T

here’s only one racing circuit with the uniquely American title of the “National Park of Speed”—that’s Road America. Daytona International Speedway might claim to be the “World Center of Racing,” and Italy’s Autodromo Nazionale Monza might be the “Cathedral of Speed,” but the rolling road course just outside Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, is more aptly named. It’s as important to our sport as any racetrack in the world. Road America’s lofty status could stem from its majestic setting—a thin ribbon of asphalt unrolled over lush green meadows, rolling glens, and thick stands of elm, spruce, and oak. Or maybe its rich history—the world’s greatest racers, on both two wheels and four, have fought some of their fiercest battles on this breathtakingly fast circuit. Or it could be for the particular rapture a visit inspires—equal parts respect, awe, and revelry. No matter the reason, Road America is a national treasure. I first visited Road America in June 1982, arriving as an 8-year-old perched on the back of Dad’s Honda CB750, a weekend’s worth of camping gear stuffed into homemade denim saddlebags. By day we watched heroes like Eddie Lawson, Mike Baldwin, and Wayne Rainey battle bar-to-bar on great wobbly 1025cc KZs, GSs, and CBs. By night we’d tent among a few thousand others in a lumpy farm field across the highway from the main gate, where I received my earliest education in two-wheeled mayhem—an endless blur of topless women, fireworks, smoky dirt burnouts, and abandoned KZ650s with connecting rods poking out of the cases. Pure delight, plus a side of debauchery.

That campground has long been banished—good riddance—but the Road America racecourse itself has changed remarkably little in the past 63 years. In fact, with very few exceptions, the track raced today is the same track raced during the inaugural event in 1955. Elkhart Lake was already well-known for roadracing—an SCCA road race held there in 1952 on a 6.5-mile course incorporating local county highways reportedly attracted 238 cars and almost 100,000 spectators from around the country. (Historical signs mark the route of the old racecourse through Elkhart Lake, and maps of the full course are available online, for those who want to re-create a lap.) But after eight spectators were struck by an out-of-control race car at that 1952 event and the Wisconsin State Legislature summarily banned racing on public roads, Plan B was devised. Elkhart Lake, it turns out, is not the Isle of Man.

Road America Aerial view
America's National Park of SpeedMike Calabro

Cliff Tufte, a local highway engineer, organized a small group of well-heeled shareholders and located 640 acres of rolling, glacially sculpted terrain at the very northern edge of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. Tufte also designed the racetrack layout, selecting 14 of his favorite corners from the old public road course, measuring them carefully, then painstakingly reproducing each to form the final 4.1-mile track that would become Road America.

While the track remains a world-class roadracing circuit, equal to any in Europe, Road America is also an anachronism. It’s the sort of circuit that will likely never be built again in this era of multipurpose, made-for-TV bowls. There is no NASCAR oval or vast paved runoff for F1. There is no “short course.” And with a motorcycle lap record well over two minutes (2:11.333, set by Josh Hayes in 2012), it can be a long wait for the action to make its way back past spectators.

That’s not to say Road America isn’t a great track for spectating—it’s in contention for the greatest. Grandstands are replaced by grassy knolls, or wooded openings accessed by narrow hiking trails, or the saddle of your motorcycle in one of the many trackside parking corrals. Even better than watching is riding around Road America at speed. Nothing compares to Road America from the saddle of a sportbike, which is why Road America is so often the answer when you ask a racer for his or her favorite racetrack. One of the longest and fastest racetracks in the world, a well-ridden liter bike will flirt with 170 mph no less than three times per lap—and there is no thrill like cresting the main-straight hill and feeling the front end go airborne at the top of fourth gear.

If you can't visit Road America, maybe a virtual visit is the next best thing? Of course, this is easier said than done. A Web search will turn up queasy onboard footage, and the track was prominently featured in the introductory scene in the 1969 Paul Newman film Winning, but finding crisp, clear images worthy of detailed study proves difficult. Unlike Laguna Seca, which has been mapped with laser precision, or Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which has been measured down to the inch, Road America exists mostly in the imagination and memory of those who have been there. At least until now.

360fly 4K camera
Below this futuristic-looking orb is the 360fly 4K camera, which allows you to easily capture any action in full 360-degree glory. right Head-up, not knee-down, is the key to capturing good, stable 360-degree footage.Mike Calabro

This is how I recently found myself back at America's National Park of Speed, this time aboard a red, white, and blue S1000RR loaned by Schlossmann BMW Motorcycles of Milwaukee, with a 360fly 4K camera clamped to the top of my helmet. Typically, I'm trying to find the quickest and shortest line around the track. This time I was trying to find the slowest and straightest, the 360-degree camera dictating that I hold my body stock-still and upright in order to capture the cleanest, clearest, most stable footage for Google Maps' Street View. Now anyone around the world—including you, right now—can enjoy a virtual lap of Road America. So, go ahead. Set down the magazine and get started dragging a finger—not a knee—to fully appreciate the spectacular details and secrets of this racing retreat.

Now anyone around the world—including you, right now—can enjoy a virtual lap of Road America.

Here are a few Road America highlights to pay attention to during your virtual track walk: The plunge into the tunnel of trees that leads to easy-to-overcook Turn 5, desperately shedding speed and downshifting from sixth to second gear, recalls Jackie Stewart’s nickname for the Nurburgring, the Green Hell. Turn 6 is uphill and blind-entry—turn at the crest, under the Corvette Bridge—leading into fast-and-flowing Turn 7 that dumps into Hurry Downs and officially starts the “back half.” The Carousel goes on forever—pack an extra right-knee puck—and continues to build speed as you descend toward the legendary Kettle Bottoms. Motorcyclists will pause at the Bend—added in 2003, specifically for the safety of motorcycle racers—while open-wheel cars charge straight through fearsomely fast Kink and on toward Canada Corner, named for its remote location. From there the course winds up the hill and past what was once the Billy Mitchell Bridge (replaced by a tunnel in 2006, again for rider safety) before returning to the “front section” and starting over again.

The one thing you can’t do virtually is follow your hot laps with a cold beer at Siebkens Stop-Inn Tavern (aka, “the Last Open Bar”) in downtown Elkhart Lake. Plastered with vintage stickers and racing memorabilia, this unassuming basement bar is one of the most infamous in all of racing, legendary for epic Sunday-night victory celebrations for the likes of Shelby, Andretti, Foyt, Gurney, Spencer (Freddie won the first AMA Superbike race at Road America in 1980), Schwantz, Russell, and so many, many more. You won’t be halfway through your first beer before the bartender is retelling tales of a certain Superbike champion streaking naked through the courtyard, or an Indy driver skinny-dipping in Elkhart Lake.

Visiting Road America with Google Street View is great in a pinch—and we sincerely hope you enjoy our captured lap—but there’s no substitute for the real thing. Consider our work on Street View a teaser. Go, explore the track, its well-trodden corners, the hollows and hills you only get to see from the tarmac. Get to know Road America, then start planning for an in-person trip, because there’s no better way to visit America’s National Park of Speed.