through a traditional Wisconsin fish fry near the Osthoff.

Then, there was the track. My psyche went from scared to nervous. Talking to my colleagues helped – they give me some advice as to who to seek out to help ease this fear and get over the nervousness as I approach my first track experience.

To deal with the nervousness, fear and surprise, I turn to humor. Sometimes, it works…sometimes not. For example, when finding that the roommate showed up, I tweeted: "Oh, I better shut down the location-based dating apps…" Sure, Scruff and Growlr would do me any good out in Elkhart Lake. So much for my futile attempt to laugh the awkwardness away…

The shock of the new from Tuesday turned into Wednesday morning. The clouds were on high with a chance of rain to spoil the party. The roommate and I went to the track early. The retinas began popping by the sheer aura of the track and what would be waiting for us sometime after breakfast and all of the pre-track business. The first thing that struck our sight was an immaculate white Rolls-Royce Ghost. I thought it was just there for show. No. You could actually drive that, along with a couple of Aston Martins, a couple of Bentleys and some other choice manufacturers.

However, the "fear talk" began during the track familiarity course. The lessons on course rumble strips and hitting apexes may seem just fine, but the fears continued to germinate in my psyche. My closest colleagues were supportive, however. The best they could encourage me to do is to ride along with someone.

2013 Bentley Continental GTC

Before I took my first ride along, I had some business to tend to. A former Volkswagen communications person just moved over to do the same for Bentley in the Americas. I mentioned that I have never driven a Bentley before – let alone anything above the sticker price of a BMW 740iL. The discussion from the night before turned into a wonderful drive in the 2013 Bentley Continental GTC – replete with all-wheel drive and the W12 engine. If there were a word to describe the experience – it would be "heaven."

Up until that morning, I have never driven a car with a mass of power such as Bentley's W12 engine. It went about its business looking for tarmac to bite every mile. The brakes needed warming up. When they did, they made sure that the mass of power was completely under control.

Driving that Bentley was one of those experiences that I could take to my grave.

In the same theme, I was handed off to a Bentley team works drover for my first lap on a track. I did not make any requests or explain anything except for my virginal status on a racecourse. What transpired in a wild green colored Bentley Continental GT V8 was another experience unlike any. The rain began to come down as the driver simply attacked the course. We drifted into every corner of the track. The "fear talk" began to calm down, but not with an adjustment as to what was exactly happening on Road America's challenging set of 14 turns.

It took some time to recover from that first ride along the track. I went back to driving some vehicles and talking to others about social media strategies and story pitches. A discussion led to another track ride along. This time, the driver was a very well known name in motorsport – Tommy Kendall. He was giving rides in a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT on the track, but provided something extra to the novices amongst us – a proper education.

Tommy Kendall

Kendall and I talked about my first track experience. He assured me that he would be a bit gentle, but wanted to explain to me how to manage driving on a track at speed in a rainstorm. He demonstrated what would go wrong if the usual line through the apex was achieved. The result was a loss of steering control in the Grand Cherokee SRT. Kendall showed the “rain line,” a way to go through the curves slowly and through the less greasy part away from the apex. There, the high performance SUV maintained stability and control down the center of the turn.

Ever so grateful to get that ride from Kendall, he is a very personable gentleman who cares about the sport and the vehicles he drives. SRT has a great asset in this motorsport veteran and American racing icon. More so, he quelled my "fear talk" for the time being.

The rain became a bit unbearable. I blame myself for being unprepared for the weather when I left the hotel that morning. I was in need of a change of clothes and to retrieve my jacket. A brief trip to my room yielded the wardrobe change, along with some necessary work involving both outlets.

Let me just say that these laps around Road America were simply enough. I experienced a couple of perspective from professional drivers who understood the risks of doing something that is considered dangerous in risky situations. Frankly, I am happy to say that I could write about it. I am still alive, breathing – and, satisfied.

But, wait, there is more to this story…

DISCLAIMER: The vehicle featured as driven in the article was provided by Bentley Motors Limited

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  1. Randy, I am glad you go a good ride along on the track. This event looks like awesome fun. I look forward to your additional write ups.

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