Random Thoughts On Milwaukee

A couple of weeks ago, I drew the ire of more than a few when I said this was a championship that no one seemed to want. Of course, I was exaggerating at the time. Why would a driver not want to win the championship? But at that time, no one was emerging as a clear-cut front-runner. That is no longer the case.

With only two races remaining, Will Power has separated himself from the pack with a dominating performance yesterday, while winning the ABC Supply Wisconsin 250.

The pack itself has gotten smaller, also. Although he is still mathematically alive, Ryan Hunter-Reay pretty much saw his championship chances dry up when he suffered a suspension/drive-train problem on Lap 168. Simon Pagenaud slid into third place in points, but sits ninety-two points behind Power. Helio Castroneves had a very forgettable weekend and is now thirty-nine points out of first. It’s possible that Pagenaud can still win, but a lot of bad things have to happen to Power and Helio Castroneves and Pagenaud has to probably win one of the two remaining races. It’s a tall order, but it is still possible.

As far as yesterday’s race goes, it entertained me, but I’m a die-hard. It was not the most scintillating race that I’ve seen. If I knew very little about racing, I’m not sure I would have watched from start to finish. It’s a strange phenomenon on the ovals this year. Except for Iowa, every oval race this season has gone beyond the halfway point before the first caution period.

Let me make this clear…I am not saying I enjoy crashes in racing. But long drawn out green-flag stints can get a little monotonous. The cars spread out and the situation does not induce a lot of passing. Not only is it tough on drivers to go with no breaks, the teams have more pressure on them to get a green-flag pit stop done properly. It’s also even a little tough on fans. At this year’s Indianapolis 500, when the first 150 laps were run caution-free; I never dared leave my seat to make a quick restroom run or to get a bite to eat. In the first half of yesterday’s race; I was afraid to run into the kitchen, for fear I may miss something.

Last year, I was chastised for claiming that the DW-12 must be way too easy to drive. I’m not saying that I could jump in and get one up to speed, but for these talented drivers – I still wonder how much of a challenge they are. Otherwise, I think we would have seen more than one caution yesterday, which was for a rookie brushing the Turn Four wall. Most of these drivers did not look like they had their hands full yesterday.

But that is not to take away from the performance of Will Power and Team Penske. They gave him a car that was far superior to the others and he drove it masterfully. Tony Kanaan and Juan Montoya gave him something to think about at various times of the race. Other than that, Power was never threatened.

From qualifying on the pole, to leading 229 laps including the one that mattered – Will Power completely dominated and showed everyone that he is serious about taking charge in this title hunt. He has come a long way from the driver that, at one time, was considered very vulnerable on ovals. I always felt like his win at Texas in 2011 should have an asterisk by it because it was really only half of a race. But he looked strong at Fontana last season and was outstanding yesterday as he won his first short oval. His resume is now looking more and more complete. A championship appears to be in his near future, which would leave only one gap in his growing legacy – a win in the Indianapolis 500.

TV Coverage: NBCSN may be a victim of their own success. Week in and week out, they do such an excellent job that it is now expected. When they first came on the scene, they were head-and-shoulders above what we had grown accustomed to over on ABC/ESPN. Now, when they maintain that excellence – it no longer seems extraordinary. That is even more the case now that ESPN has closed the gap by placing Allen Bestwick in the booth and trying to vastly improve their broadcasts.

That’s a long way of saying that NBCSN did it’s usual good job. There was nothing that I thought was outstanding or horrible. Maybe I should pop in a tape from 2005 and watch a Todd Harris IndyCar broadcast to make me appreciate how far the broadcasts have come.

The Crowd: For a few days leading up to the Milwaukee IndyFest, it sounded like there was going to be a massive increase from last year. Moving the race to mid-August meant that the race would follow on the heels of the Wisconsin State Fair, which ended last week.

I kept hearing how the weather was cooperating perfectly, the attractions and activities were bigger and better and that this was a resurgence in the making. It may have been, but for the life of me – I couldn’t tell that the stands held any more people than last year’s race. I may be wrong, but the stands looked fairly sparse to me. I know Andretti Sports Marketing has worked very hard to create an affordable family oriented festival-like atmosphere with the sole purpose of drawing more people to the track.

At some point, Michael Andretti will throw his hands up in the air and decide it’s no longer worth it. As it was with Pocono, which is two hours from New York City and Philadelphia – surely there are enough IndyCar fans in those markets to make the trek to Pocono. The Milwaukee Mile sits pretty close to downtown Milwaukee. If that can’t draw enough people – Chicago is a straight shot down I-94. I would guess that Indianapolis is only five hours away. The Midwest is the hotbed for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Why do so few in the Midwest show up for live races?

Next Year: Fortunately, it will be at least a year before Michael Andretti decides he’s had enough. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is reporting that the race and the event are already confirmed to return next season, again slotted in the mid-to-late August time period. That’s good for a lot of reasons. It allows the promoter (Andretti) more time to get more sponsors on board for next year. They can also take more time to examine what worked and what didn’t this year and perfect the entire event.

It also helps teams that are working on next year’s budgets and sponsorships to show potential sponsors what markets are already confirmed for next season, since the sanctioning body will probably not release next year’s schedule for quite a while, even though it used to come out before Labor Day every season. There’s nothing like a little limbo to help convince a sponsor to sign on.

Stability at Andretti Autosport: Although Ryan Hunter-Reay had a disastrous weekend on the track, it was announced yesterday morning that Hunter-Reay and primary sponsor DHL would be returning to Andretti Autosport through the 2017 season. It always promotes stability to have the defending Indianapolis 500 winner returning with the same team and colors the next year. Four times over the past decade, the defending 500 champion has not returned the next year with the same team for a variety of reasons. It’ll be good to see RHR in a yellow DHL car for at least three more seasons.

Joining Forces: Probably the biggest news coming out of Milwaukee was Saturday’s announcement that Ed Carpenter Racing and Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing would be joining forces to form a two-car team known as CFH Racing. This will be a win-win for all involved. SFHR co-owner Wink Hartman says that one-car teams are going the way of the dinosaur. He’s right. In this day and age, teams need at least two cars to gather and share data. The only question is whether they will run the Chevy engine that Ed Carpenter has been running for the past three years, or will they be going with the Honda that Sarah Fisher has been associated with since she started her own team in 2008. I’ve heard speculation either way that make good cases for both; but it’s just that – speculation. Stay tuned.

All in all: There were a lot of reasons to call yesterday’s race “boring”. There was only one yellow, which made the field get strung out. There were nine lead changes among only four drivers, with Power leading 229 of 250. That spells total domination, which spells low ratings.

But for a die-hard IndyCar fan, you had to marvel at the transformation that Will Power has undergone from Pocono to today. The brain-fades and wild-eyed stares have been replaced by a focus that is as determined as I’ve seen for a while. Will Power started the season strong, then wandered off into la-la land for a few months. But he is back and took a huge step this weekend towards earning his first championship and only the second for Team Penske in almost a decade. I don’t see him allowing any brain-fades to cloud his focus over the next two races. He seems to want it now.

George Phillips

30 Responses to “Random Thoughts On Milwaukee”

  1. Sorry to agree, but that was a boring event. I want ovals to be great for Indycar, but they’ve not been good lately. And that’s bad for Indycar. Maybe it’s a more horsepower, less downforce thing, I don’t know. But I think the oval product has to improve somehow.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    The “standard” Milwaukee race sees 2-4 cars that nail the set up, cover the field, and fight amongst themselves for the victory. Sometimes, like yesterday, you only get one. Combine that with all of one yellow flag and 9% attrition and you get a race that is not as exciting as it could be. A couple more yellows would have produced some interesting tire strategies (read passing) at least. Lest we forget, it was only last year that we saw quite an interesting race, with Takuma Sato’s charge from 15th to the lead and Hunter-Reay’s late surge.

    This is not to say that Indycar and/or the track itself couldn’t make changes to improve the show. I’m not smart enough to deal in the specifics, but I will say the thing that seems to make passing difficult at Milwaukee is that the fast line through the turns is in the middle, essentially a “blocking” line. There are usually too many marbles to pass high and not enough grip to pass low, given where cars typically take the turns.

    The merger of the one-car Carpenter and Fisher teams into a presumably two-car operation is very good news for both squads and for Carpenter and (hopefully) Newgarden from a competitive standpoint. Still, I think it would have been the preference of all involved for both teams to have added a second car on their own.

    • Good observation about the racing line Billy. That was not always the case, of course. I think it is mostly just due to the nature of today’s cars and the speeds. If anyone had ever told me back in the day that the average speed of a lap on that one mile track could be 169 mph I would have checked to see what they were smoking.

  3. Ok, this is from a man who has attended almost every race at the Millwaukee Mile since 1950. Some have been boring, some exciting, and most somewhat in between. Do fans today find it necessary that the series tweak this and tweak that so that every race, oval or not, comes down to a photo finish and is not, God forbid, BORING. Sheesh!

    Again, speaking as someone who has attended races at the Mile for six decades, the Andretti group does as fine a job of promoting that race as any promotor has ever done. They don’t need to fine tune anything IMHO. So while having put in that amount of effort and money must be disappointing to them, at some point fans, owners, bloggers, racing writers, sanctioning bodies, etc. need to come to the conclusion that perhaps 25,000 is what they need to expect for the reality of today’s racing market place. And then adjust their business plans and thinking accordingly. Disappointing? Certainly. What are the reasons for that? Who the hell knows?

    So much for that. Some observations from the track:

    Both Robin Miller and the ITT girls look skinnier in real life than on TV. I hope that comes across as a compliment.

    Hinchcliffe can ride his scooter at speed through a crowd of fans with an apple in his mouth, stop multiple times to sign autographs, and never lose the apple. The man is multi-talented.

    Johnny Rutherford apparently has discovered some kind of anti-aging deal. I’m hoping it is low-fat chocolate milk which is what I use.

    Curt Cavin is always workin’ it. He spent a lot of time hanging around the SFH garage. Maybe there was a scoop there.

    Will Power was good natured about having a bucket of ice water poured over his head. Some kind of “challenge” deal going viral. However, it was over in seconds leaving those of us watching wondering “Is that all there is?”

    Not nearly as many young girls in the crowd since Danica left.

    Only 364 days to go:(

    • Ron how was the infield? Just wondering if maybe that’s why the stands looked a little slim. Prices were spot on for three days of fun and had we not had to do a short track show here, we had all intentions of making the run over. Saw a lot of excitement about the race and the spectacle of IndyCar on social media by a younger crowd (Millennials) that didn’t seem to be just die-hard IndyCar fans like us. Hope that’s a good sign.

      • Thanks for asking. There were a lot of people in the infield. I don’t have Curt Cavin like skills to estimate the amount, but it seemed like a lot to me. I typically buy a ticket or tickets for the grandstand and seldom get there once the race starts. One thing that seldom gets mentioned is that when the new grandstands were built, the overhang was eliminated. So there is no shade anywhere except for a small area under the press box. There are also food and drink vendors open along the fairground side of the grandstands in addition to the ones in the stands and infield, so some fans are coming and going there. Verizon bought a full page ad today in the Milwaukee newspaper sports section thanking the fans. That was a pleasant surprise!

  4. I fell asleep twice watching the race. Ovals like Milwaukee are immensely better in person since there is stuff going on all over the track and you can pick the battles you watch. TV almost never shows a long shot of the whole track to give viewers the sense of how there’s crap happening everywhere, which is unfortunate. To be fair, conveying the “action everywhere” on TV is really difficult. I tend to agree with Ron, 25k may be the top end for an Indy oval. By all accounts you can’t blame promotion at Milwaukee for the crowd size. I understand tickets were reasonable (I’m thinking $25-ish range? Somebody correct me on that). They had a Ferris Wheel, for God’s sake. Street party before. Maybe if there were more races for the dollar than an 8-car Lights race and what seemed like a 90-min (I didn’t actually time it) IndyCar race, there would be more perceived value for the ticket dollar. Even though it will never happen in a zillion years, I tend to think an IndyCar Sat, NASCAR Sun double dip at venues would be good for both. It will be interesting to see TV viewership. The NASCAR race ran over the the first quarter of the IndyCar race. I think survival of Milwaukee (and all Indy ovals) depends upon finding a presenting sponsor far more than increased attendance.

    • Bill, one thing that has been lacking in Milwaukee has been coverage by local TV prior to the race. Dave Kallman does what he can in the print media, but on TV. Just about zip. Just one example: During the friday evening new on channel 4 (NBC), someone read off all the many things to do in the greater Milwaukee area over the weekend. Not one damn mention of the race! However, if you wanted to know what the Green Bay Packers had for lunch, lots of coverage of that. I wanted to throw something at the TV.

  5. Excellent analysis. I didn’t get to see the race but based on videos and other commentary you have it spot on. In particular I agree with you regarding the seeming ease of driving these cars. I’m convinced that they are over-aeroed and under- powered. Until we see cars that need to lift more and brake harder these “parades” are going to continue.

  6. I wonder why so many “IndyCar fans” up there chose not to go?

    • You could say the same thing about just about every other track on the circuit. Some choose to watch on TV. Other than that, 25,000 seems to be the fan base there now. Who are those “so many” that you speak of? I don’t think they exist and I live here.

      • Not just Milwaukee fans Ron. I am including Chicago fans as well as northern Indiana and Illinois. If there aren’t more than 18,000 who would want to be there then drop the venue.

        • They have already made that mistake once. Drop Milwaukee and really what is the point of the Indyracing league? This track is perfect for them.

          If they can’t succeed at Milwaukee, this league is terminal.

  7. Another sub-par Indycar strategy race. Not only a boring race, but Power’s dominance versus the collapse of his main rivals equals a potentially less exciting championship, which isn’t good. Indycar’s had a close championship every year since, well, I started watching, and this year we may lose that, unless Power has bad run at Sonoma. The lack of cautions on the ovals have been the main issue. Look at the 5 ovals so far: 2 good races, 3 poor ones. The three poor races (Texas/Pocono/Milwaukee) all had minimal cautions, where the two good races (Indy/Iowa) were filled with a greater number of cautions. I personally don’t like the faster wearing tires either. Though it can create an exciting finish with a late race caution (RE: Iowa) over the course of a race it just encourage the field to spread out.

    That said don’t think the issue is the DW-12 is too easy to drive. If anything it needs more downforce especially at Texas. Smarter people than I suggest that a larger field of 26-29 cars like we saw in 08 and 2011 would be a major improvement at a number of tracks. But it’s a bad series of races right now for fans of excitement. Mid Oho, Milwaukee, and baring a miracle Snorenoma all in a row. At least we end at Fontana, which should be a good race if there’s more than 1 caution flag. Otherwise expect to see 5 cars on the lead lap.

    People wonder why there aren’t more fans at Pocono and Milwaukee should also look at the fact those two races are not exactly the most exciting races on the schedule.

    Some people argue Will Power and Scott Dixon had perfect races the last two weeks, and perhaps that is true, but for fans they were perfectly boring, unless you’re a Power/Dixon fanboy. The only redeeming factor in either race was the potential for Newgarden to win, which didn’t pan out. Hopefully he’ll have better equipment next season and a breakout year. And, he could win at either of the next two races.

    • When you whine again about this race or that race being BORING while you sat on a couch watching on TV, what exactly were your expectations? Milwaukee is a track that rewards teams that are smart enough, skilled enough, or lucky enough to nail the setup. Will Power’s team and a few others did exactly that and received their just rewards. I seriously doubt if they care whether someone watching at home on TV thinks that is boring.
      Ask any current or retired IndyCar driver what their favorite track is and most of them will say Milwaukee. I appreciate that you take the time to follow racing and comment here. I guess I just think your expectations are sometimes a bit unrealistic.

  8. Carburetor Says:

    Not the most exciting race, but it did have its moments. I could probably make this same statement for every NASCAR race I’ve watched this year as well. I’m excited about the Carpenter-Fisher-Hartman merger, but found it quite interesting to hear that Newgarden had not signed his contract renewal offer and was deferring to the end of the season. David Hobbs and Townsend Bell both wondered about that, with Hobbs saying he would wait about 5 seconds before renewing. There seems to be a lot of talent in the wings that would like that seat…..

  9. I just…I don’t know what to do with the talk of these races being “boring”. I wasn’t “bored” for more than a handful of laps at any point during the race (though I don’t expect to be on the edge of my seat for every single second of every single race that I watch), but I also enjoy watching gaps grow and shrink, strategies develop and change, and watching the cars deal with changing tires by changing tactics and/or lines. I also don’t require lead changes to dictate whether I’ve been entertained or not (I’m fine with plenty of passing in the pack, which we saw quite a bit of, especially out of RHR, Montoya, Hawksworth and Josef), but it’s possible that this makes me Fringy McFringerson racing fan. I suppose my opinion can be completely taken or left, as far as that goes. Whatever the case, I enjoyed Milwaukee immensely, and I’ll leave that topic at that.

    As for the topic that I’ve found myself thinking about a lot lately, I don’t think that most of the current IndyCar events are in nearly the peril that many fans think they are. Let’s take Milwaukee, for instance. Yes, Michael Andretti made statements saying that he was disappointed in ticket sales. He’s allowed to be, he wants to make a ton of money, if at all possible. On the other hand, does this mean that he’s on the cusp of throwing in the towel on Milwaukee? By all accounts, he’s getting a sweetheart of a deal in the sanctioning fee department, and from places I’ve heard (probably Trackside With Cavin and Kevin, if I had to guess), he’s probably paying around $500k in sanctioning fee. For grins (and all numbers here are totally made up, mind you), let’s say he spends another $300k in operating and/or promoting the race (those Ferris wheels don’t come for free, after all). At this point, he’s in for $800k. Attendance on Sunday appeared to be somewhere in the 20-30,000 range (last year’s number was supposedly 28,000, and by all reputable accounts, this year’s crowd was up from that), but let’s go right in the middle and say it was 25,000 people. It the tickets sold averaged for $20 each (this would mean that for every $70 “best in the house seat”, a couple of 12-and-under kids got in for free, which is probably an overestimate of the free-to-paid ratio), that’s $500,000 in ticket sales. If Michael were able to score, let’s say, $100,000 from ABC Supply for title sponsorship, another $50,000 from DHL for Victory Lane sponsorship, another $50,000 from the sum total of the rest of the event sponsors, we’re now at $700,000 dollars in. If he manged to sell $100,000 worth of $8 beers, $5 bratwurst and $20 t-shirts, then he broke even. I’d bet that he managed that. Again, all numbers are made up, but I’d bet that I’m within a couple hundred thousand with each line item. So, no, Michael Andretti probably did not get rich over the weekend, but he probably did break even or slightly better while managing to put on an event that helps sustain IndyCar as a whole, which is how he makes the bulk of his money and where he draws his identity from. IndyCar gets a race, the fans get a good afternoon out of it (and I’ve yet to see a single negative word from anybody who actually attended), and everybody is happy. I think we can relax a bit here.

    • To what you, Ron, and George are saying, I guess for me the real issue is that so few races this season have come down to last lap passes or really close racing with a lot of lead changes. Overall the racing is better than it was pre-DW-12, but it has lacked close, lead change filled racing and that’s what I feel is a little disappointing. Especially since it feels like it’s been the same story after almost every (Indy, Houston, Iowa excepted) race.A person either enjoyed a strategy race with some admittedly good racing in the field, or were a bit disappointed with the lack of lead changes. In other words, if there had been a few more exciting races, I think a lot of us would be more sympathetic towards the idea that we saw something great at Mid Ohio or Milwaukee or Texas or Pocono, but since they’ve all been kind of dull, it just blends together.

    • How much does IndyCar pay you to be an apologist for mediocrity, you must be on the payroll.

  10. The race was an 1:45. Why would I plan a day around an event that is less than two hours? They need to make this 400 laps and people like me would buy a flight to Milwaukee and check it out.

    The race itself was far from boring. There was lots of side by side racing. The Power-Kanaan duels were very exciting. I don’t understand what people are watching? What isn’t boring to you guys?

  11. I love the trip up to Milwaukee. 2 of my sons make the trip, great town. Race was ok however as always, I am sure being there in person is always better than TV. Andretti does a great job of promoting. I did hear local radio advertisement in Milwaukee, but not much on Tv. Looking forward to 2015, we will be there again. The 5 Hr trip is just right and when you spend with family, what could be better.

  12. No, we didn’t have a last lap surge from anyone. Nobody had anything for Power this time. Was so sure Kanaan was going to pass him at least once or twice. So, Power had a chance to shine and he appeared to be so confident for the first time in ages. Now, will he win the championship or will the gremlins take over again this year? I honestly think he has this one in the bag, but maybe not until Fontana.

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