Road America Hosts MAMA’s Automotive Rally

For a proper gearhead, there is no better way on this Earth to spend a day than doing track laps. While professional racers do it most days as part of their living, it’s a treat for the rest of us to get seat time in a sport tuned car on a legitimate major track. Opportunities for days like that might just be the best part of this job.

Every spring, the MAMA (Midwest Automotive Media Association) gathers automotive journalists at one of the United States’ most popular tracks – Road America in Plymouth, Wisconsin. Most automakers bring a few (in some cases, all) of their models to the Spring Rally to allow car writers a chance to test them en masse at the more extreme limits of their performance.

Road America is an ideal track for this or any other speed event. The course runs along a 640 acre space through the green rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, making for some challenging elevation changes. In fact, Turn Four offers a rapid ascent into a sharp, blind left turn — forcing the driver to master the necessary gear change and braking pattern if he or she wants any speed at all heading into Turn Five.

While the MAMA organizers work with Road America officials to take some of the edge off of the track (by including extra chicanes and diverting the course in a couple spots to force we amateur racers to slow down), it’s impossible to take all of the track’s wonderful prickliness away. One nameless journalist took the turn known in those parts as Canada too quickly in a $100,000+ luxury sports sedan and absolutely binned it. He (or she) came into the turn too hot and even a set of ceramic brakes couldn’t bring the car to heel. The driver spun out through the racing gravel designed to reduce the force of impacts and twisted the car’s front end into the wall. It served as a powerful reminder that anyone participating in a track day needs to take the experience seriously.

This reporter certainly did — if only to keep the day going as long as it could. Tracks laps at speed are mental pipe cleaners. The forced concentration cleanses the mind and kills any worries or anxieties. I can only compare it to a sparring in the ring or a serious round of golf. Totally physical and mental concentration are in demand for all of the above.

I did 30+ laps that day, even going so far as sneaking some cars out on the course twice If other journalist snoozed (or broke for gelato), they lost. I did so many laps that I came out looking like a reverse raccoon — my face both sunburned and caked in track dust, except for the white circles preserved by my ever-present sunglasses.

The highlights of the day? The latest Subaru STI is already known as a great track and rally car, and it lived up both expectations. The Fiat Abarth wasn’t the fastest car on the course, but it bit off all of the apexes (apexi?) with aplomb. Finally, the Ford Focus GT was surprisingly good. It didn’t come off as straight line quick as the Subarus, but it handled just as well.

I later found out the new Jaguar XJ L was not intended for track laps and was only meant for local road touring. In my ignorance, I was lucky to trot it out for one lap and found it powerfully refined and absolutely grounded — even with an extended wheel base.

The biggest disappointment headed to Wisconsin via Italy and Alpha Romeo. The legendary Italian automaker is returning to the U.S., and it’s internationally hot 4C is leading the invasion.

Alpha Romeo had one on hand at the Road America track day — and no one could drive it. It was there only as a display vehicle. Since most of the journalists had already seen it at auto shows throughout the year. What was the point of staring at it in the sunshine of a racetrack? If all Alpha wanted was some more eyes on it, they could’ve just as easily brought a photograph or a model. Same end result. In short, why bother to bring a track car to a track day and keep the keys?

The MAMA rally got some of my wannabe racing out of me for a while — at least until the West Coast’s Motor Press Guild throws its track day in October.