Random Thoughts On Milwaukee
There is a good chance that yesterday’s race at the Milwaukee Mile may be the last IndyCar race there for the foreseeable future. If that’s the case, it went out in style. I’m not a racer, but the Milwaukee Mile appears to be the track that separates the men from the boys (or women from the girls). A one-mile flat-banked paperclip track with a car capable of doing 240 on a long straightaway is a tough assignment. This is old-school racing, where the job is taken out of the hands of the engineers and put back in the hands of the drivers. Yesterday did not disappoint.
For the first half of the race, it looked like Josef Newgarden was the class of the field. But this is a track where experience matters – not only with drivers, but teams. CFH Racing continued to lose spots for Newgarden on every pit stop. On the last two stops, Newgarden came out four positions and two positions respectively from when he pitted. That’s six spots he lost on two stops. Newgarden finished fifth. It makes you wonder where he would have finished had they just sent him out in the same position when he pitted.
It may be a moot point, however. I’m not sure anyone was going to catch eventual race winner, Sébastien Bourdais. The four-time Champ Car champion started eleventh and did not garner a lot of attention in the first couple of stints. I never considered him a threat in the first half of the race. But when he did not pit during a caution and assumed the lead, everyone started paying attention. He was on a different pit strategy from everyone else. When he finally pitted and then surged back into the lead after only sixteen laps, it became obvious how dialed in he was and that everyone else was probably battling for second – unless a yellow came out.
That yellow did come and it made the restart interesting for a few laps, but Bourdais pulled away from everyone – including Newgarden, who ultimately finished fifth.
It was an impressive drive, especially for someone who is not really known for their oval prowess. But it was one of many compelling stories throughout the day.
As impressive as Bourdais was yesterday, I didn’t think his drive was the most impressive. That honor belonged to Helio Castroneves, whose car inexplicably failed to be presented for qualifying before the deadline. Such a gaffe would be inexcusable for any team, but when it’s Team Penske that makes such a blunder – it’s mind-boggling. The result was that Helio was not allowed to qualify. Instead, he started dead last – in twenty-fourth place. He summarily worked his way up through the field. It took him all day, but he finished second and at one point, it looked as if he might catch Bourdais after the final restart. It was not to be. No one was catching the Frenchman from Le Mans yesterday. Still; to go from last to second on a day when everyone said passing was at a premium, was quite an impressive feat.
The race didn’t feature the five-wide side-by side racing we saw at Fontana, but this track doesn’t lend itself to that type racing. But it was an excellent race, and the cream eventually found its way to the top, displacing all of the pretenders along the way.
The crowd looked better than I was expecting. The top half of the main stands along the straightaway looked practically full, with some spillover into the lower half. I’m not good at measuring such things, but I’d probably put the crowd at around twenty thousand.
Is that enough to convince race promoter Michael Andretti to bring it back? Who knows? My heart says yes, but my mind says I don’t know.
I am hoping against hope that this race returns in 2016. I also would like to see a multi-year deal worked out where there was some continuity and we would not be having this discussion on an annual basis. If it does come back, the powers-that-be need to find a date and stick to it. Jumping around the calendar isn’t good for anyone. There’s a lot to be said about date equity. This event needs it in the worst way.
But that discussion is for another day. Yesterday was another good oval race – the second in a row. Seeing Bourdais seemingly come out of nowhere and run away with the race in the second half earned Bourdais a lot of respect in my eyes. He drove a race at Milwaukee that would make AJ Foyt or Parnelli Jones proud. That says a lot.
TV Coverage: Yesterday was not a shining moment for NBCSN. Let’s start with the audio. From just after the first pit stop to around Lap 175, the microphones of anyone talking kept dropping out about every three seconds, for about half a second – just enough to drive you crazy. Most of the time, you could figure out what was being said, but sometimes you couldn’t. It was quite nerve-wracking. It got so bad at one point that I considered muting the television and just watching. But I never did that.
What was so frustrating was that not all of the audio cut out. You could still hear the sounds of the cars. It was just all of the talking heads that kept going in and out sporadically.
It finally cleared up and had been fixed for about ten minutes, when Leigh Diffey finally acknowledged the problem and reassured us that they were working to fix it.
That was not the only problem. I think four voices in the same booth is too much – I don’t care who they belong to. While I really appreciate the Formula One trio of Diffey, Steve Matchett and David Hobbs – that chemistry doesn’t always carry over when adding other personalities into the mix. I thought Diffey, Matchett and Paul Tracy were excellent together two weeks ago at Fontana. But adding Townsend Bell to the mix and substituting Hobbs for Matchett didn’t work.
While Hobbs is great on the F1 broadcasts, he seems clearly out of his element for IndyCar. In short, Matchett does his homework and shows up clearly prepared to sit in the booth for an IndyCar race. Hobbs gives the impression all he has to do is show up, mumble a lot and let loose with a couple of one-liners. Hobbs also needs to figure out that Helio’s last name is pronounced with four syllables; Cas-tro-nev-es. He continues to pronounce it as Cas-tro-nevz. Hobbs never offered anything of substance yesterday. He just agreed with whatever someone else said and brought nothing to the table.
Hobbs lives in Milwaukee, so I guess they save travel money. But not having David Hobbs on the broadcast would clearly have been addition by subtraction. This was definitely a case of less is more.
Katie Hargitt was in only her second race as an IndyCar pit reporter. It showed. I like her personality, she majored in journalism and she has a racing background – so she is obviously qualified. But she needs to get past the jitters. Her in-race interview with Jimmy Vasser was an embarrassment. She’s young and needs experience. She obviously needs to learn on the job. I just hope she cuts her teeth for the rest of this season and can sound more like a seasoned pro by next season.
On the bright side – Paul Tracy and Townsend Bell seemed to have dropped most of their point/counterpoint banter that had grown old. They seemed more focused on explaining the nuances of the race than trying to present a comedy act.
Where is Ed? When CFH Racing was announced last year as a by-product of the merger between Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing, it was generally perceived as Ed Carpenter taking over Sarah Fisher’s team. While both were partners, I think the perception was that Ed would have the final say on matters.
As it turns out, Sarah Fisher’s side of the partnership is carrying the team. Josef Newgarden has two wins this season and had one of the fastest cars at Milwaukee yesterday. Ed, on the other hand, has been out to lunch in his four oval races this season. If not for Newgarden, I would blame it on the smaller engineering staff not able to come to grips with the aero kit package. But Newgarden has flourished while Carpenter has struggled.
To be fair, until yesterday – Newgarden had not been setting the ovals on fire either. His success has come on road courses. Yesterday’s setup was more like a high downforce road course instead of a high-speed oval. It’s the first time Carpenter has driven this configuration.
But why has Ed had such a tough time this season? With Luca Filippi testing at Iowa a week or so ago, I wonder if he’s being groomed for Ed to step out of the cockpit and into management full-time in the near future.
Bad Day: What started out as a promising day at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, quickly turned to disaster within just a few laps. With both cars starting in the Top-Five and Briscoe on the front row, things looked bright for SPM at Milwaukee. But Jakes had a blown engine that brought out the first caution on Lap 114. On the ensuing restart, Briscoe had the air taken from the front-end of the car coming out of Turn Three as the field was about to complete the first lap back under green. In the process, Briscoe collected Will Power as they both suffered their second DNF in as many races. In the process, Power dropped from second to fifth in the championship standings.
Good Day: Graham Rahal backed up his win at Fontana with an impressive third-place finish yesterday at Milwaukee. Rahal’s remarkable turnaround this season has continued and he has now moved into third in points. That’s even more impressive when you realize that Rahal finished eighteenth in points in 2013, and nineteenth in 2014 – finishing behind two drivers that didn’t start every race last season.
It has been speculated that Rahal’s pending nuptials in November with Courtney Force have had an influence on Rahal. Other’s say it’s a different driving style, while others credit Steak ‘n Shake as his good-luck charm. NBCSN even replayed Graham’s visit to a Voodoo shop in New Orleans where he supposedly warded off the bad karma that had been following him.
I think Curt Cavin’s theory comes closest to the truth. He says that it is due to the offseason hires that Bobby Rahal made to build a staff with chemistry to work with the younger Rahal. Whatever the case, Graham Rahal is earning a lot of respect throughout the paddock and with fans. Not only is he displaying rare driving ability, but his off-track demeanor has improved immensely with this improbable turnaround.
Milwaukee’s Future: As I said earlier, I have no way of knowing what the breakeven point is for Andretti Sports Marketing – the promoter for the Milwaukee IndyFest. Nor do I really have any idea what the actual size of yesterday’s crowd was. But I know this…it looked bigger than it has for the last couple of years, and that’s with the terrible late-afternoon start time.
Even if the Verizon IndyCar Series has to subsidize this one race, this race needs to be on the schedule. Milwaukee is in the DNA of IndyCar. To allow it to wither away is like allowing a loved one to perish by leaving them to sleep out in the rain every night and not doing whatever it takes to honor them and insure their survival. To allow Kentucky, Nashville and Houston to die is one thing. There were not decades upon decades of racing history at those tracks. But Milwaukee has roots dating back to the days of AAA and USAC, long before there was CART, Champ Car, the IRL and IndyCar. To allow it to slip away is criminal, in my opinion.
It would be like the NFL dropping the Chicago Bears or Major League Baseball no longer recognizing the New York Yankees. So much of the early days of those sports are tied to those respective teams. It’s the same with IndyCar and Milwaukee. Mark Miles needs to claw his way out of his bean-counting bunker and study the history of this sport. Let him cling to the bottom line on most items, but on Milwaukee – he needs to listen to the fans and drivers on this one.
All in all: This was typical short-track racing. It’s not always a thing of beauty, but it’s very entertaining. It’s more of a blue-collar form of racing. It gets back to the grass-roots of this sport.
Experience rules at tracks like these. That’s why the list of winners at Milwaukee contains very few obscure names. Legendary names like Foyt, Unser, Mears, Andretti, Rutherford and Johncock win at Milwaukee. Recently, it has been the names of Power, Franchitti, Hunter-Reay and Bourdais that have conquered The Mile. What’s the common denominator here? Each of those names belongs to an Indianapolis 500 and/or series champion. It’s rare that a driver will fluke into a win at Milwaukee.
This may or may not be the final Verizon IndyCar race at Milwaukee. If so, that’s too bad. I think that would be a mistake. But if it is, the grand old track went out with a good one. That’s the way it should always be.