Whether choosing a sports car for its power, sleek design or superior maneuverability, simply owning one provides its own joy.
It’s rare, however, for most sports car owners to get a chance to enjoy that vehicle to its full potential. That unique opportunity is part of the reason auto enthusiasts have flocked to the annual Lamers Driving Experience held each May at Road America in Elkhart Lake.
“It’s just a chance to get out on the track and drive these cars the way they were designed to be driven,” says longtime participant Jim Rossmeisl, senior executive vice president and chief marketing officer for The Boldt Co.
The beloved 4-mile track’s rolling hills and 14 turns afford drivers like Rossmeisl an opportunity to test their skills — and their car’s capabilities — in a unique way.
Not many venues allow drivers to do this safely, says Rollie Stephenson, founder of Faith Technologies and one of three men who helped launch the event. It allows participants to “drive sportingly without getting in trouble” while at the same time getting to know their car better and improving driving skills.
It’s a day many drivers have come to greet with eager anticipation.
“It’s the funnest day of the year,” says driver Dr. Jim Kramer, a Neenah-based dentist who drove his 2007 Corvette Z06 at this year’s event. “It’s just an absolute blast and super well-organized.”
Denny Lamers, president and CEO of McMAHON Group and founder of Lamers Motor Racing, started the event 15 years ago with Stephenson and Bob Weyers, co-owner of Commercial Horizons. What started simply as a practice day for a small group of friends has grown into a major charity event.
“You don’t need a Ferrari or a Porsche or a Lamborghini to attend,” Weyers says. “This is for anybody who wants to go fast. The fact that it’s all-inclusive makes it all the better.”
The event has grown in popularity. It’s organized into three groups: one for street car drivers who are accustomed to driving faster, one for drivers wanting to drive at a more moderate speed, and a third for those who can maintain racecar speeds, averaging less than three minutes per lap. In the early years, the day drew just 10 to 15 drivers to each driving group, and that has increased to 40 to 50 in the first two groups, with room to grow in the racecar division.
Lamers describes the experience as a “golf outing for car guys and gals,” with all proceeds going to charity. Attendees pay $350 to participate, but many donate more. This year, the event raised more than $55,000 for several organizations, including Harbor House, Boys & Girls Club, LEAVEN and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
In a world of ubiquitous silent auctions and golf scrambles, Weyers says the event offers an uncommon way to raise money for charity. “This was something that would give somebody a chance to do something unique and different,” he says. “I think it’s gained momentum and success because the people who do attend have a lot of fun.”
An impactful experience
While the funds raised go to many charities, since 2009, the event has been most generous with P.A.R.T.Y. at the P.A.C. ThedaCare puts on the annual program, which each year brings about 5,900 sophomores from 39 school districts, to a program at the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center to learn about safe driving behavior.
P.A.R.T.Y., which stands for Prevent Alcohol and Risk-Related Trauma in Youth, runs teens through a scenario of poor driving decisions. A car is brought onstage, and volunteers simulate an extrication. Professionals representing fire departments, emergency medical services, hospitals and the courts take part. People who have hurt others through bad decision-making also speak.
“Several have involved the death of another person, so it’s pretty impactful,” Dr. David Schultz, medical director for the trauma center at ThedaCare Regional Medical Center-Neenah, says of the program that’s been going on for 20 years, touching about 67,000 students.
P.A.R.T.Y. at the P.A.C. traditionally had centered on raising awareness about driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but in the past few years, it’s expanded its focus to include cellphone use and distracted driving.
Over the years, the program, the first of its kind in the Unites States, has received more than $100,000 from the Lamers Driving Experience. Schultz says the event is a major contributor to the program, and ThedaCare couldn’t put it on without that support.
“Having a relatively fast driving event and safe driving event seems almost an oxymoron,” says Lamers, going on to note the organizers really want kids to understand what can happen because of driving too fast.
Kramer, who participates each year in the Lamers event, says his son attended the P.A.R.T.Y. at the P.A.C. event this past school year, and it left an impression. It’s powerful for kids to see a live reenactment and hear from people who see the consequences of unsafe driving every day, he says.
“One of our goals is to have the teens leave with some component they’re going to think about when they get their learner’s permit or their driver’s license,” says Kathi Hegranes, injury prevention and outreach coordinator for ThedaCare. “It’s not to scare them but to get them to think about, what can they do with their phone? What are their choices?”
A world-class venue
Tucked into the Kettle Moraine area of Sheboygan County, Road America is a bit of a hidden gem. Legendary racecar driver Mario Andretti has called it his favorite racetrack in the country, and the facility enjoys worldwide acclaim.
The 640-acre motorsports facility brings in generations of fans, and much of the appeal comes back to the venue’s bucolic setting, says John Ewert, communications director for Road America.
“If cars weren’t running on the track, you wouldn’t know it was a racetrack,” he says. “It’s like being in a national park, but you have racecars instead of nature.”
But it’s not just the setting that sets Road America apart. Drivers love its high-speed straights, undulations, elevation changes and tight turns, Ewert says. This separates the good drivers from the great ones, and a win on the track is prestigious because of the complexity of the racecourse.
“Road America is a really, really wonderful track,” Rossmeisl says. “It’s a road course, so there’s a lot of turning.
The mark of good driving skill is being able to combine a lot of corners and going into the corner the right way and coming out of the corner.”
Road America has proved an ideal partner for the event, Weyers says. It provides safety personnel and flag people and goes all out as if it’s a typical race day.
For Lamers, providing drivers the rare opportunity to experience a world-class racetrack while raising money for charity has proved a winning combination. He’d like to draw in more corporate sponsorships in the future — this year Nicolet National Bank and Settlers Bank came on as sponsors — and bring in more drivers in the racecar division.
“The end result is $50,000 for charity in less than an eight-hour period, and that’s not too bad,” he says. “I’m pretty proud of what we can do for a lot of people.”
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