On December 28, 1949 the Sheboygan (Wis.) Press ran a story with this headline:
Road Racing Planned Near Elkhart Lake
The article explained that Milwaukee industrial designer and sports car fan Karl Brocken was planning Wisconsin’s first official road racing event to be held the following spring in the Elkhart Lake area. Those races did, in fact, take place the following July and were conducted on public roads just as similar races had been two years earlier in the tiny village of Watkins Glen, N.Y. Both Elkhart Lake and Watkins Glen have since become meccas for racing enthusiasts as each boasts a world class race course that hosts a variety of categories of racing.
But how did little Elkhart Lake become a destination for race fans from around the world in the first place?
Readers may have noticed that I’m a history buff. My interest in history has led to my membership in a number of historical groups including the Elkhart Lake Historic Race Circuits Preservation Society. This year my membership renewal got me a copy of “The History of the Elkhart Lake Road Races 1950-1952” which describes the events that led to those first races in 1950 and the later development of Road America, one of this country’s leading race courses.
By the late 1940s road racing was springing up all around the country with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) acting as the main sanctioning body. Both Milwaukee and Chicago had regional SCCA chapters and the two joined forces to search for a suitable site for a Midwest race course. One of the Chicago SCCA officials, Jim Kimberly, who was from Neenah, Wis., and was familiar with the Elkhart Lake area, suggested that they look at the sparsely populated roads around this quiet little resort community beside one of Wisconsin’s deepest lakes.
There were, of course, a wide range of issues to be resolved before the races could be held. Chief among these was the fact that these races would be conducted on public roads and, though the planned route was thinly populated, there were people living on those roads and they would be denied access to their properties during the races.
Fortunately, none of the property owners along that first year’s race course objected. That would not be the case during the 1951 and 1952 races when the race course was expanded from 3.4 miles to 6.5 miles and one property owner petitioned the state highway department to cancel the races. Race organizers quietly approached newly-elected governor Walter Kohler (who hailed from nearby Kohler, Wis.) and received his assurance that any protests from property owners would be conveniently shelved until after the races.
Those early races proved more popular than organizers could have imagined. As many as 5000 spectators attended the 1950 race and that number swelled, by some estimates, to more than ten times that in 1951. The race had also become a truly international event with Jaguar supplying two race-prepped XK-120s (driven by Phil Hill and George Marlbrand), joining Ferraris, Simcas and MGs on the starting grid.
The races at Elkhart Lake would be run on public roads only one more year. After 1952 it became obvious that the event was becoming too big to safely run on public roads and organizers wouldn’t be able to ignore the issue of property access much longer. They were determined, however, to keep the races in Elkhart Lake and were able to secure a sufficiently large piece of land just outside the village to build a closed course road race track. The first races at that track, Road America, were run on September 10, 1955.
All of the original roads upon which the races were run during those first three years are still in place and the Elkhart Lake Historic Race Circuits Preservation Society was formed to preserve both the history of those early races and the road courses themselves. (The Sheboygan County highway department has tried to “improve” sections of those roads over the years and preservationists have succeeded in fending off those actions.)
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the races at Elkhart Lake, the Preservation Society published “The History of the Elkhart Lake Road Races 1950-1952”. It was compiled from manuscripts written by Peter Laun whose father owned the gravel pit that became Road America and who followed racing in Elkhart Lake with both his pen and his camera over the years.
The book is quite thin at only 51 pages but offers insight into those early races and the planning involved that you aren’t likely to find elsewhere. It is also filled with black and white photographs, most of which, again, you probably won’t see anywhere else.
“The History of the Elkhart Lake Road Races 1950-1952” retails for $20 and can be purchased from Road America’s Web site.