Elkhart Lake preview: reach for the superlatives!

In these days of identi-kit circuits and an ever-increasing emphasis on driver and spectator safety, it is rare that a track can make the best drivers in the world go misty-eyed. Road America, at Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin is one of those tracks. The 4.08-mile road course is a circuit that has driver and journalist alike reaching for the superlatives

Elkhart Lake preview: reach for the superlatives!

"When you've got a good set-up on the car it's a real kick to drive," bubbled Paul Tracy, driver for Team KOOL Green who won the race two years ago with Dario Franchitti.

"Elkhart Lake is one of the last few circuits of its kind - a long circuit with a great variety of corners. They really don't make circuits like that any more," says Penske star Gil de Ferran.

The Brazilian has good cause to enthuse over Road America above and beyond its enjoyment factor from behind the wheel. The Penske outfit is enjoying its most prolific spell at the top since the all-conquering championship year of 1994, and that doesn't look set to change over the next few races. Penske came away from a recent test at the track looking stronger than ever, and the team's last race, at Mid-Ohio, was a crushing display of dominance which the team looks likely to extend to all road courses.

"We need to stay focused on the job at hand given the competitiveness of the CART FedEx Championship Series," says Helio Castroneves, winner at Mid Ohio. However, this circumspect standpoint belies the sheer pace Penske has displayed on permanent road courses so far this year. On road and street courses, Castroneves has outscored everyone, and won at Mid-Ohio despite feeling under the weather...

However, Penske might not have things all their own way - Newman Haas's Christian Fittipaldi has a habit of flying at Road America, and after taking his first win there last season, he is confident of taking the fight to Penske.

"I would say that of all the tracks we go to during the season, Elkhart Lake is the one where I am the strongest. To put in a 100% perfect lap there is tough because it is so long," he says.

Most drivers agree that a good result could hinge on qualifying, despite the fact that passing is a distinct possibility.

"You don't want to be too far back on the starting grid because with a four-mile track, it's often hard to catch up to the contenders if you have to work your way up the field," says Player's driver Patrick Carpentier.

The Canadian's team mate Alex Tagliani is in agreement: "Qualifying is going to be key at Road America because it's a track where you don't have too many yellows during the race, so you have to try to make sure you stay close to the leaders."

Despite being such a challenge, for the last two years the winner at Road America has been a first time victor. Last year, Christian Fittpaldi took the chequered flag, while the year before that the sophomore Dario Franchitti took his first win. By constrast, the pole sitter on both those occasions was the veteran Michael Andretti, wringing a good qualifying performance from the Swift chassis.

This year, the Swift has few chances of taking pole - one, to be precise, in the shape of Tarso Marques, who has so far not been able to drag the Panasonic car anywhere near the front. Andretti has a Lola beneath him this year, which has gone well on road courses in the hands of the Newman-Haas drivers, though unusually, Chip Ganassi Racing has been unable to extract the best from the Huntingdon-built cars.

Reigning champion Juan Pablo Montoya is unlikely to let this stop him trying, however. He has vowed to give his all in chasing his increasingly remote championship hopes.

"When we're behind on the track we never give up. It's the same in the points race," he insists. "I don't care how many points we're down, we still believe we have a shot and we're not going to give up. We need to score a lot of points this weekend and hope for the best."

Expect fireworks from the Colombian, then. Penske hasn't got the race sown up yet...

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