The Milwaukee Mile: A Driver’s Track
In an IndyCar season where the common lament has been few passes and single file parades, the arrival of the Milwaukee Mile on the schedule could not have come at a better time. Parity is thrown out the window at this historic track that opened in 1903, six years before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Spec chassis or not — this is a track that relies more on a driver’s skill, intuition and bravery; more so than the car setup and aero package.
Over the years, it has been the drivers that have known how to manage their right foot through the flattened turns of this grand one-mile oval, that have found their way up-front. There is no better documentation of this than the legendary drive of AJ Foyt at Milwaukee in August 1965. Foyt’s rear-engine Lotus that he had planned to drive in the race, had failed to show up at the track. AJ had been running his dirt car that weekend in Springfield, IL and had it in Milwaukee, on the trailer
When Foyt realized his predicament – he quickly unloaded his front-engine dirt car and set it up for pavement, himself. In qualifying, not only was he competitive with the championship roadsters and rear-engine cars…he managed to put the car on the pole. At the start of the race, there were the low-slung racers of the day led by AJ Foyt sitting in his upright dirt car on the pole.
As a testament to his remarkable driving skills, Foyt remained in contention all day – leading 16 laps before finishing second to Gordon Johncock. In those days, the bigger cars could run the full 200 miles without a stop. The dirt cars were not designed to run more than 100 miles, so Foyt had to stop for fuel. Even with a pit stop, Foyt remained on the lead lap and finished ahead of third-place Lloyd Ruby who was driving a rear-engine Halibrand.
In my opinion, there are no drivers in today’s field that have near the driving talent of AJ Foyt. However, Paul Tracy is the type of driver that can take a mediocre car and put it in the winner’s circle today, strictly on his innate driving ability. He couldn’t do it at Indianapolis or Texas where a driver’s performance is so dependent on how well the car is set up. But at Milwaukee, a good car means nothing without a good driver.
With Tracy subbing for the injured Vitor Meira at Foyt’s team this weekend, it holds the potential to be a very interesting weekend for the ABC Supply car. Tracy and Foyt have each won at Milwaukee four times. They both obviously know the short way around the place. If they can manage to keep their combustible personalities in check throughout the weekend, they have the potential for the famous #14 car to have its best finish in years.
The car didn’t qualify well, starting on the outside of row 8, but Tracy has never been known as a great qualifier. PT is a racer. If he can get himself in contention early today, he can apply the chrome horn to his advantage and come away with an outstanding finish. This could be one of Foyt’s most entertaining races in years.
Another driver that can benefit by listening to a mentor is Danica Patrick. I always feel compelled to mention that I’m not a Danica fan, but I must give credit when it is due. Patrick is quietly putting together a very solid, yet refreshingly, unspectacular season. She is sixth in points entering Milwaukee, but is only thirteen points behind point leader Dario Franchitti. Danica sits seventh on the grid at the start of today’s race. She has a new race strategist this year in Michael Andretti, her car owner. Michael obviously knows a few tricks about Milwaukee as he has won at the mile oval five times, himself.
Danica has had mixed results at Milwaukee. Her first year in 2005, she finished a forgettable nineteenth. Her results were much better the following year when she finished an impressive fourth. Probably her best drive at the Milwaukee Mile was in 2007, her first year with Andretti-Green Racing. She had started near the back of the field, but charged through the pack to run as high as fifth. There she collided with Dan Wheldon going into turn two. She did an excellent job of keeping the car under control and managed to bring it home in eighth. It was after this race that Patrick had one of her many publicized run-ins, when she confronted Wheldon after the race and shoved him. Last year she finished an unremarkable ninth.
I am not sure if it is due to Michael’s guidance, maybe her handlers finally getting her attention, possibly it’s because it’s a contract year or perhaps she is just finally growing up…but Danica is keeping her mouth shut this season and her results have improved dramatically. Consequently, I have actually praised some of her efforts this season, contrary to what I was saying about her at this time last year. Will I ever be a fan? Probably not, but her performance this season has warranted some attention…and this time for the RIGHT reasons.
The driver that many people seem to want to overlook is the defending race winner and today’s pole sitter, Ryan Briscoe. It was this race last year, that silenced his critics from earlier in the season and propelled him to a strong summer. In all of the hoopla involving Helio (who is starting last due to a qualifying crash) and Paul Tracy, everyone seems to forget that Briscoe has already won a race this season and sits third in points, only eight points behind Franchitti. Speaking of Franchitti, you can’t count out the Ganassi boys today either, as they are likely smarting from what could have been at Indy.
Whether today’s winner is Wheldon, Kanaan, perhaps even Marco or somebody entirely new…this is a track that can break the hold of the four red cars up front (although Franchitti’s is actually lime green this weekend). The fact that the entire field is running identical cars is of no consequence this weekend. It is who can navigate the 180-degree turns at each end of the track, while rolling out of the throttle effectively, that will determine who is hoisting the trophy at the end of this day. It should be a very interesting race.