It's a flat, non-descript chunk of concrete with dilapidated walls and fences that sits in the middle of a neighborhood in West Allis, Wis. There's nothing aesthetically impressive about it now, nor was there when it opened back in the 1930s. But, to anybody worth his salt as a racer, that old oval track known as the Milwaukee Mile is as appealing as it gets.
“Without a doubt, it's the best laid out racetrack in the whole USA,” raves Bobby Unser.
“It was the best mile to race on, unquestionably,” praises Mario Andretti.
“It was always real hard racing, but it was one of my favorites because you could pass on the outside,” reasons Johnny Rutherford.
“I loved that place. You had to get your car handling and you had to know how to work traffic,” says Michael Andretti.
“Milwaukee was all about being aggressive and that was my kind of place,” says Gordon Johncock.
“If you could get your car working a little better than the other guys, it made you look like superman,” reckons Tom Sneva.
“I wish we had three or four more tracks like Milwaukee,” says Tony Kanaan.
From the first race, won by Wilbur Shaw in 1933, to the last one, in 2009, which ended with Chip Ganassi Racing's Scott Dixon on top, State Fair Park is IndyCar's longest-running partner. It's the last bastion of short track madness and memories. And, after a one-year hiatus, it's back on the schedule.
“Within my first week on the job, I started hearing from our fans about how we needed to be back at Milwaukee so I'm happy we were able to oblige them,” says IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard of the return on June 19. “All I hear is good things about it.”
The magic of the Milwaukee Mile isn't big banking in the corners to help create passing, massive Jumbotron screens or fancy suites to entertain high rollers. It's simply that old slug of a track that promotes great racing and for a variety of reasons.
“First of all, it's the ideal shape,” says Unser (shown at right chasing Johnny Rutherford's Chaparral 2K with his Penske PC9 in 1980). “It's a true, true oval because it's flat and you are working all the time. In the old days, you had to use your brakes, pedal it hard in the center of the corner but get back on the throttle easy because those Offy engines were real strong. And those corners had a long radius so you really had to make your car handle.”
Which explains why chassis-savvy guys like Mario, Foyt, Sneva and Unser were four-time winners. But steer it and stab it stars like Johncock and Rutherford used their skill and bravado to score four victories while Paul Tracy combined a little bit of all that to make that elite list and Al Unser called on his smarts and speed to win four. The late Rodger Ward was the all-time Milwaukee master, though, with seven triumphs.
“You had to be able to drive a racecar, that's why I liked Milwaukee and Phoenix,” says Johncock, whose first of 25 career IndyCar wins were scored at the Mile in 1965. “There could be no hesitation at Milwaukee. You had to go for it – and not many guys backed into wins at that place.”
Rutherford, who drove roadsters, rear-engined cars (like the 1974 McLaren shown at left) and ground-effects cars during his three decades at Milwaukee, quickly caught on to the track's nuances because he had some good advice.
“My mentor was Herb Porter,” recalls Lone Star J.R., “and he helped Rodger Ward get some of his wins and he taught me how to run Milwaukee. He said you can't pass people following them so he wanted me to get out wide and clean off some room outside. I did a lot of outside passing at that place.”
The high line is where Michael Andretti lived for most of his five wins at State Fair Park and he was also a master of negotiating traffic.
“That's what made that track so much fun to drive,” he says, “anticipating when you would catch somebody and going inside or outside. It was definitely a driver's track.”
Nobody handled traffic – or the Milwaukee Mile – better than Sneva.
“It was flat enough and wide enough that you could run two wide through the corners,” says The Gas Man. “And, because it was a short track, you didn't need horsepower to do well.”
Those cold Wisconsin winters always left a nice bump between Turns 1 and 2 and that, too, was intrinsic to the character and demands of the Mile.
“To be honest, I was never in favor of paving Milwaukee because I enjoyed bouncing around and it gave you more to work on in terms of your chassis,” recalls Mario. “Dealing with the bump was part of the challenge.”
Rutherford also liked it bumpy, and points out: “You could miss that bump if you could diamond the corner because you would slide around the biggest part of the bump and then you'd be set up for Turn 2. It was down to technique.”
Some of IndyCar racing's endearing moments came at State Fair Park, where USAC staged two races a year – one the week after Indy and the other in August during the state fair. In 1963, an unknown named Jack Conley showed up with a homemade Dunn Engineering roadster and had to start way back in the Hooligan (a 20-lap race for non-qualifiers with the top two advancing to the main event). He charged from 16th to first, then spun out and went to the back. He stormed back to second and spun again – before mounting one more charge from last to second. In the main, he went from 20th to ninth before – what else? – spinning. He recovered to finally finish ninth.
Two months later, Jim Clark started on the pole in his Lotus-Ford and edged out Foyt and Dan Gurney for a win that would have many implications down the road. It was the first-ever win for a rear-engined IndyCar. In 1981, Mike Mosley started last (25th) yet lapped the field in Gurney's Eagle to score All American Racers' final open-wheel triumph (ABOVE, right). But easily the most memorable Milwaukee moment came in 1965. After winning on the dirt at Springfield on Saturday, Foyt turned up at State Fair Park on Sunday as a spectator since his rear-engined Lotus wasn't ready.
“I towed the dirt car there by myself and wasn't planning on running but then I couldn't stand sitting around so I decided to unload it,” recalls the all-time IndyCar winner. “I mounted some pavement tires and went out to qualify. I think I surprised a few people.”
Foyt turned the competition into disbelief and the packed grandstands into pandemonium by winning the pole position (shown at left) in his upright, front-engined Meskowski dirt car. Dan Gurney qualified second in a Lotus and Andretti lined up third – both in rear-engined machines. Foyt led several laps, made one pit stop to change a right-rear tire and finished second to Johncock's rear-engine Gerhardt.
“I damn near won that thing and I have to say that was one of best days of my career,” admitted Foyt. “I still like looking at that picture of me sitting way up in the air and all those little cars around me.”
As the cars became more sophisticated, the speeds climbed and it became possible to run wide open, as Patrick Carpentier did in 1998 when he averaged an astounding 185mph in setting the track record. Ward won for the seventh and final time in 1963 by averaging 100.585mph while Dixon covered 225 miles at 138.7mph two years ago.
“And I can assure you that Rodger Ward worked a helluva lot harder than the last cat who won here,” says Bobby Unser, “because Rodger would have been slipping and sliding all over the place. You couldn't win Milwaukee unless you were a good driver and I'm happy to see it back on the schedule, where it belongs.”
• For the full version of this feature article, plus much more, check out the July 2011 issue of RACER magazine. CLICK HERE to subscribe.