WEST ALLIS, Wis. (AP) — A rainy forecast gave way to a sunny afternoon for this year’s IndyCar race at the Milwaukee Mile.
Organizers hope for the same kind of forecast for the future of the historic oval track.
“Let’s look at the upside. It was a good crowd today,” driver Sebastien Bourdais said after winning Sunday’s 250-lap race. “I know everybody’s trying to make it work.”
What promoters needed going into this year’s race were more fans, at least enough of a healthy showing to help convince decision-makers that the Mile should remain a regular stop on the top U.S open-wheel circuit. While the stands, which have a capacity of 45,000, weren’t packed on Sunday, the infield areas appeared to have a decent crowd.
“Obviously the difference between the sporting side and the financial side is always very challenging. I understand everything. But (you’ve) got to be true to your fans and to your sport. It’s our roots,” Bourdais said.
The Mile, located on the state fairgrounds in an urban suburb, is considered the oldest operating motor speedway in the world. It has hosted at least one race every year since 1903, save for the World War II era. Bourdais is hoping his victory doesn’t turn into a historic footnote.
“Hopefully it all works out and we come back to race,” he said.
At this point, the outlook appears to be optimistic.
Andretti Sports Marketing is in the last year of a two-year deal to promote the race. Discussions about next year started well before drivers this past weekend were peppered with questions about the Mile’s future. IndyCar spokesman Mike Kitchel said this week that while many details still needed worked out with the promoter, the series hasn’t discussed a 2016 schedule option that does not include Milwaukee.
“We’re going to do what we can to see if we can continue to have Milwaukee on the schedule,” IndyCar CEO Mark Miles said earlier this month. “Again, that’s going to take some … sponsorship and it’s going to take” time.
Some drivers suggested that shuffling the race around on the calendar each year might affect attendance. In 2014, for instance, IndyCar stopped in Milwaukee in August, after the state fair.
This year, the race was moved up a month, and the weekend schedule was compacted to a 24-hour window. The first practice took place early Saturday evening, with the second practice session, qualifying and the race all held on Sunday.
It made for a somewhat hectic period for teams, especially if quick fixes were needed on cars before the race. But the condensed schedule also could have heightened interest for fans on a sunny Sunday afternoon who felt that might make a ticket a better buy. The race website listed the general admission ticket on Sunday at $30.
“To come out for one day and see everything, it’s a full day of IndyCar racing,” said driver Graham Rahal. The son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, the younger Rahal has a sense of history from spending days at tracks as a child.
“The weird thing is the crowd hasn’t been great the last couple years. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Rahal said before practice on Saturday. “When we don’t come and race here, we get an earful about it. When we do come and nobody shows up, I don’t get that.”
There is also a question pending about whether IndyCar will return to Road America, a track a little more than an hour’s drive north of Milwaukee in Elkhart Lake. The course hosted a Champ Car race in 2007, which was won by Bourdais. Road America does host a NASCAR Xfinity series race, which is in late August this year.
A track spokesman said this week that Road America and IndyCar remain in talks.
Road America would like to the series to return around its World Challenge event, which was held the weekend of June 26 this year, Miles has said. IndyCar stopped at Fontana that weekend this season.
But a Road America return doesn’t necessarily mean that Milwaukee gets booted from IndyCar’s schedule.
Miles has said he has been speaking with representatives for Road America and the Milwaukee race, and suggested the sides understand a collaboration could help build fan bases for both tracks.
Veteran driver Scott Dixon loves Road America. But whatever happens in Wisconsin, he wants IndyCar to keep a 50-50 split overall between ovals and road/street courses.
He’d like to keep coming to the Mile.
“What is it, the longest-standing oval in the world, I’m guessing? It’s cool,” Dixon said. “The thing about it is, despite the changes that most ovals have gone through for NASCAR and a different style of racing, this place has stayed the same.”
NOTE: IndyCar said that NBCSN’s telecast of the Milwaukee race was the network’s most-watched IndyCar race since Sept. 4, 2011, at Baltimore, with an average viewership of 532,000. That was up 66 percent over the 2014 race at the Mile. Viewership for the previous IndyCar race, at Fontana on June 27, was also up over last year.
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