Although IndyCar's race at the Milwaukee Mile was revived for 2011, a promotional bungling and poor turnout were two major reasons why Michael Andretti had no need to step up to save the Milwaukee Mile for 2012. But, in the interest of the series, and a sense of preserving history, he did – with his Andretti Sports Marketing arm of his evolving business.
Given a four-month period to change the mindset, Andretti had to transform the idea and concept of IndyCar racing at Milwaukee – not to mention, he couldn't lose focus on running his fleet of teams across IndyCar and three of the rungs on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder.
One of IndyCar racing's busiest men was rewarded on Saturday with a race event that far exceeded the 2011 running, and was organized in half the time. It didn't hurt that two of his drivers finished on the podium, either, with the most successful current American IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay back in victory lane.
“Unbelievable,” Andretti said after the race. “First of all, thank you, Milwaukee, for coming out and supporting it. I think we had a great crowd for the first shot out here. It's something to build on.”
They'll have the opportunity to build because signs were already up around the track advertising 2013 ticket sales, a move confirmed when Andretti announced the IndyFest will be back on the same weekend next year right before the race. Preparations went well and even an hour-and-a-half rain delay didn't dampen the crowd's spirits (see below).
“I think the last week, it was just unbelievable how smooth it was,” he explained. “There was not one hiccup anywhere, in operations or anything. Then also the whole week you're seeing the weather forecast at the time was looking really good. It was like, ‘I think we're going to pull it off, and it's going to be everything we planned on it to be.' That's what happened.”
Indeed, having been to Milwaukee as a fan in 2011, but returning to the track in a media member capacity in 2012, the difference in how the two years were organized was profound. While there were some good people involved with the organization and preparation of the 2011 race, ads were largely lacking and fan activities were isolated outside the heart of the paddock – well behind the front straight grandstand, rather than in the infield.
The infield in 2012 was another matter entirely. There was some confusion on Friday because grandstand admission was free, but infield access required a separate ticket. This changed on Saturday when all reserved grandstand tickets came with infield access included.
With a plethora of options, including a zip line, carnival atmosphere, IndyCar fan village, autograph sessions, and a concert stage – not to mention close proximity to the paddock if you opted to purchase a pass – the infield was packed when I passed through and observed the atmosphere Saturday morning. The fan village featured a seven-driver autograph session, Bryan Herta Autosport's usual race morning tweet-up, and “coffee with the champions” on the main stage featuring Dario Franchitti, Johnny Rutherford, Rick Mears and Roger Penske.
Then there was the small matter of when it rained, last year to this year. In 2011, morning showers weren't entirely to blame but were certainly a cause for a small walk-up crowd. The showers came in early enough to where if people last year were on the fence about going, they opted not to.
While the rain arrived about an hour before the race this year, the fans were already present and most of the fan activities had already taken place. There wasn't an incentive to leave because the race hadn't started yet.
Granted, there were some sarcastic jibes aimed at yours truly blaming me for the rain (it's a running joke on Twitter going back to when it rained Friday at Long Beach), but the rain eventually passed through and the track-drying process begun. The original start time of 12:30 local time was early enough to ensure even with the delay, there was enough time to get the full race distance in, and for those traveling from out of town, subsequent time to get home by Saturday evening.
Overall, the crowd was improved, certainly north of 20,000 and probably closer to 25,000 (RIGHT). Thanks must also go out to drivers Graham Rahal and Alex Tagliani, who organized one- and two-day bus tours for fans from Indianapolis.
As a former resident of Milwaukee and graduate of one of its universities (Marquette University last May), I think I can vouch for the nice, down-to-earth nature of the city's residents. That made it all the more disheartening to me when some members of the crowd cheered after Dario Franchitti's accident.
Forget the physics of the accident, and that it was slow enough to where Franchitti was unlikely to be injured (even though the car tipped slightly on its sidepod again at the point of impact in the wall), but this was one of the most tasteless, classless things I've heard at a racetrack. Especially in Milwaukee of all places, where the friendly people are renowned. Were the fans that decided to cheer somehow completely oblivious to all that IndyCar, and the racing world, went through at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last year?
The other elephant in the room throughout the weekend was the status of what might become IndyCar's 16th race later this year. Texas announced it had declined the opportunity on Friday, only a couple days after IndyCar declined an invitation to race at Las Vegas.
This being Wisconsin, the “drinking term” was Elkhart Lake and Road America – it came up sporadically throughout the weekend in various conversations either in the media center or with IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard. Bernard has declined official comment thus far, saying it was important for IndyCar to focus on Milwaukee first, and then worry about filling the vacant China race date at a later time.
From a practicality standpoint, slotting in Road America might seem a slam-dunk, given that the American Le Mans Series is already slated to race there on the Saturday of the same weekend that China would have been run – and that you'd be hard pressed to find a driver, team owner, media member or fan that wasn't salivating at the thought of IndyCar racing there. And there was the fact that Road America president and CEO George Bruggenthies was present at the Mile on race day, while another race was going on at his track (the SCCA June Sprints)...