The old saying, famously articulated by the late, great Paul Newman, in 1969's Winning was: “We always go to Milwaukee after Indy.” Well, indeed, the IZOD IndyCar Series will be back in Milwaukee at least once more for 2012 – but with a three-week gap in-between the classic, historic Milwaukee Mile and the 96th running of the Indianapolis 500.
ONE MORE CHANCE, AT LEAST – The saga of Milwaukee and IndyCar being together is not a new one – in fact, 2012 marks a decade since the last year of the old grandstands at the West Allis circuit at the Wisconsin State Fair Park, before the new ones were erected in 2003. In that time, the track and race itself have been through almost as many promoters as the series itself has had CEOs, presidents, and leaders – with Michael Andretti and Andretti Sports Marketing the latest to answer the call.
In fact, 2012 marks the third straight Milwaukee IndyCar race with a different promoter. It was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, among other outlets, that Wisconsin Motorsports LLC, promoters of the 2009 race, did not pay either IndyCar or NASCAR in full their 2009 sanctioning fees – some outstanding costs were left on the table, and NASCAR's Nationwide and Truck Series never returned. The race was left off the IndyCar schedule for 2010.
With the interest in reviving a race that still featured a mostly packed house in 2009 (in large part, thanks to promotional/free tickets bestowed by Marlboro, a program that ended once the official title sponsorship and Chevrons on the Team Penske cars did, at the end of that year), IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard made Milwaukee's return the big selling point for 2011 when he announced the 2011 schedule – at Milwaukee – in September 2010.
Unfortunately – and this has been one of Bernard's few missteps since taking over the job – but the promoter picked last year (Avocado) was a major flop. A lack of the obvious promotion, along with last-minute ticket deals aimed at trying to bring in fans, failed. The race also had no title sponsor, and that was a big hit in the wallet. The weather also failed to cooperate, as morning rain showers contributed in part to a small number of walk-up ticket buyers. There might have been 15,000 fans last year, and I'd say the main grandstand was less than filled halfway.
Having lived in Milwaukee the last four years prior to moving to our RACER offices in California, and covering the situation both as a reporter and going to the race as a fan last year, I'm still a bit surprised the race has been resuscitated, at least for 2012. The track has been a political football and a financial black hole for the most part.
With that said, ASM's attempt at this challenge appears to be far exceeding the performances of prior promoters. To me, it's a smart move up front to brand the event as “IndyFest,” with trying to bring the elements of a street race to an oval, on a track that needs no spicing up for on-track action. Providing more bang for the buck for the fans, and implementing elements such as a Zip Line, a Snake Pit and a post-race concert by Smash Mouth should help create more value. The race date shift from Sunday (Father's Day) to Saturday should also attract more potential ticket-buyers.
It's not like the drivers aren't trying to save the event, either. Graham Rahal and Alex Tagliani have organized bus rides, where fans from Indianapolis can come up to the race. Here's hoping and praying this promoter and this race sticks.
HELIO'S HOUSE OF HORRORS – For whatever reason, Helio Castroneves and Milwaukee have never gotten along. His rookie year in IndyCar, 1998 driving for the late Tony Bettenhausen, Castroneves finished second – and he's never finished that well again at the Mile.
Despite three poles, including his first of his career driving for the late Carl Hogan a year later in a geriatric Lola-Mercedes Benz package (a stellar run, LEFT), Castroneves has only a fifth and ninth on his scorecard to match the second in 11 prior Milwaukee starts. Several times he's crashed out, and the weirdest moment had to have been in 2007, when he dominated but suffered a rear wing failure late in the going off Turn 4 and he spun out of the race.
By contrast, Milwaukee's been kind to his Team Penske teammate Ryan Briscoe since he joined the team. In what's become an adopted home race for the Australian, Briscoe won his first career race – and Roger Penske's 300th across all disciplines of motorsport – in 2008. A year later he finished second and last year, he was an unrepresentative 11th.
MILE SUCCESS FOR A FEW – Briscoe is one of five prior Milwaukee winners in the field, along with Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, KV's Tony Kanaan and Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay. One driver who also has had her best career run in Milwaukee is Katherine Legge – the Dragon Racing driver led laps on merit in her oval debut in the 2006 Champ Car race at the track, and finished a career-best sixth.
Hunter-Reay seeks a bounceback after spinning out on the first lap of last year's race. He had switched liveries with then-teammate Mike Conway, where “RHR” adopted a GoDaddy paint scheme for one race while Conway's car was adorned in the usual “RHR” DHL and SunDrop yellow and white. Back in his normal guise this year, Hunter-Reay also needs a result after three straight mechanical failures to finish.
OTHER TIDBITS – The engine change situation will jumble things a bit, as six drivers enter this race facing a 10-spot grid penalty. The top two in points, with championship leader Will Power and 2009 Milwaukee winner Scott Dixon among the bunch. The others: Texas winner Justin Wilson, Mike Conway, Takuma Sato and rookie Josef Newgarden.
Of the rookies, only Simon Pagenaud and Rubens Barrichello will be making their first ever Milwaukee starts. Legge has her 2006 Champ Car start and Newgarden has last year's Firestone Indy Lights race in the books.
Marco Andretti is seven races into the season, and still has yet to record his first top-10 finish this year. Andretti won his first and thus far only career pole at Milwaukee in 2008, and while he no doubt wants to win, he desperately needs a result of sort. He's in a four-way tie for 16th in points heading in (Barrichello, Conway, E.J. Viso).
With handling and drivers figuring into the equation last race at Texas, expect more of the same in terms of passing this week at Milwaukee. While Franchitti won from pole last year, the next five finishers down to sixth-placed James Hinchcliffe qualified 12th, 10th, 17th, 15th and 16th respectively.
The Milwaukee IndyFest airs live at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, Saturday, June 16 on ABC.