Can Milwaukee Succeed In 2012?

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All indications are that the IZOD IndyCar Series will announce the Milwaukee Mile as their sixteenth race of the season and fifth oval, on February 13 – the same date as the State of the Series event in Indianapolis. If we are to believe the rumor mill, the race will take place on June 17 – barely four months from the date it is to be officially announced.

On the surface – for oval die-hards like myself, this is welcomed news; simply due to the fact that the 2012 slate is seriously lacking ovals. But after stepping back and looking at the long-term future for the event, I’m not so sure.

Don’t get me wrong. I want the event to succeed. That’s the problem – I’m not so sure that the event can succeed, at least not in 2012.

INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard has all but said that if the series returns to Milwaukee this season, it’s a do-or-die situation. If they can’t make it work for 2012, then there will be no further attempts to return to the mile oval in the near future. If the track and the city of Milwaukee are going to be saddled with an ultimatum, it’s not fair to expect all parties involved to pull off such an event in four months.

I understand why Milwaukee wasn’t originally on the schedule. The situation with the Wisconsin State Fair Board has been a mess for years. Promoters have come and gone. Some, such as Carl Haas, have given honest efforts in the past. Others, who shall remain nameless, have been somewhat less than honest and have ended up owing INDYCAR, NASCAR and other series a significant amount of money.

Randy Bernard tried to be more proactive this past season and the series took a more hands-on role in the promotion of the race, after it had been left off of the 2010 schedule. They loaded the weekend schedule with two USAC races, a Star Mazda and USF2000 race along with the Firestone Indy Lights and IZOD IndyCar Series races. As I recall, the weatherman cooperated and the IndyCar race was an exciting race.

Unfortunately, the event bombed at the gate and the stands looked embarrassingly empty on television. There were many theories as to why the turnout was so low. Some say it was due to a cumbersome website where tickets were sold. Others point to the fact that tickets were priced way too high. Then, when it became obvious that ticket sales were poor – they came up with a two-for-one ticket deal that alienated those that had already paid full price for their tickets. The series was hoping for a strong walk-up crowd that didn’t materialize. All in all, a great race went unnoticed in person.

This track isn’t Kentucky, New Hampshire or Nashville; which are all relatively new sites that have fallen off of the IndyCar schedule. This is The Milwaukee Mile – one of the most historic and the most revered venue in IndyCar lore outside of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In fact, the one-mile oval at Milwaukee was hosting races in 1903 – six years before IMS was even built. This is a track that earned its way onto the IndyCar schedule long ago and shouldn’t have to prove itself in a four-month chaotic scramble of desperation.

If this is indeed a do-or-die situation for Milwaukee, I’d prefer to leave it off of the schedule for this season and do things right for the long-term future. Many were upset that New Hampshire ended up being a one-and-done event after a rainy weekend killed its expected walk-up crowd last season. If people are that upset over New Hampshire, can you imagine the outrage if Milwaukee is abandoned if they fail after a four-month ticket blitz that starts in the dead of winter in Wisconsin?

I’ve made no secret that I am a big fan of Randy Bernard. He has done so much good in his two years on the job, that I hate to think where things would be without his efforts. But being a fan doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he has done. Some of the things he announced I initially disagreed with, but he turned out to be right and I was wrong. But he has had a few misses along the way. Curt Cavin pointed out on Trackside last night that Randy Bernard misread the gravity of the situation by not getting the 2012 schedule finalized early.

Through a series of missteps, the IZOD IndyCar Series is faced with the prospect of having only four oval races on its 2012 schedule.  That has partially led to this situation with Milwaukee – ovals he was hoping for didn’t materialize, so he’s trying a quick fix to add one more oval with Milwaukee. They are also in danger of violating their contract with IZOD to hold at least sixteen races per season. The plan is to hold the season finale at a venue to be determined and race at Milwaukee in June to bring the season total to seventeen races, five of which would be ovals.

That’s all well and good and I would be all for it if the stakes for Milwaukee weren’t so high. But given the fact that Milwaukee will have only four months to sell tickets and get everything put together or face the possibility of never holding another IndyCar race again – that’s a difficult task for any venue, especially one that has had a recent history of poor planning.

The historical significance of The Milwaukee Mile to the IZOD IndyCar Series cannot be overstated. All the famous names of this sport – names like Ralph DePalma, Wilbur Shaw, Joel Thorne, Rex Mays and Ted Horn – were great names from the distant past that raced there. Race winners from the sixties included Parnelli Jones, AJ Foyt, Rodger Ward, Lloyd Ruby, Mario Andretti, Jim Clark, Al Unser, Bobby Unser and Joe Leonard. Winners from more recent times were Nigel Mansell, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Rick Mears, Jimmy Vasser, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti. I think you catch my drift that The Milwaukee Mile spans the history of American open-wheel racing and is far too important to be threatened by short-term goals.

If Milwaukee is to be judged on a one-race effort, then I say don’t even attempt to run it in 2012. Plan ahead and gear up for a full-fledged effort for 2013 and judge it on how well it does at the gate after it has been given every chance to succeed. To throw it together in four months and make a judgment on its future is setting up the event for certain failure. Some say it can be done in four months and if certain things had come together, it would have been a success in 2011. All I know is that it wasn’t, and as an outsider – I see nothing to make me think it would be a success in 2012 with only four months to plan it.

Unless, the IZOD IndyCar Series can make a long-term commitment to staying at The Milwaukee Mile for a number of years, I would prefer that they regroup and do things right a year from now. Otherwise, they run the risk of throwing away a large chunk of this sports cherished past. Personally, I’d rather not take that chance.

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Can Milwaukee Succeed In 2012?”

  1. As long as the facility is ready (including vendors and parking and all that) and if they learn from past mistakes, such as having a convenient start time, then four months seems like plenty of time to promote this race.

    If I lived in Wisconsin or Illinois, I probably wouldn’t decide until a couple weeks before the race anyway.

  2. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    To attempt to step up to one pitch and hit a home-run with no time to practice or warm-up? Yeah, right. It has to be given a minimum of two years to even approach a success, and three is more realistic.

    It is an historic race and track for sure, but it seems there’s too much public confusion about whether this event is here to stay or gone or merely on life support… Marketing can’t possibly help when the event has no long-term plan or focus.

    After a year off (2010) then a year with minimal marketing (for various reasons – 2011), then demanding 2012 is the make or break year for the event? Not a snowball’s chance. I will go in 2012 if only to see the LAST Indycar race ever at that historic track.

    PS The France family must be laughing their asses off at we Indycar fans and I, for one, am sick of it.

    • –so you support Indycar’s attempt to race at an historic oval by immediately deciding not to attend the race? that will show them!

      • dzgroundedeffects Says:

        NO sorry redcar, I meant I AM going but I’m disappointed that it will likely be the last one we’ll see there for a while unless a miracle happens to save that event.

  3. I think it can work. I know I will personally do what I can to promoter it if it does indeed happen. One correction to last year: The weather man did not cooperate: Torrential rains all night and much of the morning. It was dry during the race, but no doubt the rain turned people away

  4. Talk about “Icons” and the Milwaukee Mile is solidly in any conversation about racing history.

    • I agree and the Mile is irreplaceable, however there are lots of questions. Is the facility in reasonable shape? How is the track surface? Who pays for any upgrade?

  5. The four month time probably has less impact on the ability to sell tickets than it does the ability to sell other revenue generating sponsorship vehicles. If selling tickets on short notice were so hard, then there would never be any large scale music concerts where 20,000 tickets are sold on a months notice for many tours that come to a venue.

    Probably the bigger issue might be the ability to sell signage, race or other sponsorships at the track itself on four months notice. In selling these items they are working against fixed marketing budgets allocated last september.

    Milwaukees problem always has been the lack of luxury boxes and the lack of control over concessions and parking by the promoter. Vegas from a revenue standpoint was a wash even if no one sat in the stands because all 100 boxes were sold. As with most professional sports today, revenue potential from box sales is a bigger deal than seat revenue. Sad but true.

    Mix into this that the revenue from concessions and selling space to concessioneers is controlled by the state fair board, a local promoter just has fewer revenue generating opportunities at this track than say somewhere like Gateway which in many ways is a similar facility.

    Milwaukee will be a loss leader this year, but the loss of $ from this race will be less than the loss of $ if the 16 race Izod obligation is not met. Hence in some sense the finacial decision to run here is not going to be the measure of success.

    I suspect the race weekend will be different, no USAC event. That may well be replaced by a concert of some sort. It could also be run as single day event to save on travel expenses for the league.

    At the end of the day, the race at milwaukee will be measured by one simple thing, do the fans show up and do they watch on TV. If they don’t then it is not a referendum on the venue so much as judgment on the “Oval Loving” fans. This may well be the Leagues final gesture to you towards the pursuit of a ballanced schedule. If Milwaukee fails, then you either don’t exist in numbers commensurate to your voice or you are not willing to make this a priority on your callender, TV set or wallet.

    So, where are YOU going to be on June 17?

  6. Brandon-Bond Says:

    Good article George. If you are going to do something do it right, don’t give a partial effort.

  7. What do you mean do it right? NASCAR at MIS is the same
    Day and tickets still arent on sale.

  8. Chris Lukens Says:

    I too think that Randy B is one of the best things to happen to Indycar, he understands that there is a contingent of fans that want ovals and he is trying to accommodate them.

    But what we have to remember is that it isn’t Indycar that wants to dump the ovals, it’s the owners. And why not, their drivers are roadracers, their engineers are roadracers, their cars come from a roadracer company, and with the exception of Sarah, they all got their start as roadracers.

    I hate to say it but I think the Milwaukee race is a carefully crafted plan to ensure failure, Then the owners can be happy when, 3-4 years from now, we end up with a 1 oval – 15 roadrace schedule.

  9. Bruce Strain Says:

    I think this last minute addition of Milwaukee is a good test of Indycar fandom for Randy B. There seems to be a large number of vocal roundie round fans in the midwest that want more roundie round racing, well it doesn’t get more midwest that Milwaukee. That being said the roundie round fans better show up and support this race, I would but The Mile is 1800 miles from my house. So what say you midwestern roundie round fans? Do or Die.

  10. 1st of all, I could give a rat’s a** about NASCAR and what it thinks. 2nd of all, if they run at Milwaukee, I will be there with my wife and son, just like last year. Sorry only a few thousand went last year, but we had a great weekend last year. I expect to do the same this year, if INDYCAR runs there. You can either go or stay home. Not a real hard choice.

  11. I’m going if they showed up. That was a very good race last year, but I was stuck watching it at work. Best kind of track for Indycars.

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