IndyCar

Friday favourite: The American Spa that became a happy hunting ground

Most drivers who have raced in the United States will vouch for Road America as one of the most thrilling road courses the nation has to offer. Many liken the 4.04-mile track located near Wisconsin’s Elkhart Lake to Belgium’s sprawling Spa-Francorchamps. Among them is Bruno Junqueira, for whom Road America has added meaning as a track where he scored four wins during a career in Indycars and sportscars that truly took off after a breakthrough victory there in 2001.

The fast, 14-turn layout has three long straights where “you go at 200mph, so it’s a very good balance about downforce level,” the Miami-based Brazilian explains. The pit straight, the back straight into the downhill Turn 5 left-hander and the flat-out blast out through the Turn 11 kink and under the trees into Canada Corner all afford overtaking opportunities, with Junqueira citing his last lap Turn 5 move on Conor Daly for victory in a 2015 IMSA race as his favourite example.

“You have at least four or five very high-speed corners in fourth and fifth gear, and there are no slow corners at all,” says the now-45-year-old, best known for taking pole at the 2002 Indianapolis 500. “You have one corner in second gear, Turn 5, and the minimum speed would be something like 70mph. All the other corners are third or up.

“What I love about that track, you have to have a really good flow. You never stop doing something, so it’s very fast and very fun to drive.”

Junqueira’s love affair with Road America began in 2001, the reigning international Formula 3000 champion’s first visit. He’d had a tough CART Indycar rookie year at Chip Ganassi Racing initially alongside fellow F3000 graduate Nicolas Minassian, before the Frenchman was shown the door after one too many crashes.

Junqueira had taken pole for his oval debut at Nazareth and finished an encouraging fifth at the Indy 500, but aside from a strong run in Detroit – where he ran second early on before his gearbox packed up – his year had been one of frustration as he languished down in 19th before Road America.

Comparisons with Juan Pablo Montoya, who had won the title as a rookie in 1999, hadn’t helped – although Junqueira points out he was facing “a very different circumstance” with a Lola-Toyota package that hadn’t been a patch on the Reynard-Honda Montoya had used in 1999, and without the benefit of a champion team-mate in Jimmy Vasser to learn from as Montoya had.

Junqueira took a crucial first CART Indycar win at Road America in 2001 which helped him keep his Ganassi ride

Junqueira took a crucial first CART Indycar win at Road America in 2001 which helped him keep his Ganassi ride

Photo by: Phillip Abbott / Motorsport Images

Under pressure to keep his seat for 2001, Junqueira was “so mad” when a potential front-row slot at Road America was lost as the slippery track conditions that had defined his group’s qualifying session eased for the second group, shuffling him back to tenth.

But amid an eventful race that was red flagged and became “a gamble on pit strategy”, as Autosport’s Gordon Kirby described, Junqueira came through to beat Michael Andretti after a late splash-and-dash. “Many drivers, Junqueira included, had no idea when the race was going to end until the final eight or nine minutes,” wrote Kirby.

Junqueira recalls “a great and deserved win” that helped to safeguard his career, going on to finish second in the standings with Ganassi in 2002 before repeating the result in the next two seasons with Newman-Haas Racing.

“When we came to Turn 5, he tried to block me, but I was already there. We didn’t touch, but he spun out and I went by and won the race. It was cool!” Bruno Junqueira

“It was a crazy, wet-dry race,” says Junqueira, who now works in real estate but has not closed the door on driving. “One of my characteristics as a racecar driver is to be consistent and on this difficult day of wet-dry, crashes and everything, I was able to keep always in a good position going forward, then at the end get the win. And I had the speed, I was very fast there.”

His affinity with the track was cemented by taking a dominant pole in 2002, almost half a second ahead of Cristiano da Matta. He ultimately finished third after dropping behind Alex Tagliani’s car that was simply too fast on the straights during the final caution period, as da Matta romped to victory.

The following year, again after a wet start that twice caused the race to be red flagged, Junqueira took pole once more and was not to be denied. He led every lap to score his first win for Newman-Haas Racing, a 1-2 ahead of Sebastien Bourdais, and took the points lead from eventual champion Paul Tracy, who crashed out on the first lap.

“It was not an easy race because it was wet,” recalls Junqueira, “and actually the last few laps was getting dry so the wet tyres started to slide a lot.”

Junqueira won again at Road America in the wet in 2003, this time holding off team-mate Bourdais

Junqueira won again at Road America in the wet in 2003, this time holding off team-mate Bourdais

Photo by: Mike Weston / Motorsport Images

When his IndyCar career fizzled out, having twice in three years suffered the ignominy of being bought out of Indy 500 rides he’d qualified for Conquest Racing (2009) and AJ Foyt Racing (2011), Junqueira enjoyed successes in the LMPC division of the American Le Mans Series and later IMSA Sportscar Championship with RSR Racing.

He and Duncan Ende took a second LMPC class win of 2013 at Road America and were set to repeat the trick in 2014 after Junqueira had taken pole, only for wayward Daytona Prototype tail-ender Scott Mayer to punt Ende into the wall while the latter was trying to pass Mayer’s faster machine.

Junqueira made up for it though in 2015, charging after Daly’s Performance Tech machine and pressuring him into a spin on the last lap for a satisfying triumph alongside Canadian Chris Cumming.

“He started to block me like crazy,” Junqueira remembers. “When we came to Turn 5, he tried to block me, but I was already there. We didn’t touch, but he spun out and I went by and won the race. It was cool!”

Junqueira celebrates with team-mate Chris Cumming after securing memorable last-lap IMSA LMPC win in 2015

Junqueira celebrates with team-mate Chris Cumming after securing memorable last-lap IMSA LMPC win in 2015

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

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