Elkhart Lake: Laid-back, but Action-Packed

Tracey Teo

Elkhart Lake, a tiny Wisconsin village about 150 miles north of Chicago, is the kind of place where city dwellers sit contentedly on their balcony at the Shore Club, sipping that first cup of coffee in a serene, traffic-free zone. Bathing suits drip dry over the railing, fluttering in the breeze after a bracing morning dip in the emerald-hued water of Elkhart Lake, the town’s namesake.  Only the soft panting of dogs on their morning walk and the chirping of crickets can be heard at this tranquil lakeside resort.

Unless it’s a race day at Road America.  Then you better cram in your ear plugs because the wild howling of engines at the nearby 640-acre motorsports complex will blow through your peaceful morning like a rocket launch.

But that’s what visitors love about this town.

Racing fans flock to Road America in the summer to catch a wide range of racing events.

Extreme gearheads, often members of exclusive car clubs, refuse to sit on the sidelines.   On track days, they rev around the 4-mile, closed-circuit course to wring out every ounce of horsepower from their Corvette, Porsche, Lamborghini or other high-performance sports car, sometimes reaching speeds of over 120 mph.

Communications Director John Ewert said the course provides an opportunity for sports car enthusiasts to cut loose in a safe, controlled environment.

“Safety is first and foremost,” he said. “All participants wear helmets and work with instructors so they know what speeds can’t be exceeded (It depends on the car). There are safety teams standing by.”

As for racing, that’s only for the pros, so no egging on your best bro on the track.

One thing that sets Road America apart is the beautiful setting in the rolling hills of Wisconsin’s Kettle Moraine region. There’s more to see than a long stretch of black asphalt.

“There are few facilities where you can watch world-class racing from a shade tree with your feet in green grass,” Ewert said. “It almost feels like a national park.”

There is no assigned seating, but grandstand seating is available on a first-come basis. Fans often bring lawn chairs, moving them from one turn to another so they can catch the action from different vantage points.

Elkhart Lake has attracted racing enthusiasts for more than 70 years, even before Road America opened in 1955.

 Open road sports car races were held from 1950-1952, the brainchild of Jim Kimberly and other members of the Chicago Region of the Sports Car Club of America. Top race car drivers from around the world came to compete, attracting thousands of spectators to this remote hamlet.  

Two overlapping open-road race circuits are on the National Register of Historic Places, and you can explore them (at a much slower pace) by hopping on a bicycle rented at the upscale Osthoff Resort.

Fourteen historic markers over approximately 6.5 miles describe the events that thrilled thousands who sat with nothing but barricades of hale bales to separate them from lightning-fast cars that could barrel out of control at any minute. 

Kick off your bicycle ride in front of the marker at the Lakeside Café, then follow additional markers out of town into Wisconsin’s picturesque dairy farms skirting Lake Elkhart.

A marker noting the infamous “hard left,” a dangerous curve on the 1951-52 circuit, is in front of the Stop-Inn Tavern, a bar teeming with racing memorabilia. It’s a good spot to hydrate with a local brew.

Racing on public roads was banned in 1952, but Road America safely keeps the town’s racing tradition alive.

Elkhart Lake offers the best of both worlds - laid-back at the lake and action-packed at the track.

Elkhart Lake

The Shore Club. This resort is new but has a vintage vibe. 276 Victorian Village Dr., Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. www.shoreclubwisconsin.com
The Osthoff Resort. Offers yoga on the lawn and bicycle rentals. 101 Osthoff Ave., Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. www.osthoff.com

Lake Street Café. Serves everything from pizza to T-bone steak and boasts a surprisingly impressive wine list.  21 S. Lake St., Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. www.lakestreetcafe.com

Stop-Inn Tavern at Siebkens Resort. 284 S. Lake St., Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. www.siebkens.com

Road America. N7390 State Highway 67, Plymouth, Wisconsin. www.roadamerica.com
For more information on Elkhart Lake’s historic open road race circuits. www.hisotricracecircuits.com