‘Built on racing’: The small Wisconsin town that can’t quit its road racing history

Elkhart Lake’s legacy as the home of two public road racing circuits in the 1950s lives on through reenactments, festivals, and historic markers

Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. | Photo: Alisha McDarris

Elkhart Lake is a town so small that if you blink as you drive up I-43 in Wisconsin, you may miss the turnoff for it entirely. It’s a mere two and a half hours north of Chicago and only an hour from Milwaukee, but the rural community in Sheboygan County, with its wide, friendly streets, colorful houses, welcoming farmers markets, and shiny red caboose on display next to the old train station, feels like an escape. 

I have only an inkling of what awaits as I drive into town, welcomed by historic buildings and wide streets. Outside of the 100-year-old resorts that first established this community, I wander past signs commemorating Elkhart Lake’s road racing history. Between 1950 and 1952, drivers and celebrities gathered here annually for the open road sports car races that would put the town on the map.

“Hard Left” denotes the curve on Lake Street, the most dangerous corner of the 1951-52 road circuit. “Start/Finish” stands prominently outside of the city’s only brewery, Switchgear Brewing Co., proclaiming the winners of the ’51 and ’52 races. And at the Stop-Inn at Siebkens Resort, license plates, racing paraphernalia, classic car stickers, and signage of all kinds memorialize the race that made Elkhart Lake what it is today. 

The famed and celebrated road races only lasted for three years before they were deemed unsafe and illegal, but the entire community is still inexorably tied to the days when Jaguars zipped around city streets, spectators looked on from behind bales of hay, and the small resort town came alive for one weekend a year.

Road racing

Before visiting Elkhart Lake, I didn’t realize how ingrained the races were in the local culture—but between the themed bars, ancient framed prints hanging in nearly every restaurant and shop, and classic race cars peppered on lawns and in parks, it becomes clear that road racing wasn’t just a fleeting pastime here.

The town’s first road race took place in 1950. The Osthoff and Siebkens resorts were already well-established; most of the visitors to Elkhart Lake flocked to the area for water activities and (then-illegal) gambling establishments. But in a downturned, post-depression, post-WWII economy, city officials started looking for more legitimate ways to entice out-of-towners and revive the local economy. They decided to hold road races.

Seventy years later, the legacy of the races lives on. Racing still plays a vital role in the community with reenactments, festivals, and street fairs that continue to bring car and racing enthusiasts to southern Wisconsin. Every July, vintage race weekends draw thousands to enjoy street parties, car shows, and parades. Local businesses fling their doors open wide to accommodate the influx of visitors, and residents plan their whole year around it.

A black vintage sports car with gray and orange racing stripes is parked on a lawn.
A classic road racing vehicle on the lawn near The Shore Club in Elkhart Lake. | Photo: Alisha McDarris

“It’s the highlight of the summer in Elkhart Lake,” says John Calhoun, chairman of the Elkhart Lake Historic Lake Circuits Reservation Society (HRC). HRC is in charge of the historic signs and markers around town that highlight racing hot spots; they campaigned to get the road on the original circuits listed on the State and National Register of Historic Places.

Road America, conceived and constructed just a few years after the road races were shut down for good, is located less than 3 miles from downtown. The curving, undulating track surrounded by woods and grassy lawns has taken up the torch, carrying on and building upon the town’s racing history and legacy by hosting nearly every major North American racing series and type of vehicle, from motorcycles to vintage Formula One vehicles. The track attracts some 800,000 visitors a year to the area, a far cry from the 5,000 spectators who attended the first road race in 1950.

“This area is built on racing,” says John Ewert, communications director at Road America. “It’s very important to the community. And it has a life of its own.”

The inside of a mostly empty tavern with walls and ceiling decorated with road racing signs and paraphernalia
Racing paraphernalia covering the walls inside the Stop-Inn Tavern at Siebken’s Resort. | Photo: Alisha McDarris

Less than 3 miles from Road America, the Throttlestop specializes in selling vintage race cars; real estate developers cater to car enthusiasts who call the village home for at least part of the year; and countless businesses feature racing terminology in their names or taglines. The lake still glistens blue on sunny summer days, golden-leafed trees beckon hikers in the fall, and foodies can find the kind of quality cuisine usually only available in cities five times its size. 

Whether it’s the memorabilia pasted all over the walls at the Stop-Inn, antique signs and photos on display at the small history museum alongside the railroad tracks, or men and women popping their hoods so curious passersby can peer longingly at the engine block, Elkhart Lake can’t quit the road racing culture that established the town as something more than just a vacation destination. Sonoma has wine, Aspen has skiing, and Elkhart Lake has racing.