Elkhart Lake honors its founder with a statue

Clif Tufte led effort to build post-war racing circuit that celebrates its 65 anniversary

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Clif Tufte
Engineer Clif Tufte led the effort to build the Road America racing circuit and worked at the track until he was in his 80s | Road America photos

As it prepares for its 65th anniversary season with a calendar that includes NASCAR’s top series for the first time since 1956, the Road America race track has unveiled a bronze statue of its founder, Clif Tufte.

Tufte, a Wisconsin native, was a highway engineer who also operated a sand and gravel business in Elkhart Lake. He organized the group that found land for the track and he laid out the circuit, which opened in 1955. 

Post-war sports car races had been held on local public roads around Elkhart Lake, but that became impractical, the track said in unveiling the life-size statue in its paddock.

Clif Tufte statue

The sculpture, featuring Tufte in the tipped hat he wore at the track, was done by Tom Holleran and based on photographs collected from friends, family and members of the Chicago Region of the Sports Car Club of America. 

“The statue committee says the statue is meant to be a gathering point,” the track said in its announcement. “Intended to inspire others to dream and believe. 

“A bench nearby is inscribed with a quote from the 1955 edition of the SCCA Chicago Region’s publication Piston Patter which reads, ‘Let there be no mistake, when the record of Road America is written into the history of sports car racing, one name will stand alone. Although he sought and received help from any qualified source, he and he alone had the vision, courage, and the ability to carry out the construction of a superb course. While the rest of us talked, he built. The man? Clif Tufte’.” 

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“I think it’s perfect, just absolutely perfect, for our fans, our organization, and for everyone that knew Clif,” said Mike Kertscher, president and general manager of the road course circuit.” As everyone who knew Clif has responded ‘that is him,’ as far as how he was and how his presence should be remembered. 

“Now Clif’s likeness will endure well beyond the next 65 years and inspire others for generations to come.”

Tufte retired from running the track in 1978 and died 3 years later at age 84.

Aerial view of the track

Elkhart Lake is between Milwaukee and Green Bay and provided a place to race for car owners from Chicago. The Chicago Region’s annual June Sprints remains a mainstay on the track’s annual calendar.

Various road courses, ranging from 3.3 to 6.5 miles, were used until Tufte created Road America, a closed course with elevation changes, 14 turns and stretching slightly more than 4 miles in length. 

The first race, won by Phil Hill in a Ferrari Monza with Sherwood Johnston second in a D-type Jaguar, was staged in September 1955.

The track’s 2021 racing schedule includes a return of NASCAR’s top Cup Series, which last raced at the circuit in 1956. That 250-mile race was won by Tim Flock driving a Mercury. He finished 17 seconds ahead of his Bill Stroppe teammate Billy Myers.

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The 2021 NASCAR race is scheduled for July 4. Also on the Road America schedule are vintage racing weekends May 13-16, July 15-18 and September 17-19.

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A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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