Off-road racing is more than a hobby in Crandon, Wisconsin-it's ingrained in the culture. A municipality of less than 2,000 residents two hours north of Green Bay, Crandon embraces the sport of off-road racing like few places on earth. This past Labor Day weekend, more than 50,000 rabid off-road fans packed into Crandon International Raceway to witness history: 2009 marked Crandon's 40th anniversary of racing in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.
In 1969, about the same time desert racing was finding roots in Baja and the desert Southwest, a group of Crandon locals decided to promote an off-road race to draw people to their community. The first Brush Run 101 in 1970 was on a long, largely unimproved course through the woods, strewn with mud, stumps, and obstacles that challenged a skilled off-road racer. As those early races gained popularity, a colorful assortment of homebuilt and innovative off-road hardware emerged as an impressive testament to low-budget four-wheeling. Now part of the TORC Series presented as part of the Amsoil short course schedule, Crandon is one of those "bucket list," must-do experiences that every serious off-road enthusiast should really experience.
As 2009 marked Crandon International Raceway's 40th anniversary, part of the week's festivities included a trail ride on the original 251/4-mile circuit through the woods. It's easy to see why this course was called the "Baja of the Northwoods." Unlike the short-course off-road racing that Crandon is famous for today, the original track was as much a survival enduro as a speed contest. The trail ride on the original course brought out an eclectic assortment of vehicles, including homebuilt rigs from the early days, Rhinos, dirt bikes, ATVs, and flatfender Jeeps.
In 1984, the racetrack found a permanent home at its current location just west of town on Highway 8. The current 1.75-mile circuit is very fast, yet technical, and full of surprises. The natural-terrain course snakes around countryside with sweeping turns, big air jumps, and the most dramatic start and first turn you'll ever witness. Crandon's start is a land rush, with vehicles lined up fender-to-fender about a quarter mile from turn one. When the big dogs come out to play, the ground literally shakes as 20-plus 900hp trucks are pitched sideways into the 90-degree right-hander that falls off-camber just past the apex. With speeds approaching 90 mph, there's no room for error.
Crandon's turn one is the scene of big crashes, and this year's Borg-Warner Cup race had one of the biggest. Mike Jenkins in the Traxxas PRO 4x4 F-150 pulled a holeshot, went up on two wheels, steered out of it, only to drift into the outside guard rail, then head-on into the catch fence in front of Parson's Pond. Behind Jenkins, all hell broke loose, with trucks flipping and crashing as they rounded turn one-and the action was being carried live on ABC. Six trucks were totaled in the mayhem and others damaged. Rockstar driver Kyle LeDuc went on to win the 15th Annual Borg-Warner Cup. Scott Douglas, in the Amsoil Kumho F-150, won Saturday's PRO 4x4 race to take the 2009 World Championship PRO 4x4 title, with Chad Hord right behind in an identical Douglas Motorsports truck.
One of the highlights of the weekend for race fans was the chance to see Robby Gordon let it all hang out. Gordon flew in from the NASCAR race in Atlanta to be part of the 40th and race in Sunday's PRO two-wheel-drive race. Scott Taylor in the Miller Ford won, followed by Red Bull driver Ricky Johnson, and Gordon put on an incredible show. Gordon ran up front, using all of the racetrack, and spun in the hairpin before the finish, only to slam his Polaris Chevy into Reverse and cross the finish line backward. Walker Evans was also on hand to help celebrate the 40th. Evans had an epic battle with a young Robby Gordon at Crandon 20 years ago when West Coast racers first started making the trek to the Northwoods. Todd LeDuc won Saturday's PRO 2WD race and Jeff Kincaid in the Traxxas Toyota won both PRO Light races. Chad Hord won the PRO Light Showdown at Sundown World Championship Friday night.
In addition to the PRO classes, Crandon and TORC run a full schedule of Sportsman trucks, three buggy classes, and entry-level classes that include some classic racers. There's really something for everyone. Many race fans camp on site, and Crandon's "Jurassic Park" area turns into party central every race weekend. Midwest race fans know how to have a good time. There's a good assortment of lodging for those who don't want to camp, and the pit area is open to spectators, so anyone can watch the crews rebuilding trucks and grab an autograph from their favorite driver. One word of caution, however-once exposed to the crazy good time that is Crandon, you will want to go back. This is one off-road experience that is very habit forming.