Milwaukee Preview

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This weekend the Verizon IndyCar Series heads north to the historic Milwaukee Mile, America’s oldest race track.

For the second race in a row, the schedule maker has dealt a bad hand to those wanting to attend an IndyCar race. Two weeks ago, the tremendous race at Fontana was scheduled to run in the heat of the day in late June. As it turns out, the temperatures were only in the low nineties. But few locals opted to attend the race. That’s unfortunate because they missed a heckuva show.

This weekend, the race is scheduled as almost a one-day event. The IndyCars will not hit the track for practice until late Saturday afternoon. Then they will practice, qualify and race all in the same day on Sunday. The green flag does not wave until 5:30 pm Eastern time, 4:30 local time. That’s unfortunate for those that have to travel more than a couple of hours to attend the race. They have to either be dead tired at work the next day, stay the night in a hotel and take off Monday or stay home. Chances are, most will stay home. That’s why I say it’s unfortunate.

From what I have heard the last few years, Michael Andretti has done an outstanding job promoting this race. He has served as the promoter since it was revived in 2011 after a one-year hiatus. Michael understands the importance of this race, and for good reason. He has won more Indy car races (five) at Milwaukee than any living driver. Many living drivers won at Milwaukee four times, including AJ Foyt, Mario Andretti, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Tom Sneva, Gordon Johncock, and Johnny Rutherford. By winning seven times, only the great Rodger Ward conquered The Milwaukee Mile more times than Michael Andretti.

So it’s understandable why Michael Andretti wants to see races continue at this historic venue. But Michael Andretti is also an astute businessman. He knows that he cannot continue to throw good money after bad if no one is going to come to the track. Those that have been going to races at “The Mile” since the forties say that Andretti Sports Marketing has done the best job they’ve ever seen to try and lure fans to the famous track, yet they are not showing up.

Rumor has it that this could be the last year that Milwaukee is on the schedule, simply due to poor attendance. While that is certainly understandable, it is also a shame. Not only is this an historic venue, it currently provides exciting short-track style racing.

From the end of World War II through 2009, there was always at least one Indy car race each year at the Milwaukee Mile. Many years there were two and sometimes even three races per season. From 2004 to 2006, Milwaukee hosted races on both sides of “the split” before Champ Car left “The Mile” in 2007, one year before their final season prior to reunification.

Aside from the names listed above, other iconic drivers that have won at Milwaukee include Rex Mays, Ted Horn, Johnnie Parsons, Walt Faulkner, Tony Bettenhausen, Mike Nazaruk, Jack McGrath, Chuck Stevenson, Manny Ayulo, Pat Flaherty, Jimmy Bryan and Jim Rathmann.

Most years since 1949, Milwaukee was usually the next race on the schedule right after Indianapolis. Uncertainty of the event taking place in 1992, shoved it to the end of June. By the next year, it was back in its post-Indianapolis slot. CART, Champ Car or IndyCar raced in that spot on the calendar until 2010, when there was no race at “The Mile”. Since the race was reinstated in 2011, it has run in mid-to-late June, August and now July.

Fire has been a threat over the years at Milwaukee. AJ Foyt severely burned his hands in a practice crash at Milwaukee in 1966. Jim Hurtubise suffered his near fatal burns in a crash involving Foyt and Rodger Ward in 1964. It was during his recovery that doctors set his hands in permanent position to grip a steering wheel. Infamous driver Ed Elisian lost his life in a fiery crash at Milwaukee in 1959.

This is also the site of one of the more epic events in racing history – when AJ Foyt had to run his dirt car against the low-slung rear-engine Indy cars of the day. His own Lotus had experienced major problems in the shop and did not show up. Foyt had won in his dirt car at Springfield the day before, so he unloaded  the dirt car and proceeded to put it on the pole for the Tony Bettenhausen 200 at Milwaukee in August 1965. Foyt finished second, mainly due to the extra time to fill up a dirt car since it wasn’t designed for pit stops. The site of the upright dirt car leading the sleek Indy cars to the green flag is one that will live forever.

MilwPole

There are more recent memories as well. In 2008, when rumors were spreading that Ryan Briscoe was on the verge of losing his ride at Team Penske – Briscoe responded with a resounding win. 2007 saw the rear-wing of Helio Castroneves snap backwards on the front straightaway as he was leading, sending him head-on into the inside retaining wall. It was a scary moment, but Helio walked away. That was also the race where Dan Wheldon touched wheels with Danica Patrick, resulting in the now-famous scene in the pits where Danica shoved a smirking Wheldon.

Last year’s race was somewhat forgettable. Will Power won from the pole, leading 229 of the 250 laps. He held off Juan Montoya at the end and Tony Kanaan finished third. But last year’s race notwithstanding, the Milwaukee Mile usually puts on a great show.

I’m not sure what to expect Sunday. Although this is an oval, the series usually runs their high downforce setup – and that means that Honda is probably vulnerable. As we saw two weeks ago, Honda’s superspeedway configuration is very competitive with Chevy. Their high downforce setup generally reserved for road/street courses – not so much.

Two of my personal favorite drivers without fulltime rides will be in Sunday’s race. Pippa Mann returns for her fourth race for Dale Coyne this season. Pippa has been on all the ovals so far this year, but this is her first time in the larger IndyCar on a short oval. She ran short ovals in her Indy Lights days, but her last year in that series was in 2010 and her only start at Milwaukee was in 2009. Hopefully, she’ll do well on Sunday because she is also scheduled to be back in the car at Iowa next Saturday night. Justin Wilson returns to Andretti Autosport and will finish out the season with them. Here’s hoping they both do well on Sunday.

But they both drive Hondas and it will be a Chevy that will win this race. But it may not be a Penske car. Last year’s win for Team Penske was the exception at Milwaukee and not the norm. Since Team Penske started racing in the late sixties, they’ve accumulated only five wins at Milwaukee in more than forty-five years. It’s been an especially tough track for Helio Castroneves. After running second in 1998 for Tony Bettenhausen; Helio has scored only four top-ten finishes at Milwaukee and three of those have been since 2011.

Chip Ganassi Racing hasn’t burned up The Mile either. In their twenty-four years of existence, they’ve only scored four wins at Milwaukee – the most recent being Dario Franchitti in 2011. Andretti Autosport has had the most recent success. They have five wins at Milwaukee since Dario Franchitti won their first one in 2004.

So who is my pick for this race? None of the above. I’m going with a Chevy driver looking to turn his fortunes around for this season – Ed Carpenter. He’s due.

George Phillips

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17 Responses to “Milwaukee Preview”

  1. Brian McKay Says:

    George, I like almost everything you write and the way that you write it.
    Like saying losing Milwaukee’s track from the schedule would be understandable but lamentable – then resuming the ‘history lesson.’

    Third to vote again…
    I chose Ganassi Racing rather than Team Penske on a hunch, as Andretti Autosport is Honda-powered after Ganassi dumped Honda.
    Incidentally, I’m glad that Justin Wilson returns for five races!

  2. sejarzo Says:

    First time for Pippa in the DW12 on a short oval…but not her first time in an Indycar on a 1 mile. That was Loudon 2011, where she had the incident in practice and didn’t start the race. As if there wasn’t enough to forget about that infamous event, George?

    (OTOH we wouldn’t have the fond memories of TK knocking over a porta potti or Will’s double birds if not for that weekend.)

  3. What day and time are races supposed to be? The race is in a major city and should do well regardless of the start time. Sadly, demand for ovals apparently is a from a loud minority because the place will be another ghost town. If money isn’t being made, it is time to yank the cord.

    Power for the repeat.

    • sejarzo Says:

      Just curious…what’s the standard for “do well” at this point? It appears to me that the bar has dropped to “anything as long as the title sponsor doesn’t quit.”

    • Yeah, I have to agree with this, manik56. even though it’s late this race should still be able to draw a good local crowd. (and add in those who don’t mind staying over or driving at night.)

      If people don’t want to watch Indycar ovals in Wisconsin then it’s unfortunate but understandable that the race not continue.

      • Ron Ford Says:

        It is unlikely that any other commenters here can speak with more experience about the Milwaukee Mile than I can since I have attended all IndyCar races held there since 1949. I find your comment “If people don’t want to watch IndyCar ovals in Wisconsin……..” a bit dismissive. Wisconsinites DO want to watch IndyCar races at the Milwaukee Mile. So do folks from Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, and even a gentleman from Louisvillle. But you can’t expect fans to continue to support an event when they are continually jerked around by the series with different dates and times. Starting a race at 4:30 on a Sunday is beyond stupid! Other than the travel time issue, what if we get a rain shower at 4 PM. That is not unusual for a venue close to Lake Michigan. There would not be enough time for drying the track and getting the race in.

        Consider this: People can count on the Indy500 being on the same weekend each year. Do you think the crowd would remain as good as it is if the date was changed each year. What if it started at 4:30 PM?

        I will repeat this in my remarks below, but IMHO a crowd of 20,000 is the new normal for an oval race for a whole variety of reasons, many of which are unrelated to racing. So if 20,000 is the new normal, IndyCar has to build on that. You don’t build a tradition by changing the date each year.

  4. I am going to keep an eye on Brisco. He has Schmidt-Peterson going and he has won here.

  5. George, Among the things I like about your blogs is that they are better written than most articles by “professional” journalists today. Today though, you slipped and put in one of the mistakes I see often that drives this former newspaper editor crazy.
    You wrote – “(Michael Andretti) has won more Indy car races (five) at Milwaukee than any living driver.” As Michael is still living, that sentence requires the word “other” in it .
    “(Michael Andretti) has won more Indy car races (five) at Milwaukee than any OTHER living driver.”
    Other than that, nice job again.

    • Bruce B Says:

      seriously? I think we know what George meant. I just thoroughly appreciate his dedication and hard work on his blog. Unless, of course he asked to be publicly corrected. ; )

  6. billytheskink Says:

    The current Indycars are perhaps at their most impressive on short ovals. The speeds at which these cars tackle tracks like Iowa and Milwaukee are remarkable and I wish we had more tracks like them.

    Indycar vs. NASCAR – Most recent pole speeds (in MPH)

    Sonoma – 110.9 vs. 96.3 – Indycars are 15.2% faster
    Texas – 218.5 vs. 193.8 – 12.7% faster
    Fontana – 219.0 vs. 185.1 – 18.3% faster
    Indianapolis – 226.8 vs. 188.5 – 20.3% faster
    Iowa – 186.3 vs. 134.4* – 38.6% faster
    Milwaukee – 169.3 vs. 122.0* – 38.8% faster

    * Xfinity is the top NASCAR series to have run at these tracks

    I will be curious to see if the aerokits produce more downforce and possibly open up the half-line we’ve seen in the outside of the turns.

    I hope to see Milwaukee on the schedule for years to come, despite its current challenges (date, time AND weather it appears this weekend). In addition to its history and the fact that I enjoy the racing there, it is somewhat of a bellwether for the series’ ability to draw at permanent facilities. If Indycar can’t draw at Milwaukee, can they expect to at Phoenix, COTA, Michigan, or Road America? Probably not.

    • oryan_dunn Says:

      I don’t think you can compare Sonoma as NASCAR uses a different track configuration.

      • billytheskink Says:

        That’s a great point. Though I think that the comparison of average speeds is still interesting (though not direct), the configuration difference clearly needs to be noted.

        Given that the NASCAR configuration has fewer turns, the gap between the speeds would certainly grow if one series was raced on another’s layout. I would be curious to see how much.

  7. I am hoping to head up to the Mile Saturday and drive back Sunday night. The drive is going to be kind of brutal, but if this race disappears I am going to make sure I see it before it goes. Its difficult to believe this event is on life support. This venue is too historical to disappear off the schedule. It’s difficult to understand the reason for the struggling attendance. Why?

    1) Inconsistant Dates
    2)Loss of post Indy500 date on schedule
    3)Lack of promotion (outside of Milwaukee area)
    4)Oval attendance on he decline*

    *Why is this happening?

    It is the perfect track for IndyCars. The new aero kits should work well there.

  8. Ron Ford Says:

    As I stated somewhere above, IMHO I think that a crowd of perhaps 20,000 is the new normal for an oval race. Most of those 20,000 are the long time fans who are still kicking. IndyCar needs to accept that, adjust their business model accordingly, and then build on that 20,000. The fact that the Milwaukee Mile race date is jerked around each year and the fact that the starting time keeps getting later in the day to me reflects indifference and incompetance on the part of the series.

    The Indy500 has many wonderful traditions that have stood the test of time. One of those traditions is that the date is the same weekend each year. Fans can count on that and schedule the rest of their lives accordingly. Does anyone here seriously think that the Indy500 crowd would remain at the current level if the race date was different each year? How many would show up if the Indy500 were to start at 4:30?

    Starting new traditions at a track is not easy given all the entertainment options available these days. Ask a young person today about the tradition of having Jim Nabors sing “Back Home in Indiana”. “Who is Jim Nabors?” Moonlight on the Wabash? What’s a Wabash? In the photo above from 1965, look at how full the stands were. What was the TV coverage then? Was there an IndyCar app then? Could you mow your lawn and watch the race the next day on YouTube? The deal then, was that there was more urgency to actually being at the track.

    Pressdog said on Wednesday that IndyCar need to think beyond Indianapolis. They don’t.

    Last year I bought tickets for a neighbor and his young son, They really enjoyed the paddock experience and the race. They planned on going again this year. They will not. Why? Their family reunion is this weekend. Different race date.

    And then sometimes the devil is in the details. For as long as I can remember one could get race tickets at the State Fair Park box office on Greenfield Avenue AT THE TRACK. I prefer going there to pick up my tickets because I can have breakfast at the restaurant across the street that is favored by drivers, owners, and race writers.
    So I get to the box office at 9 AM to find that they are not selling race tickets AT THE TRACK. I had to drive 30 minutes south to the House of Harley which is serving as the IndyCar race box office this year. Well, who doesn’t like Harleys? I would not mind going there if I had known ahead of time that I could not get race tickets AT THE TRACK. When I called ahead to find out the hours of the box office, no one explained that they were not selling race tickets there.

    The only good thing that came of that experience is that as I was leaving the box office AT THE TRACK, A.J. Foyt was leaving the restaurant and crossing the street on his golf cart. I believe that A.J. Foyt could put his golf cart on the pole at the Mile.

    Enought bitching, time to get in a race day frame of mind.

  9. Yannick Says:

    I kind of wished you had mentioned Nigel Mansell’s triumph at the Milwaukee Mile in his debut season amongst the highlights of past IndyCar races at the track. It certainly is worth a mention.

    IndyCar definitely needs more short tracks on the schedule. I may not be an oval guy overall but I like watching short track racing. And that Mansell victory back in the day is a big reason for this.

    Also, Will Power’s performance at Milwaukee last year was so stunning because with it, he grabbed the IndyCar title with both hands. I thought that race was rather exciting.

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