A Tale of Two Race Tracks

Editor's Notebook, April 2003



T.W. Theodore

One of the things I love most about auto racing is its grand Sense of Place. For years, I've waxed as eloquently as I could about the sweetest spot on Earth. You've heard me talk about that magical little tree-shaded glen in Wisconsin, between Canada Corner and the Billy Mitchell Bridge. Thunder Valley, the World's sweet spot, is home to a winding, uphill portion of the Road America race track between turns 12 and 13.


If you've been there, you know what I mean. If you haven't, you probably have a spot of your own much like it.


Thunder Valley is, for most of the year, a very quiet and secluded place, difficult to find and harder to travel by foot. The slopes of the valley are steep and rough, with outcroppings of rock to give footholds. (Now, I know that they've built a steep staircase down to the gravel trap at Canada Corner, which makes access much easier, but I think that has just let in the tourists.)


The paths on either side of the valley are narrow and overgrown with ground cover. Fortunately, they don't really lead anywhere, so they are not well traveled. Birds, rabbits, sometimes a small deer, and other woodland creatures make the valley their home.


the roar of engines...

For a few moments each year, this sweetest spot on Earth echoes with the roar of internal combustion engines. Race cars brake hard at 12 and put down the power as they make the swift uphill run to the turn-in leading to a blind 13, hidden by the concrete base of the Billy Mitchell Bridge.


Long after the cars are gone, for moments, for days, for decades, the sounds of racing continue to reverberate between the hillsides shading Thunder Valley. All the great road racers of the World have passed through Thunder Valley, adding the sounds of their engines to the never-ending reverberation. For drivers and fans, a visit to Thunder Valley always elicits a grand Sense of Place.


For the past ten years or so, my wife and I have become more and more enthralled by another auto racing Place. We've visited the glorious Monterey Peninsula once or twice a year, almost always in conjunction with a road race at Laguna Seca. This summer, we will leave the Midwest altogether and settle permanently in a little town at the southern tip of Monterey Bay. With luck, we'll visit Thunder Valley in Wisconsin one more time before we move, just to say goodbye.


a convergence of sky and terrain...

Laguna Seca has no tree-shaded glens. It has no quiet little valleys with woodland creatures. The grandeur of Laguna Seca is of a different kind. It is a ribbon of asphalt nestled in a convergence of bright sky and rugged terrain, with vistas of mountains testifying to the glorious power of nature. It is a landscape that exudes energy and speaks of struggle and conquest.


Susan and I sit just under the crest of the hill that forms The Corkscrew, that twisting piece of terror leading to a sweeping nine story drop in elevation. We sit and watch the race cars sweep down to 10 and 11, then on to the main straight, into the Andretti Hairpin, and through the technical corners before disappearing past 5 on their way back to The Corkscrew.


As I sit, I imagine each of the World's great road racers negotiating Road America's backstretch, braking hard, accelerating up through Thunder Valley, disappearing under the Billy Mitchell Bridge, and then swooping down through The Corkscrew before heading to Start/Finish at Laguna.


It is all of a piece. I am at peace. I am home.

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