Random Thoughts On Milwaukee
The Milwaukee IndyFest was a success on the track and on television. Ryan Hunter-Reay won an entertaining race that was pretty much dominated by Andretti Autosport all weekend. The team placed all four of their cars in the top-five starting spots with Marco Andretti on pole. Three of the top-five spots were occupied by Andretti cars save for Marco who experienced electrical problems after leading the first sixty-one laps. Marco would finish twentieth.
The only cars in the top-five that were not Andretti cars belonged to the Team Penske cars of Helio Castroneves and Will Power, who finished second and third respectively. With the win, Hunter-Reay moved into second place in the championship standings, only sixteen points behind Helio. Marco Andretti, who was the points leader after Indianapolis, now slides to third and is fifty points back. Takuma Sato is currently fourth after a seventh place finish on Saturday. Don’t look now, but Scott Dixon is quietly moving up the points ladder. He now sits in fifth on the strength of a solid sixth place finish – the best showing for Honda in Saturday’s race.
This race was typical of short track action. It doesn’t take long for the leaders to overtake backmarkers on a one-mile oval. To the dismay of those that want wheel-to-wheel action – there were only eight cars on the lead lap at the finish. On such a short track, there is something going on everywhere. Blink and you’ll miss something. Spend too much time following a battle in Turns One and Two, and you’ll miss action at the other end of the track.
Statistics show that six different drivers led this race, but realistically – it was between Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Takuma Sato. EJ Viso, Will Power and Justin Wilson can lay claim to having led a few laps, but the race was between the other three mentioned. Marco looked dominant early on, before being sidelined with electrical issues. Takuma Sato looked to have everything under control around the halfway point before his car became extremely loose and he had a “moment”. He recovered nicely from his near-shunt to finish seventh. That left Ryan Hunter-Reay, whose car looked as if it were from a different planet than the other tracks. He had the ability to put that car anywhere near the end of the race, which is the time that you want to find the sweet-spot of the car. To say that Andretti Autosport knows how to set up a car for Milwaukee is an understatement.
TV Coverage: Now this is how a race should be covered. Even with a couple of substitutes on hand, NBC Sports Network reminded everyone watching how it is done. With Wally Dallenbach away doing the TNT races for NASCAR, Milwaukee resident and F1 coverage regular David Hobbs filled in for Wally. If I had to find a negative it may be Hobbs. While he is great on the F1 telecasts, he seemed a little ill-prepared to speak fluently on IndyCar. Some of his comments were a little generic, meaning that they could have applied to any form of racing. I just had the impression he wasn’t quite up to speed with the rest of his colleagues regarding the IndyCar Series.
But if Hobbs was the weakest link, that tells you how strong the telecast was. Will Buxton was terrific, filling in for Marty Snider. In fact, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if Buxton was made Snider’s permanent replacement – he was that good. He and Robin Miller did a “Grid Run Times Two” prior to the race. It came off much better without the down time that features Robin huffing and puffing between rows on the grid. Kevin Lee and Jon Beekhuis did their usual outstanding jobs in the pits that we’ve come to expect from them.
The regulars in the booth, Leigh Diffey and Townsend Bell provided excitement and insight in a way that sounded genuine. You got the impression that they were extremely grateful to be there – unlike some other crews we’ve heard from recently. With the added enjoyment of having a qualifying show on Friday evening – all in all, it was an outstanding broadcast.
No Power outage: Will Power finally turned the corner and avoided bad luck for the entire weekend. No cars flew over the top of him. No mechanical gremlins bit him. There were no long pit stops and no one initiated a ten-car pileup by tagging him in the rear. Power didn’t win, but he did finish third for his first podium of the season. This breakthrough came at an unlikely place – a short oval, which is not necessarily his strong suit.
We almost witnessed him taking himself and his teammate out late in the race as he tried to nudge underneath Helio Castroneves, who was running second. That would not have been good and would have reeked of desperation on Power’s part. Fortunately, he didn’t try it again after Helio shut the door on him. He was mindful that his teammate needed the points to maintain the points lead. He’s also painfully aware that his championship hopes are all but done. Once the oval portion is done this summer until Fontana, there will be a string of tracks where Power will have a chance to win. It’s best that he realized where he was and he and Helio lived to fight another day…and race.
Championship mode: For the first time in his IndyCar career, Helio Castroneves might finally get his championship. He seemed happy with second because he knows how many points a high finish pays. Consistently finishing high in each race is what will earn Helio a championship. But it won’t be easy. Marco Andretti has fallen by the wayside, for now – but maybe not for long. Next week, the series returns to the site of one of his two IndyCar wins – Iowa Speedway. Not only has he won there, Marco has had several good runs at Iowa. Aside from his win there in 2011, Marco has two seconds and a third at Iowa. That’s not too shabby since the series only started racing there in 2007. Don’t expect Marco to remain fifty points behind Helio very long.
It was at Milwaukee last year that Ryan Hunter-Reay started his championship run. Milwaukee was the first of three straight victories for the popular American last season. He has now won two races this season and looks primed to battle Helio, or possibly his teammate, down to the wire. We say this every year at this time, but this is really shaping up to be an interesting championship fight.
All in all: This was a typical short track race. It didn’t feature the wheel-to-wheel excitement of what we used to see at Chicagoland or what we would normally see at Texas prior to this season. But it was another relatively clean race and there were many storylines to follow. Unlike Texas, The Milwaukee Mile puts a lot of responsibility in the driver’s hands instead of the engineers. That’s why you saw the best drivers, like Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Power, Sato, James Hinchcliffe and Dixon, rise to the top.
As I said at the beginning – this was a success on the track and on television. However, the ratings and attendance may say otherwise. The weather was pretty here and in most of the country on Saturday. I was outdoors and was really tempted to let the DVR catch the race and watch it Saturday night. Curiosity got the best of me and I ended up watching it live. But I’m a die-hard. As good as the telecast was, I’m afraid the ratings could be abysmal.
The stands did not look good either. For all of Michael Andretti’s efforts, the attendance was not great. It had rained earlier in the day at the track, and the forecast was not great. That probably affected the walk-up crowd. I would say that people need to get behind this race if they want this historic oval that always produces great racing to stay on the schedule. I would say that, but I won’t – because I have not dug into my pockets to support this race that is within a one-day drive for me. I always say I want to go to Milwaukee, but so far – I haven’t done it, so shame on me.
Michael Andretti has already said he would like to bring Milwaukee back if it can make more financial sense. In order for that to happen, they need more sponsorship and better attendance. Hopefully, he can come up with a way to make it happen. This race needs to be a permanent fixture on the IndyCar schedule.