The slow, steady recovery of once mighty IndyCar racing continued recently in Milwaukee, a one-time hotbed of racing that’s looking to get back on the map.
In years’ past, the first major IndyCar race on the annual calendar after the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend was held at The Milwaukee Mile oval tucked inside the Wisconsin State Fair grounds.
In the circuit’s glory days, the biggest names in the sport followed up their quest at the most famous race in the world with a shot at the shorter, tighter confines of The Mile. Legends like Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Rahal and others frequented the tracks to big grandstand crowds.
Then, the race and the sport itself fell on hard times. In the case of IndyCar racing, the wounds were largely self-inflicted. The big shots running the sport looked overseas to the development of F1 racing and realized the drivers were powerful and ready to take over the sport. To prevent any loss of influence, the sport’s stewards began throwing their wait around and squabbling amongst themselves and the drivers.
Meanwhile, NASCAR was growing more popular and powerful in the south. It was a matter of time before the best up and coming drivers went to stock cars. The result was the name value of IndyCar racing dipped. There were fewer greats like Emerson Fittapaldi, A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears in open wheel racing.
So, the Indianapolis 500 – once a sporting event on par with the World Series and Super Bowl – lost luster. The trickle down effect devastated the once-popular race at the Milwaukee Mile. The talent was less notable. Scheduling was inconsistent. Eventually, the race disappeared altogether.
Milwaukee’s city fathers were also to blame. A lack of vision and ambition somehow led the authorities around the track to forget they had a major racetrack in the middle of a city home to about 1 million potential fans.
Fortunately, the huge popularity of NASCAR spilled over to IndyCar just enough to give the sport some new momentum. Drivers like Dario Franchitti, Helio Castronevez and Marco Andretti gave fans some faces to follow.
So, another Andretti – Mario’s son, Michael – stepped forward to get racing back to the Mile. A five-time winner of the race himself, Andretti Racing established IndyFest this year – an outdoor summer party built around the return of the Milwaukee 200. Midway rides, hot dog stands and cotton candy vendors popped up at the fairgrounds – with the race scheduled to top off the event.
As if to present the resurrected 200 with one more obstacle, a heavy summer storm rolled over the track just as the green flag was ready to wave. About 90 minutes and several laps of jet dryers later, Milwaukee was racing again.
A good crowd filling all but the far corners of the grandstands watched pole sitter Franchitti take the early lead. As drivers took their green flag pitstops, the lead would change hands multiple times before American Ryan Hunter-Reay took the checkered flag. That was a stroke of poetic justice as Hunter-Reay runs for Andretti Racing. No, I don’t think the fix was in – for the record.
The big winner seems to be the IndyCar circuit and Milwaukee itself as Michael Andretti made a public promise following the race to bring the event back to the city next summer.