Will Milwaukee Get Another Shot?

Within the last couple of weeks, David Malsher of Motorsport.com has written two excellent articles regarding The Milwaukee Mile. First, he wrote a fascinating and in-depth look in a piece where Rick Mears explained why Milwaukee was his favorite track. Then a few days later, we traditionalists were teased with this article quoting Roger Penske talking about how IndyCar is looking to add more ovals to future schedules.

For decades, The Milwaukee Mile was a staple of the IndyCar schedule, whether the sanctioning body was AAA, USAC, CART, Champ Car or the current version nof IndyCar. For many years, The Mile accounted for two stops per season – once in June (Rex Mays Classic), immediately following the Indianapolis 500 and again in mid-August (Tony Bettenhausen Classic). Donald Davidson says that the August race always served as a key indicator of how a driver would do at Indianapolis the following May.

The formation of CART eventually spelled the demise of the August race, but the June race always immediately followed the Indianapolis 500 like clockwork. That is, until 1992 when CART first ventured onto Belle Isle following the May Classic. As I recall, there was a question if Milwaukee would even be on the 1992 schedule. Even back then, relationships between the Wisconsin State Fair Board and race promoters were fractured. It wasn’t until Carl Haas took over as the race promoter that the race was slotted into the schedule in late June, after Belle Isle and Portland.

In 1993, Milwaukee was back in its traditional slot immediately following the Indianapolis 500. Throughout most of the years of The Split, the race at The Mile was always held just after the Indianapolis 500, even though CART stopped running in Indianapolis beginning in 1996. They knew date equity for that race was that important.

Beginning in 2004, Milwaukee hosted two open-wheel races per season – Champ Car’s traditional date after Indianapolis and a second race later in the summer for the IndyCar Series. That all changed in 2007, the final year for Champ Car, when Milwaukee fell off of the Champ Car schedule and IndyCar assumed the post-Indianapolis slot. One year later, the two series re-united.

But the IndyCar world was not thriving in America’s Dairyland. Road America, just up the road from Milwaukee in Elkhart Lake, had fallen victim to reunification in 2008. Two years later, The Milwaukee Mile was missing from the 2010 IndyCar schedule. Although Milwaukee returned just one year later, it had lost its slot on the schedule to Texas.

After decades of always counting on being the next race after Indianapolis, Milwaukee bounced around the calendar. One year, it was held on Father’s Day, which limited attendance. Another year, it ran in August. The next year found Milwaukee in mid-July. Not surprising, new promoter Michael Andretti gave up on trying to turn around sagging attendance at The Mile. There has not been an IndyCar race there since July of 2015.

Maybe not-so-coincidentally, the next year Road America reappeared on the IndyCar schedule for the first time since Champ Car ran there in 2007. The response was tremendous and it has become a favorite stop on the schedule among drivers and fans.

The debate has been that the upper Midwest cannot support two races at tracks so near to each other. Ideas have been tossed about to alternate going to one or the other in different years. I don’t like that idea at all. I think that’s a recipe for killing both tracks. Others point out that for twenty years, both tracks were on the CART/Champ Car schedules. Their detractors say you cannot compare those eras. Motorsports has declined in popularity in recent years for various reasons that I won’t go into here.

Keep in mind, the Wisconsin Fair Board has a well-earned reputation for being tough to deal with. They own the track and there has been a fair amount of sentiment with them to demolish the historic track. Michael Andretti poured a lot of resources into trying to resuscitate IndyCar racing work at the mile for the few years he promoted it, but with concerts, family zones and an overall festival vibe – he was not able to be successful.

But I think Roger Penske, Mark Miles and Penske Entertainment stumbled onto something, when they got together with Hy-Vee to promote a double-header weekend at Iowa this past season, after that track had fallen of of the 2021 schedule. If IndyCar and Hy-Vee can work together to bring weekend crowds to Newton, Iowa, surely a corporate partner can be found in the Milwaukee area to bring a sizeable crowd to The Milwaukee Mile.

The Miller Brewing Company comes to mind. For years, Miller was the corporate sponsor for the IndyCar race at Milwaukee. That was in the days when Miller was owned by parent-company Philip Morris. Since then, the Milwaukee-based brewer has undergone a few ownership changes; but has been owned by Molson Coors since 2016. Molson was, at one time, a strong Canadian partner to IndyCar, but they have gone through a few ownership transaction since those days too. Miller was a strong sponsor for Team Penske and later for Team Rahal over about a fifteen-year span. It would be great to get a major brewer involved in the series again – even though regular Budweiser is my preferred brand.

Not being familiar with the business landscape in Milwaukee, I’m not sure what other major companies have local ties to the area – but I’l bet there are several. How many folks knew that Nashville served as the North American Corporate Headquarters for Bridgestone/Firestone, Nissan and Dollar General? I’m sure Milwaukee has similar worldwide companies that call southern Wisconsin home.

Although I’ve never been a fan of IndyCar double-headers, perhaps that is the way to go with ovals that struggle with attendance. Promoters have tried for years to entice fans with concerts featuring B-lister performers, with little success. Personally, I never thought a race track needed a concert to make people attend a race, but then again – most people aren’t die-hard racing fans, like you and I are. But local artists or has-beens have not been very successful at bringing people to the track.

Hy-Vee went a different route. They brought in four A-listers for the weekend, two for Saturday and two for Sunday. They also got very creative in their promotional efforts – like converting a shipping container into a miniature Hy-Vee grocery store for the weekend. They invested in temporary suites and made the race weekend a major destination for race fans, hardcore and casual. Maybe those efforts in rural Iowa could be replicated in a large metropolitan area like Milwaukee.

Would we travel from Nashville to an IndyCar race at The Milwaukee Mile? To be honest, I’m not sure. It would depend on how close the date is to one of our favorite annual destinations – Road America. We would not want to give up that weekend, but I’m not sure we would want to make two trips all the way up to Wisconsin from here, unless they were spaced apart. With Wisconsin, you have a fairly tight window of summer months you can work with. It would be risky to plan a Wisconsin race for April or October. It can be fairly chilly up there in those months. May and September aren’t real balmy either.

We have been to The Milwaukee Mile, but not on a race weekend. Coming back from one of our Road America trips, I wanted to check out the track. We, of course, had to do an obligatory selfie while we were there.



I was pleasantly surprised at the track and the surrounding neighborhood. Given the age of the track and the fact that it was on the Fairgrounds, I expected a rundown facility in the middle of a tired worn fairgrounds in an old blue-collar neighborhood. This pre-conceived notion came from our local Fairgrounds Speedway, an historic track situated on the tired property of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. Instead, the Wisconsin State Fair Park is a vibrant and fresh property, with seemingly brand new buildings on it. The stands and track facility all have a new contemporary feel also.

We’ve already been tipped that the 2024 schedule will look a lot different that the 2023 schedule that had very few changes. My hope is that the 2024 schedule will see the NTT IndyCar Series returning with a double-header weekend, with a similar vibe to what we saw in Iowa this past summer. Eventually, the traditionalist in me would prefer to see the weekend immediately follow the Indianapolis 500, but that may take a while.

We don’t yet know that the Iowa model can sustain the success we saw this past season. Even if Iowa does sustain it for several years, there’s no guarantee that Milwaukee could replicate the success for even one weekend. But since we aren’t talking about my money here, I think it’s worth a try.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “Will Milwaukee Get Another Shot?”

  1. We’re looking for another trip across for ’24 and this looks like it could be a contender…

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Beyond the smoke we’ve seen reported on it, Milwaukee would seem to be the obvious candidate for an Iowa-like revival event promoted by Penske’s group. Non-NASCAR ownership, used to working with outside promoters, traditional, large metropolitan area.

    Unless its a dealbreaker for Road America, it definitely seems worth a shot.

  3. If your looking to fill the stands and create new fans rapidly then south of the border is the solution. Build a new state of the art racing facility in Monterrey Mexico. The Milwaukee Mile best days of open wheel racing have already taken place years ago. Let the old sleeping dog rest and let Milwaukee fad away into the highlight films and history books. If the series is still chasing has been tracks in small markets then its doomed to transform into pay-per view club racing. The series needs a head to toe make over, not a new pair of shoes and a belt that tie in decent with the old style wore out clothes of marketing the series. The drive from Indianapolis to Monterrey is a shorter drive than the west coast race events from Indianapolis. Forget about Milwaukee, move forward not backwards

  4. I attended the most recent 3 races at Milwaukee before it came off the schedule. The racing product is really fantastic. Flat ovals make for some seriously entertaining driving/racing situations. It could (and should) be a very enjoyable venue again, provided the success would avoid all current land mines of dates.

    Fully agree that most weekends of April (Texas, Long Beach, Barber) and all of May are out as is the first week of June (Detroit). Beyond that, the calendar still has a few ‘600lb. gorillas’ which I think rightfully preclude those dates from being considered by Indycar:

    1. 2nd weekend of June – RA – Sonsio Grand Prix is now an established and popular venue on the circuit again. To mess with this date would be once again to violently insert lead into one’s own metatarsals.
    2. Milwaukee Summerfest (music festival, plus) dominates the metro area with three long-established weekends in the heart of summer – Last two weekends of June, first weekend of July (Mid-Ohio)
    3. Wisconsin State Fair – Aug 3-13 – First week of August with both weekends on either end and its nightly concert series uses the track/seating/infield for staging.

    What’s left?

    – 2nd wkend of July (between Mid-Ohio and Toronto),
    – 5th wkend July (staging/set-up for the fair starting two days after)
    – 3rd wkend August (formerly Gateway, which now in the 4th August wkend)

    September is Portland and the season finale at Laguna Seca.

    Overall a tough ask and right up against other already popular entertainment options. The fair has 1mil+ visitors over 10 days. Seems a chance for some mutual success there if entities were able and willing to work together.

  5. thanks for blogging

  6. Flat short ovals like Milwaukee are the kind of tracks that provide the best kind of racing for this series because it’s just fascinating to watch how these drivers work in traffic all the time, no matter if they are on the lead lap or somewhere down.

    I guess we will see how the replacement of Belle Isle works as an event and then, there may or may not be an opening in the calendar for Milwaukee’s traditional date.

    When TMS was moved to April this year, I was worried that the new administration of the series had taken up the habit of the old administration to drive events out of the series by discontinuing date equity, like it has happened many times before since the late 00s. But TMS is back so there is hope that new events will get the important date equity as well.

    However, given Patricio O’Ward’s current amount of success, adding a Mexico City event would be somewhat more urgent than adding the Milwaukee Mile now.

    Personally, in addition to these two, I think it would be nice to have COTA back, too. That was a great race with no track limits, a bit reminiscent of the old Burke Lakefront Airport in places.

    Who knows what will happen with the road course out West where the series will test next season? Hopefully something better than that partial rainout of a race that was NOLA.

    Also, is Charlotte really impossible at this point?
    Unfortunately, Sparta Kentucky Speedway is, the truck park it has become.

    Given the McLaren connection of AMSP and the Liberty Media connection of Meyer-Shank Racing, would be joining the Las Vegas event as a support race after F1 qualifying on Saturday an option?

    The schedule could use a few more good events, and I guess every good event that works well is welcome. We will watch this space on how that develops.

  7. “Also, is Charlotte really impossible at this point?”


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