The first turn at Wisconsin’s legendary Road America NASCAR track, weaving among the gentle hills near the town of Elkhart Lake, is a wide, looping affair.
Watching the pavement pass beneath your car’s hood, lazily making that big right turn, you may tell yourself, “Hey, there’s nothing to this race driver thing.”
Of course, you’re in a 2020 Honda Civic, not a Gen-7 Ford Mustang. And you’re driving at 35 mph, not 185. Still, the turns soon come sharper and faster — including one called “Canada Corner,” because if you miss that one there’s nothing to stop you from heading straight for the Great White North.
Even at these novice speed limits, you find yourself hitting the brakes as you climb a rise at Turn 6 — only to find a sharp left directly under your bumper.
On most Friday nights from May to October, for a mere $20 you can reserve a spot for Road America’s three-lap, 12-mile Sunset Cruise — so long as there’s not a real, live race happening that weekend.
Road America is just one of several NASCAR and IndyCar tracks across the U.S. that give race fans a chance to follow in their heroes’ skid marks. There’s no starter’s flag, and in most cases you’re not allowed to even approach track speeds, but you also don’t have to be an absolute gearhead to get a thrill from driving on one of America’s fabled race courses.
Watkins Glen International, NY
Drive the Glen ($30 per vehicle)
They’ve been running Grand Prix-style races at Watkins Glen, located at the lower fingertip of New York’s Lake Seneca, since 1948, and the original “Six Hours of the Glen” event is still one of America’s premier races.
Now, virtually every day there’s not a race, fans can follow an official pace car the entire length of Watkins Glen’s 3.4-mile circuit.
There’s not much in the way of rules: Everyone has to wear a seatbelt; no motorcycles, rental cars, or golf carts; and no passing other vehicles…especially not the pace car.
Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta
“Shush” Sessions ($125 for non-members of the Sports Car Club of America Atlanta)
Remember Blue Laws — those local regulations that kept certain businesses closed on Sundays? Even though it’s one of America’s most storied race tracks, Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta is subject to something called “shush” laws, which prevent loud NASCAR-type vehicles from roaring around the 2.5-mile track on Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon.
While that’s not great for race fans, it’s an opportunity for folks who want to open up their engines on a world-class track.
Drivers of all skill levels are invited to bring their own cars for two 20-minute “Shush Sessions” (separated into Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced groups). Virtually the only requirement is that your car be street legal (and not too loud!).
Sonoma Drags and Drift ($35)
Admit it — you got a thrill watching James Dean peel out in a stolen stock car during Rebel Without a Cause. Now you, too, can feel the adrenaline rush of a drag race (minus Natalie Wood cheering you on, of course).
Drags and Drift is held from 4 to 10 p.m. most Wednesdays on a dedicated drag strip at Sonoma Raceway, a venerable half-century-old course tucked in a corner of California wine country. Anybody with a car (high schoolers get a $15 discount, which is, frankly, terrifying) can sign up for an afternoon and evening of totally legal drag racing.
Just how legal is it? The most popular race of the night is “Top the Cops,” where racers try to outrun local law enforcement officers. The Dukes of Hazzard would be proud.
Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
Open Test and Tune ($225)
Race cars began making the circuit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, near Lexington, OH, in 1962 — and since 1991 the track has offered defensive driving classes through its Mid-Ohio School (50,000 graduates and counting).
From late March through early Fall, the track throws its 13-turn, 2.4-mile IndyCar course open to anyone with a car — and a helmet. Beginners take part in three 20-minute “Lead/Follow” sessions, during which an instructor will, in the track website’s words, “go as fast as the group can keep up.”
There’s no passing, unless you’ve completed the track’s Advanced High Performance Course, in which case you’ll get to test your lapping skills against experienced drivers as wheel-crazy as you are.
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