Special to Highlands Today
If anyone has uttered a discouraging word about Road America, Guy Smith hasn't heard it. And it's likely he never will. Praise for the historic circuit in Elkhart Lake, Wis., flows effusively from all who have driven it. Smith, Dyson Racing's British ace, is one of those.
"There is nothing you can find fault with at Road America," he said. "It has long straights, fast sweeping corners, hard braking, undulation… everything you want. I think if you started with a clean sheet of paper to design a race track, you wouldn't finish too far away from what Road America is."
Scott Sharp, owner/driver with the Florida-based Extreme Speed Motorsports team, also has a favorable opinion of the 4.048-mile, 14-turn circuit, which has a habit of producing close finishes in ALMS races. No team since 2005 has won an ALMS race at Road America by more than 3.239 seconds. The average margin of victory for the last seven events is 1.358 seconds.
"Road America is my favorite track," Sharp said. "From my first laps there, the flow of the track has come naturally to me and I enjoy the challenge of putting a great lap together. The medium- to high- speed corners have historically fit the Ferrari quite well.
"After all of the effort the Patrón ESM team has performed over the last few months to develop and hone our setup, I'm so fired up to take our Ferrari Italia 458s to Elkhart."
Extreme Speed Motorsports driver Guy Cosmo has enjoyed past success at the track and is looking forward to the weekend.
"My first time racing at Road America was in 2002, in the Star Mazda series," he said. "I qualified on pole by over a full second on the entire field, and won the race in dominant fashion. That's how I always remember this place - by being the guy to beat. I'm ready to tack on another victory at this place."
As the lone Ferrari team in the ALMS GT class, ESM has two main goals this weekend – maintain Ferrari's winning ways at Road America and secure another victory for the team.
"The four-hour format is going to play well for Ed (Brown) and me," Cosmo said. "We've been extremely quick lately and have been very close to capturing a great finish. With the length of the laps at Road America and our strengths together, Ed, ESM, Patrón and I are looking for a podium finish. It's going to happen."
The team has victory in its sights as the Road America Road Race Showcase, the seventh round of ALMS competition, kicks into high gear this weekend. The 2011 event saw a Ferrari atop the GT podium and ESM seeks a back-to-back Ferrari win and another team victory.
"I'm sure the ESM/Patrón guys will have our Ferrari working well, I think we'll make a serious run for the podium at Road America," van Overbeek said. "To go fast at Road America requires the car to be really good on the brakes, good top end and a really good balance, which our car has everything but a great top end, relative to the competition."
Hot off their front row qualifying spot at Mid-Ohio, Cosmo and Brown, in the No. 02 Tequila Patrón Ferrari Italia 458, look to repeat that success in qualifying and the race. In the 2009 ALMS race at Road America, Cosmo set the fast qualifier and fast lap time while competing in the GTC class.
"Guy and I have shown a lot of speed lately and the Road America circuit should favor our Ferraris," Brown said. "The four-hour race format is a little longer than our previous races but that should also help us with our race strategy. Once we get into a rhythm and get our Ferrari where it needs to be, we'll be the leaders in GT and on the podium."
Last year's race produced a 0.112-second win for Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr over Smith and Chris Dyson in the LMP1 class. The 2010 race was no slouch either – Jonny Cocker passed Graf with two corners left on the last lap and won by 1.051 seconds. In 2009, the finish between Patrón Highcroft Racing and de Ferran Motorsports was just 0.461 seconds.
The close competition isn't limited to prototypes. The top nine GT cars in 2010 finished on the lead lap, and eight were on the lead lap after last year's race.
Why the closeness? Smith offers a couple of ideas.
"The last two years arguably have been two of the best races in ALMS," he said. "The nature of the track promotes close racing and finishes. Traffic is important but at least in prototype cars it's not a dominant factor. Because of the long straights and fast sections, you can deal with it. If your car isn't quite there, you can't make up a difference because it's so long and fast. You can test yourself around Road America."
The Road America Road Race Showcase is the seventh round of the 2012 American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón. The four-hour race is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. ESPN2's telecast begins at 2 p.m. on Sunday.