Is there such a thing as too much football? Thanks to Toyota, after spending a weekend at two iconic stadiums witnessing two great rivalries, I can unequivocally say the answer to that question is “no.”
So how did I end up at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison on a Saturday night watching the 8th ranked Wisconsin Badgers take on the 2nd Ranked Buckeyes from Ohio State, then in Lambeau Field on Sunday afternoon taking in the 3-1 Packers versus the 4-1 Cowboys?
It started – like seemingly all the great adventures in my life – at a bar after the consumption of a few adult beverages. And not just any bar, but the legendary Siebkens Tavern in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. If you’re not familiar with Siebkens it’s one of the great motorsports bars in the country. Filled with racing memorabilia from the 1950s on, it’s located just five miles from Road America, America’s National Park of Speed. Siebkens has been host to racers and fans for generations. Pick a name in American sports car racing – Gurney, Unser, Andretti, Foyt, Shelby, Newman, Revson, Donohue, Penske and more – they’ve all been seen enjoying a drink or two and telling tales of their on and off-track adventures at Siebkens.
That’s just what I, several other automotive journalists and manufacturer’s representatives were doing after a day of driving on the track, when Ron Doron a Californian who publishes The Driver’s Seat said he’d always wanted to see a game in Green Bay. Kirk Bell, a Wisconsin native who now lives in Chicago and writes for The Car Connection and the communications director from Toyota expressed their desire to do the same. It wasn’t long before we were Googling the team’s 2016/2017 season schedule and when we saw that Ron’s favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, were coming to town in October, I shot a text to a friend with Packers season tickets asking if he’d be willing to part with those. I got a quick yes, and the plot was in motion. Someone suggested we check the Badgers’ schedule and when we saw Buckeyes were coming to town for a Saturday night game that same weekend the plan was complete.
Fast forward five months and I was waiting with a full-complement of tailgating supplies for my three co-conspirators (Ron and Kirk were accompanies by Greg Thome, a communications manager from Toyota whose family is originally from Wisconsin) to arrive from Chicago in a 2017 Toyota Highlander XLE which would serve as our chariot for our personal pigskin marathon weekend. The plan was simple: take in the best of Madison Saturday afternoon then head over to the stadium for a 7:30 kickoff, watch the Badgers hopefully rough up the Buckeyes. Then drive to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin where we’d spend the night before our hour and thirty minute drive to Green Bay the next morning, enjoy a classic pre-game tailgate, and finally watch the two clubs that both purport to lay claim to the title of America’s team do battle on the not-so-frozen Tundra of Lambeau Field in October.
Aside from a thundershower after the game on Saturday and two losses that disappointed the home fans, the weekend couldn’t have gone better.
The good news started when I loaded our tailgating supplies into the Highlander. I was a little worried in the choice of vehicles for this excursion. First, we were a group of four fairly sizable guys. I was the tallest at 6’3” and I’m pretty sure all of us push 200 pounds or better on the scale. I’m used to taking full-size SUVs on trips like this and never having to worry about room for our legs, shoulders, heads and gear. With the third row folded flat, the Highlander easily swallowed everything: a large cooler, four folding chairs, a folding table, grill, grill stand, three bags of groceries and a couple of backpacks.
That task accomplished, we made the short drive to downtown Madison where we parked the Highlander and went off in search of a place for a little pre-game warm up. One thing there’s no shortage of in Madison is a place to drink beer. The challenge on game day is finding a place you can get into. The classics like State Street Brats, The Big 10 Pub, and The Red Shed tend to fill up fast. The bars along Regent Street turn their parking lots into beer gardens greatly expanding their capacity, so no matter how big the game – and they don’t get any bigger than this one – you can always find a place to grab a beer and a brat. We opted for a smaller venue, The Library Bar, just a block away from the stadium. Great food and a good selection of local microbrews on tap make it one of my favorite pregame hangouts. While we consumed a few pints of favorite microbrews, New Glarus Spotted Cow, Hopalicious IPA from Ale Asylum Brewing company and a couple of orders of fried cheese curds, we listened to some Badger boosters serenade a group of Buckeye fans with a chorus of “O how I hate Ohio State” sung to the tune of “When the saints go marching in.”
Game time meant wading through a crowd of 81,541 people and hiking up the ramp to our seats on the corner of the end zone. Camp Randall Stadium is the fourth oldest stadium in division 1 college football. Built on the site of a civil war Union Army training camp, the site also served as a prisoner of war camp for rebel soldiers. In addition to a rich history it’s also a great place to see a game. ESPN regularly ranks Madison and the UW as a top college sports town. The game itself was incredibly exciting. Wisconsin jumped out to a 10 point lead and led 16-6 at halftime. The second half saw Ohio State surge into the lead early in the fourth quarter. The Badgers pulled ahead by three later in the game, but Ohio State kicked a field goal to tie with just under four minutes left in regulation and won the game on the first possession in overtime as a thunderstorm was bearing down on the field. So while we didn’t get to experience the UW Marching Band’s 5th Quarter performance, we were able to experience the great UW tradition, the Jump Around which occurs between the 3rd and 4th quarters and hear the entire crowd belt out the tunes “Sweet Caroline” and “Buttercup” in a mighty chorus like they do at every game.
Post game we hustled as quickly as we could back to the Highlander, dodging the raindrops as a late night thunderstorm rolled through town. That, of course, didn’t help traffic any and what was to be an hour long drive to our hotel in Fond du Lac became two hours. The good news is the Highlander proved to be a very comfortable ride for the trip. As I said, I was dubious that the Highlander would be a great tailgate vehicle, mostly because I hadn’t spent much time in one and thought of the vehicle as more of a run of the mill, mid-size family hauler. What I found when I opened the rear door and hopped in the seat behind the driver was a very comfortable captains chair with plenty of leg room for my 36-inch inseam. The wide center console had plenty of room for our beverages and rear power ports meant we were able to recharge our phones, while we rode comfortably and quietly to our hotel at the foot of Lake Winnebago.
The next morning came a little later seeing as we turned in well after midnight the previous evening. The first order of business, of course, was breakfast. We drive about 100 yards from our hotel to Rolling Meadows Family Restaurant, one of those places that serves all three meals, but you know what they do best is breakfast. And even on a very crowded Packers game day, they did it well. I’m a sucker for biscuits and sausage gravy (always a great remedy for a late night of indulgence) especially when you throw a couple of eggs over easy on top with a dash or two of hot sauce. Others in our group gorged on three-egg omelets, steak and eggs, and pancakes the diameter of the wheels on the Geo Metro Convertible we spotted in the parking lot. If you go hungry at a family style restaurant in Wisconsin, it’s not because you’ve been underserved.
Our bellies full, I finally got my turn behind the wheel of the Highlander and hopped on Highway 41 north toward the hallowed ground of Lambeau Field. Traffic to the stadium on game day is typically heavy. After all, the stadium seats 80,735 fans who come to Green Bay from all over the state. The good news is that it moves along quickly, especially when you plan on arriving three and a half hours before kick-off so you can get some solid tailgating in before the game.
What I found on this drive is exactly what I expected. The Highlander, a crossover that has plenty of power thanks to this latest configuration of Toyota’s venerable 3.5 V6, puts its 295 horsepower to use with drama-free predictability thanks to a new 8-speed automatic transmission. This combination provides ample oomph for passing the slower busloads of Packers fans and yet is smooth enough not to irritate anyone who might have overindulged the night before (names withheld to protect the guilty). Ride and handling again are pure Toyota, solid if a little soft for my taste, but definitely quiet and comfortable. With the satellite radio tuned to classic rock we made the hour and thirty minute drive to Green Bay discussing the challenges facing a severely depleted Packers secondary and whether the Cowboy’s rookie quarterback, Dak Prescott, would be able to take advantage of this opportunity.
Arriving in Green Bay, the parking options are many. The stadium’s surface lot is reserved for season ticket holders, so most other parking happens in the yards of the houses in the neighborhood surrounding the stadium. There are several bars and restaurants near the stadium that have game day parking as well where you can park and then enjoy their particular brand of hospitality – a couple of the better ones are Kroll’s and Anduzzi’s – but I wanted to give my out-of-town guests the full Cheesehead experience and opted for a backyard tailgate at a house just a block from the stadium on Barberry Lane. We selected our location not only for its proximity to the stadium, but also the fact that the sign out front advertised access to the home’s restroom for those who parked there. I can’t emphasize enough how much this is worth the $20 parking fee alone.
We were guided into the backyard by our host and pulled in near another Highlander that brought up a family from Milwaukee for the game. Arriving shortly after us was a group from Kansas City, of all places, who had come to witness the glory that is Lambeau for the first time.
And that’s what makes Packers games different from just about any other NFL venue. This place is a shrine to pro football. It’s about the legends who played here and the memorable moments that were created here. Parents put their children on the 30-year waiting list for season tickets on the day they’re born. And most of the houses have a stock certificate hanging on a wall in their home proclaiming them to be owners of the team. In order to raise the money necessary to improve the stadium over the years, the team has used operating profits and sold stock. Owners don’t receive tickets, earn dividends and they are not allowed to sell the shares for profit so the stock has no actual market value, but it is priceless to the hundreds of thousands of Packers fans who own a few shares.
The Packers are the only publicly-owned team in the NFL. In fact, rules passed after the Packers adopted their unique community ownership structure prevent this from ever happening again. That means there is no billionaire at the top of the team using it as an extension of his outsized ego. It also means it’s nearly impossible for the team to be sold or moved to another city. In fact, in the unlikely event that were to happen, the team’s articles of incorporation state that any profit of a sale, “would go to the Sullivan-Wallen Post of the American Legion in order to build a proper soldier’s memorial.” If that ever happens, that’s going to be one hell of a memorial.
Having parked the Highlander and opened the tailgate, we unloaded the gear and treated ourselves to the first beer of the day. I fired up the grill and prepped all the ingredients for a classic Wisconsin tailgate. Of course we had a box of Johnsonville bratwurst, burgers and chicken to throw on the Weber, and sides included slaw, potato salad, Milwaukee pickles, chips and a few dessert bars. Our neighbors forgot matches for their cigars so in exchange for helping them light their stogies, they were nice enough to share their whiskey with us. And that’s how tailgating works at Lambeau. It’s more like a giant pot luck where people share their food, stories and smiles before heading into the stadium for the serious work ahead.
About 40 minutes before kickoff, we grabbed a roadie and started the short walk to the stadium. Walking past houses, through the parking lots with thousands of other fans, you’d think there were only three colors in the world: green, gold, and hunters orange, the unofficial third color of Packers fans. Our tailgate was modest compared to many we saw in the parking lot where some fans even have customized vehicles just for game day.
The wait for security wasn’t too bad and in short order we were through the gate and walking through the atrium to our seats on the 40 yard line 20 rows behind the Packers bench.
It’s hard to describe the atmosphere at a Packers game to people who’ve never been there. To me it’s more like a college game, where the passions go way beyond the actions of the team on the field. After all, most of these fans have had their seats for decades and generations (the team does allow you to pass on your season tickets in your estate) so the sections are more like a vacation resort where the same people come together eight to ten weekends a year, year after year. The people who sit in front, behind, and beside you all know each other (unless of course the owner chooses to sell his seats). A wonderful side effect of this phenomenon is that fan behavior rarely gets out of hand. Also, if a fan does get so rowdy that he or she gets kicked out of the stadium, the owner of those tickets – whether they’re using them or not – is subject to revocation of their season tickets. That’s a hefty incentive to make sure those who use your seats are well behaved.
The game itself wasn’t a great one unless you were Ron, our token Cowboys fan. The Packers fans in our group – Kirk, Greg, and me – had to console ourselves with just being able to spend a day in this hallowed venue. It also didn’t hurt that we got to see Brett Favre inducted into the Packers ring of honor at half-time, joining legends like Bart Starr, Ray Nitschke, and Johnny “Blood” McNally whose names are displayed prominently on the stadium’s facade just below the sky boxes.
We walked back to the car through the fading evening light and listened to Ron gloat as he recounted his Cowboys’ heroics on the field. Once back at the car, I re-fired the grill and cooked dinner for our crew, so we could hit the road with full stomachs after traffic had cleared.
Heading south from Green Bay comfortably ensconced in the Highlander, I took time to think about the two days we had just lived. No, the game outcomes weren’t what we had hoped (except for Ron) but the experiences at both games were outstanding, creating a weekend that will linger in our memories long after the sting of defeat and the joy of victory disappear into the past.
2016 Toyota Highlander XLE
4-door, front-wheel drive, mid-size crossover
Base price: $39,460
Price as tested: $40,585
Standard Features: Leather trimmed front and second row seats, moonroof, smart key system, Toyota Entune premium audio with integrated navigation and app suite, Toyota Safety Sense P which includes pre-collision system 10 with vehicle detection & pedestrian detection, lane departure alert with steering assist, automatic high beams, and dynamic radar cruise control
Options: Carpeted floor and cargo mats ($225), Destination charge ($900)
Engine: Direct fuel injected, dual overhead cam 3.5L V6 with dual variable valve timing
Transmission: Direct Shift 8-speed Electronically Controlled automatic Transmission with intelligence
Horsepower: 295 hp @6660 rpm
Torque: 263 lb.-ft. @4700 rpm
Acceleration 0-60: 7.2 seconds
EPA MPG: 21 city/27 highway
While Toyota provided the vehicle and paid the expenses for this road trip, the opinions expressed here are our own.