The last two categories on my list of track rating criteria included a track's aura and mystique and a track's off-site options and activities. Since Aura and Mystique is pretty self-explanatory (sorry but Indy trumps AMP no matter who is grading the curve), I am going to turn this post into a travel guide for the most awesome places to hang out away from the race track on a race weekend. A special note for anyone seeing this post without reading the accompanying ratings and summaries, this is based on the 35 tracks I have raced at, not all 90+ road courses in the country.
A second, substantially important note ESPECIALLY for those people new to our sport. A typical weekend at the race track is not the most inclusive experience. If you are racing you likely will not spend a ton of time oriented towards your partner, or even your kids. Its not a critique of you as a person, its the nature of the game. Ignore your car and your driving at your own peril - that's how people get hurt.
And now for my unpopular opinion of the day (follow me for more lol). Mark my words, spend enough time at the track without them over a series of years and it will undoubtedly have a negative impact on how many weekends you spend at the track. Which is why I included this category and gave it equal rating to things like Fun to Drive and Competitor Atmosphere. There are certain tracks where the surrounding location(s) provide so many cool things to do, you can honestly consider these tracks mini vacations.
So here are my Top 5.
1) Watkins Glen, NY
The small town of Watkins Glen is my favorite off-track location in the country, edging out number two by the slimmest of margins. If it was a race, the gap between them would be in the hundreths of a second. Watkins Glen is a resort town on the Finger Lakes of New York with a population of under 2,000 people. The downtown is best described as quaint, and as a bonus is mere minutes from the track. A amalgamation of small shops, some touristy and some for locals, greets visitors on the main road into the town center.
Along the lake front is a marina, restaurants and a small park for walking. There are schooners tours and other on-water activities. In reality, the town is EXACTLY the right size. Any larger and the parking would be much more remote and any smaller and you would be done with your walk in ten minutes.
The area downtown and around the town is full of hiking trails and waterfalls, and the out of town visitors ensures the parking lots are big enough for buses and RVs. The main State Park features a two-mile hike with almost 20 waterfalls and a 400 foot deep gorge.
Have dinner at Captain Bill's, Jerlando's or the world famous Seneca Lodge (where are the racers end up). Grab an ice cream, walk up and down the streets and see the history of the race in plaques along the sidewalk and murals on shop corners. And when you have done enough outside, visit the International Motor Racing Research Center which houses the SCCA Archives and see if you can find your original first race results. PS tell them we sent you and feel free to make a tax deductible donation on your way out.
2) Roebling Road, GA
Roebling Road is located about 30 minutes from my favorite walking city in the country, Savannah. That 30 minutes is the ONLY reason it finished second. Well that, and the fact the town is limited in parking so you are not likely to be happy driving your rig into town. Downtown Savannah reminds me of Europe in the fact that every few city blocks is a park.
Along with the open-minded shop owners, this also makes it one of the most dog-friendly cities we have visited. Do yourself a favor and rent a Air BnB downtown instead of one of the non descript chain hotels.
There is history, a riverfront, carriage rides, ghost tours and pub crawls, which are the perfect companion for the high number of top class restaurants and local establishments. Joe's, and Mrs. Wilkes are well know (Mrs. Wilkes is famous for its community seating, you never know who you are going to be sharing a table with), but our small local favorite is Hitch!
And if at the end you get bored with Savannah, Hilton Head is another 30 minute drive which puts you onto some of the best beaches on the east coast. How great is this combination? Whenever we race at Roebling, we take an extra week's vacation to enjoy the area. I highly suggest you do the same.
3) Daytona, FL
Look, I fully understand that Daytona is a tourist hot spot. But when you can finish your race, change into a bathing suit, and be on the beach and in the ocean is less than 15 minutes, that is special.
I am not going to write much about the experience because the pictures say it all.
And don't forget to drive your car on the beach if you get a chance. Because really, how many places are left where this is allowed?
4) Gingerman, MI
Gingerman is loacted just east of the resort town of South Haven Michigan, a town of around 5,000 residents.
Unfortunately, combined with the limited number of weekends where you can enjoy the beach in Michigan, the room prices go through the roof on race weekends as the combination of racers and tourists puts a serious strain on the limited rooms.
Thankfully there is a large RV park nearby and the fact many of us camp in our race trailers, we get to enjoy resort locations without the resort prices. Downtown has very limited parking but a number of very good restaurants and pubs.
So park a few blocks away and enjoy the stroll along the marina and canal. If you have pets eat at one of the number of outdoor pubs or head outside of town to one of the state parks (the one south of town allows dogs on the beach during in-season).
Cap the evening off by standing in line for a hour at Sherman's Dairy Bar or grab a drink at Three Blondes Brewing.
5) Laguna Seca
Like Daytona, there is not a lot to say about Laguna you haven't already heard. The Monterrey bay area is quite famous for Steinbeck, Golf and the Laguna Historics.
The area around the track needs a full guide, which is easily accessable by searching online, so no need for me to duplicate that effort here.
Walk the waterfront, see the seals and sebirds, take a trip to Carmel and if you want to stay reasonably, stay in Salinas.
And eat the BBQ at Salinas City BBQ - trust me on this one. But be prepared, there are only like 10 tables and they do take out, so its not unusual for them to run out and close early. Yup, fresh made daily.
Honorable Mention: Barber
I will be honest here, not sure how much fun Birmingham is as a city. But the Barber Museum deserves a day all by itself.
Take your time and enjoy it, along with all the art and sculptures located around the track.
Here are all the other track posts