Michael Andretti: IndyCar hero
WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- Michael Andretti won five Indy car races at the Milwaukee Mile as a driver, and Ryan Hunter-Reay's triumph Saturday in the IndyFest 225 was Andretti's fourth in Milwaukee as a team owner.
But Andretti may have scored a more important victory by insuring Indy car racing's future in one of its most historic markets.
With Milwaukee left off the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series schedule, Andretti stepped up in March to serve as the event promoter. The grandstands weren't close to full, but the hastily organized event drew well enough to give Andretti the confidence to announce that he will bring Indy cars back to The Mile in 2013.
Andretti Sports Marketing is also coming to IndyCar's rescue by staging the upcoming Baltimore Grand Prix, another race in which promoter difficulties threatened the future of what was an extremely popular event last year in its inaugural running.
In short, no individual is investing more into Indy car racing than Michael Andretti, and everyone should be grateful for the effort and expenditure that one of the most successful drivers in the sport's history is putting in.
"My whole life is in this sport and I'm putting everything I can into IndyCar," Andretti said. "I'm the only one running cars in the ladder system [USF 2000, Star Mazda and Indy Lights], and I'm promoting these races. This is being done to help the sport, more than anything. It's been a headache for us to do it, but it's worth the headache because it means a lot to the series.
"It's the same with Baltimore. It's not one of those deals we're getting rich on. It's just something we feel we have to do for the series. I'm doing whatever I can."
It's obviously tough to be the son of a living legend like Mario Andretti, but more than ever Michael is making his mark as his own man. Mario never entertained thoughts of becoming a team owner, but Michael eased comfortably into the role when he bought into Team Green prior to the 2003 season.
Michael won 42 Indy car races as a driver, putting him third on the all-time list behind just his father (52 wins) and A.J. Foyt, the all-time leader with 67. Hunter-Reay's victory at Milwaukee was Michael's 40th exclusively as a team owner, putting him third behind Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi among active competitors.
Michael's initial investment in the ladder system was to field an Indy Lights car for his son, Marco, in 2005. But since then he has become one of the strongest proponents of IndyCar's development system and is one of the few team owners who is internally grooming talent for the future.
As a promoter, Michael Andretti isn't afraid to take chances or think outside the box. With his former partners Kevin Savoree and Kim Green, he turned the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg into a success story, and they also revived the Toronto Indy car race that was almost a casualty of the open-wheel split.
After splitting a couple years ago, Savoree Green Promotions continues to run the St. Pete and Toronto races, and it now has acquired the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Andretti Sports Marketing, meanwhile, is up to two events and is showing that it is willing to add more, for the good of the sport.
The Milwaukee weekend was given a thorough overhaul, with reduced ticket prices and an early Saturday afternoon start. The infield, once a haven for tailgaters, was converted into a carnival-like midway with a postrace concert.
"We're trying to do what we've done in the street races and make it more than just a race," Andretti said. "You've got to have something for the people to do, and not just for the kids. Adults like to party, which is why we thought of the Snakepit. We've got a concert and things like that.
"Starting Thursday, the buzz here really blew up and it started snowballing. We really hit it hard with advertising and it paid off. I think there's going to be people coming next year based on what they heard about this year. The biggest bummer was the rain delay because we lost exposure for our sponsors when we were switched off the network onto cable."
INDYCAR CEO Randy Bernard is impressed with the job Andretti is doing as a businessman.
"Michael and his team did a hell of a job promoting this," Bernard said. "The new layout has been fantastic, and I can't tell you how many people have stopped me to say what a great environment and experience this is. Great entertainment, great competition, and great value. A family of four can afford to come here and that's very important to our sport right now."
Right now, frankly, Bernard needs additional aggressive promoters like Andretti. The cancelation of IndyCar's inaugural venture into China has left a hole in the schedule and questions about whether the series needs to replace it with a 16th race to satisfy contractual obligations to series sponsor IZOD.
The most obvious choice would be to pair up with the American Le Mans Series at Road America on the open China weekend of Aug. 18-19. Significantly, Road America president George Bruggenthies was present at Milwaukee on Saturday despite the fact his track is hosting one of its biggest events of the season, the SCCA Chicago Region June Sprints, this weekend.
"I'm a big IndyCar fan," Bruggenthies quipped.
A quick poll in the IndyCar paddock confirmed that Road America would be the top choice for the 16th event. Bernard said that any negotiations with Bruggenthies were held off out of respect to the Milwaukee event.
"George and I did meet, but it was very important for me not to discuss anything before today because we didn't want any rumors out there that could hurt Milwaukee," Bernard said. "From the teams and the drivers and the fans, it's the number one choice right now, but we needed to give Milwaukee every opportunity to be successful.
"We have about five options right now, but I'm keeping them internal. Long term is more important than getting our 16th race, but I'm happy with the choices we have. There's a very high likelihood that we will add an event."
Even as the Milwaukee promoter, Andretti is one of those who would advocate a return to one of his favorite circuits. He said he sees the potential of an already-built-in audience there for the ALMS weekend as something important in terms of perception.
"I know a lot of people want to go to places where there are tons of stands, but I don't want to go to a place where there's nobody in them," Andretti said. "I don't think going to Road America would hurt this event, because in the past, we had two races and they would fill both places in the sport's heyday."
Andretti was one of the top stars during Indy car racing's heyday in the '80s and '90s, and it's encouraging that even with his driving days behind him, he remains a true star when the sport needs him the most.
His reward: a win-win scenario Saturday at Milwaukee.
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