“Before my first race at Elkhart Lake [Wisconsin], my mom said, 'Take it easy, okay?' I said, 'I think I'll go as fast as I can.' " – Dan Schnitta in “I Want to Be the Ginger Man” by John Phillips (August 17, 2010, Car and Driver)
The speedometer surges to 115 as you hit the straight leg. Another curve comes into view. The gear shifts down, the pressing palm of g-force lightens on your chest and you hug the outer edge as your dark-blue Porsche GT-4 with yellow seat belts and calipers handles the bend at 65mph.
When you cross the finish line moments later, you slow and pull over. You unfasten and slip off your helmet, open the door and step out into the morning sunshine.
It’s another day at GingerMan Raceway near downtown South Haven.
GingerMan Raceway was opened in 1995 by Chicago native Dan Schnitta, who also owned the GingerMan Tavern at 3740 N. Clark Street in Chicago’s Wrigleyville.
The tavern’s name had been inspired by J.P. Donleavy’s controversial book The Ginger Man, which during its time (late 1950s) was banned in the U.S. for reasons of obscenity.
Having studied art, theater and political science at Valparaiso University, as well as traveled Europe on a motorcycle, Schnitta was already prone to independence in the 1960s. The hullabaloo that had surrounded Donleavy’s book piqued his curiosity.
Upon reading it, he was stumped: Nothing to him seemed profane. Rather, the book mainly appeared to raise questions about authority and institutional power.
He chose the Ginger Man as the perfect symbol for a place where free, creative thinkers could gather to converse over freshly poured libations.
The tavern’s aura got even bigger when director Martin Scorsese selected the GingerMan to be a set for a pool hall in his 1986 film The Color of Money starring Tom Cruise and Paul Newman. The movie gave the GingerMan landmark status and spiked business for years to come.
With greater resources came greater options and freedom; Schnitta began to reflect on where his spirit next would soar. When he learned about a dormant 350-acre apple orchard close to downtown South Haven, he recognized an opportunity to pursue his passion for racing. He would also carry forward his symbol of independence.
Schnitta bought the orchard in 1995, and GingerMan Raceway opened in 1996. Today, the point of interest in South Haven features a 2.14-mile track, a pavilion that seats more than 200 and a three-level control tower with a timing wire and a PA system. It is a popular choice for racing beginners, hobbyists, clubs and national organizations alike. Both the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) and the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) hold events at the track.
A highly social and interactive experience also was vital to Schnitta. Spectators are not confined to the stands; they can meet and speak with the drivers, including those behind the wheel of elite racecars such as the Ferrari 488 GTB, the McLaren 570S, the Porsche 911 GT3 and the Lamborghini Huracán LP610-4.
Schnitta further envisioned the raceway to be a destination for family and friends and time in the great outdoors. The track is surrounded by shaded woods, plenty of paddock space and a pond full of fish. Racers and guests can enjoy a large fire pit, a lounge and gift shop with an outside seating area, and camping at GingerMan for only $10 a night.
The track also bears the distinction of being one of the country’s safest. Schnitta had the track designed to exclude hazards such as ditches, trees and utility poles. In order to be on the track, drivers must have either attended a driving school or already been on another track at least three times.
Whenever you’re visiting downtown South Haven and you feel an itch for adventure, head just a few miles straight west down Phoenix Street. Whether you’re watching the cars or riding in one, you will find yourself closer to the edge of adventure dreamed by a man with a book in his hand and the will to do something with it.
61414 Phoenix Rd., South Haven, MI 49090
(269) 253-4445 www.gingermanraceway.com
Open April through October (hours may vary, so please call ahead)
About the Author
A creative writer for many years, Jon Davis (eloquentarrow.com) paints pictures with his words and captivates readers with distinctive language. He now shares his love for South Haven with us, writing about the experiences you can have only in the Haven. Jon resides in Oswego, IL, with his wife, Kristie, and two daughters. They visit South Haven often to take in the scenic beauty and spend meaningful time as a family.