WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- If you're an Indy car fan based in the Midwest, you need to make it to the Milwaukee Mile this weekend for the Milwaukee IndyFest (Saturday, 1:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
Milwaukee is Indy car racing's oldest market, with open-wheel races staged on the mile oval at the Wisconsin State Fair Park since 1903. But the past decade or so hasn't been kind to the sport at one of its most famous and historic venues.
The rancor and confusion of the open-wheel split, combined with a revolving door of race promoters at The Mile, has scared off the Milwaukee fan base to the point where barely 15,000 people showed up for the Izod IndyCar Series event in 2011. Milwaukee was left off the initial 2012 IndyCar calendar, but the event was given a reprieve when Michael Andretti and his Andretti Sports Marketing group stepped in to revive a race Andretti won five times as a driver.
"It's a historic track in a great city, and it's a place that has always been a favorite for my family," Andretti said. "More importantly, it's an ideal track for Indy cars and always produces exciting racing for the fans."
It's patently clear that after a decade of dwindling attendance, this is Milwaukee's last chance to remain part of the IndyCar Series schedule. So ASM is pulling out all the stops. Ticket prices have been slashed, with a two-day general admission ticket that includes grandstand access for Friday's practice and qualifying sessions going for just $29. Grandstand seats for the 225-lap race top out at $69.
Andretti is changing the character of the Milwaukee event too. Unlike in the past, when the infield of the track was used for spectator parking and tailgating, ASM has created a festival theme. Fans will find a midway featuring carnival rides, and there's also a postrace concert featuring 1990s favorite Smash Mouth.
One more key element in the transformation of the Milwaukee weekend is moving the IndyCar Series race to Saturday, with the start set for 12:30 local time. That's in reaction to the theory that the race's late Sunday afternoon start time for the past few years was a key factor that dissuaded fans from Chicago or even Indianapolis from attending.
"Our goal is to make this more than a race, by creating a festival environment with some unique fan interactions and experiences, a great concert and a celebration of the history of the Milwaukee Mile," said Kevin Healy, the marketing veteran hired by ASM to coordinate this weekend's event.
"When Michael asked if I would like to help bring IndyFest to the Milwaukee Mile, I jumped at the chance," Healy added. "Milwaukee is a great city and I've always thought the racing at the Milwaukee Mile is some of the most exciting on the IndyCar circuit."
Given what we've seen so far in the IndyCar Series in 2012, the Milwaukee race could be a barnburner. The new Dallara DW12 chassis may be an ugly duckling, but on the track it has generally performed like a graceful swan. Three of the five road races staged so far this year have been entertaining and competitive, and the aerodynamic package created by INDYCAR technical director Will Phillips for the two oval races run to date (Indianapolis and Texas) has worked as intended, with pack racing basically eliminated and drivers who are hooked up able to pass other cars.
"We put on some great shows this year, and we need to keep that buzz going," said Graham Rahal, who looked to have the Texas race under control until he brushed the wall with just over two laps remaining, handing the victory to Justin Wilson.
"I saw guys going forward like crazy one stint, then the next stint they were falling back like crazy, and I was one of them," he added. "That's phenomenal. That's the way it used to be and that's the way it should be."
Milwaukee is the first test for the 2012 short oval package, and good things are expected. The short oval package utilizes different front wings compared to the speedway configurations run so far, as well as an alternate rear wing configuration compared to Texas. A completely unique rear wing is run at Indianapolis.
In terms of difficulty, Milwaukee is near the top of the list. It's bumpy, it's low grip and it's normally hot and sticky. It requires a lot to win that race.
”-- Scott Dixon
"It will take a bit of tuning to go from our old setups to something that will work for this car, but I think it will be fine," observed Texas winner Wilson. "I've driven four different types of cars there, so I understand what to look for in the car on that track."
Drivers expect to be able to run flat out (or close) in qualifying, but race conditions will require them to lift for the turns. The race pace at Milwaukee is often very slow compared to qualifying speeds because drivers are almost constantly working their way through traffic in the confines of the 1-mile track.
"In terms of difficulty, Milwaukee is near the top of the list," said Scott Dixon, the 2009 winner at The Mile. "It's bumpy, it's low grip and it's normally hot and sticky. It requires a lot to win that race."
On several occasions, Milwaukee has brought out dominant performances from drivers. Ryan Hunter-Reay set a record by leading every lap in 2003, when the race distance was 250 laps.
"Milwaukee has such a rich history, and the track itself is so respected by all of the drivers because it's so difficult to get right," Hunter-Reay said. "That's what makes it one of my biggest wins."
Four-time IndyCar Series champion Dario Franchitti is the defending Milwaukee pole and race winner. The Scotsman also won at The Mile in 2004 and added second-place finishes in 2005 and 2010.
"It's such a handling circuit," Briscoe remarked. "Maybe a car that qualifies well is not going to be such a good race car.
"You need to be really smart, pick your moves and be patient," he added. "It's a really tough place and it can catch you out quickly."