IndyCar: An important weekend for title chase, ovals at Milwaukee IndyFest

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Traditionally a staple on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar in June, the Milwaukee weekend now shifts to August in 2014, which is crucial on several fronts.

From an event standpoint, Milwaukee is the fifth of six oval races this season. While the Indianapolis 500 is and will always be both IndyCar’s biggest and marquee race from an attendance and interest standpoint, the other oval races this year at Texas, Pocono and Iowa have come under fire for perceived lack of attendance.

“It’s hard to compare a Milwaukee or Pocono to St. Petersburg or Long Beach; they’re different environments,” says Ed Carpenter, owner/driver of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. “They have done a really good job at Milwaukee. Sometimes the perception of attendance is one event – street courses feel busier than what they are compared to a Pocono or Iowa, good example, or Texas as well.

“The actual attendance you see at Texas or Iowa isn’t all that different… but like St. Pete, Detroit, there’s more going on at the race. It feels more crowded at Detroit because of confined space. It looks more different than what they are. For ovals it’s a different type of excitement; and there is always going to be more passing.”

It’s an important event for IndyCar to look big – Andretti Sports Marketing has more or less “thrown the kitchen sink” at this event for the last three years, although there’s still something of a mystery as to how well it gets through to the locals.

The upside is that this year’s race comes following the Wisconsin State Fair. A record number of patrons passed through the gates there, and a fair number should have been exposed to IndyFest signage and appearances. Drivers have been in the state for appearances and promotions on-and-off since March. Radio ads and billboards have made the rounds; a good Sunday forecast should encourage a good walk-up number.

But the look will be important, because although Milwaukee is overflowing with history and praise from most in the IndyCar paddock, it needs to work business-wise to ensure its long-term survival. For that, I say, if you’re near the area and claim to be an IndyCar oval fan, you need to put your money where your mouth is, show up, and pack the joint. Here’s a rundown of the events occurring this weekend.

From the series standpoint, the championship now enters its final stretch of three races, in three weekends, on three completely different types of circuits.

The ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) is on the legendary, historic one-mile Milwaukee Mile oval. Then it shifts to the flowing road course of Sonoma next week, and the two-mile, bumpy Auto Club Speedway in Fontana the following week.

This is more or less the week Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud, 63 and 64 points behind points leader Will Power (and his Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, who lost the lead at Mid-Ohio) need to make headway and get to within roughly the 30-40 point ballpark of the top two.

There’s 200 available points, plus bonus points, for the final three races with Fontana a double-points race. Hunter-Reay, who’s won the last two Milwaukee races and three in total, has his first ever shot at a race three-peat this weekend.

In his 2012 title-winning season, Hunter-Reay kicked off a string of three wins during the season at Milwaukee, which began his championship charge. Wins at Iowa and Toronto added to it.

None of the other three other than “RHR” have won here. Castroneves, in particular, has had a snakebit history at this track. Past Milwaukee winners Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon have a mathematical, if less realistic shot at the title but could well play themselves into it with another big week themselves. Neither “JPM” nor “Dixie” has anything to lose.

Then there are the spoilers. Any of 13 drivers have the chance to become IndyCar’s 11th different winner this season, which would tie a record set in the 2000 and 2001 CART seasons.

From that baker’s dozen, Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe are the two I’m watching closely this weekend. Kanaan’s been fast, leading and unlucky on ovals; Hinchcliffe has traditionally run well at Milwaukee.

Marco Andretti and Josef Newgarden would also be popular winners – Andretti for the name and the fact it’s his father, Michael’s, organization promoting the event, and Newgarden after his Mid-Ohio near miss.

But whoever wins Sunday will have mastered the combination of pace, patience, balance, setup and traffic.

And so long as there’s a good number of folks in the stands here to see it – so it looks like the historic and major event it can be, and to enhance the NBCSN TV coverage – that’ll be a good day at the office for both INDYCAR and Andretti Sports Marketing.

Dodge to celebrate 50th anniversary of Hemi motor at NHRA U.S. Nationals

Photo courtesy Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
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When this year’s NHRA U.S. Nationals plays out from August 29 through September 3 at Indianapolis Raceway Park, a lot of folks are going to be channeling one of the most famous lines in motorsports:

“Hey, that thing got a Hemi?”

Dodge and parent company Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on Thursday – on National Hemi Day, no less – announced that it will celebrate the Hemi’s 50th anniversary of Super Stock cars with the 18th annual Dodge Hemi Challenge during the U.S. Nationals.

Cars that will take part in the Challenge will be 1968 Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda cars – “The most iconic of the Mopar package cars,” touted a Dodge press release – in a head-to-head battle.

The Dart and Barracuda were purpose built for use solely on a drag strip. The 23 entrants in the Challenge will drive their personally owned versions of the ’68 ‘Cuda and Dart.

The winner of the Challenge – which will be held August 30-31 – will take home a $15,000 purse, while cash rewards will be available for all 16 drivers that qualify for final eliminations.

“The Dodge brand is proud to serve as title sponsor of the NHRA Dodge HEMI Challenge, an event that spotlights the legacy and power of the 426 HEMI engine,” said Steve Beahm, Head of Passenger Cars, Dodge//SRT, Chrysler and FIAT, FCA North America.

Beahm added, “This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracuda Super Stock cars that debuted back in 1968 and are still competing today, which makes our support of this edition of the HEMI Challenge extra special.”

One special incentive for contestants is the 42.6-pound NHRA Dodge HEMI Challenge trophy, created in the spirit of the 426 (cubic inch) HEMI engine.

Jimmy Daniels has won the Challenge the last two years and goes for a three-peat in this year’s race within a race. His father, Jim Daniels, won the race in 2010.

The Challenge’s all-time winningest driver is Charlie Westcott Jr. of Parma, Michigan, who captured the Challenge in six different years: 2005, 2006, 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2014.

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