MKEWrap

The 2014 Milwaukee IndyFest weekend high on promise, with more positives than negatives

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Several factors need to be taken into play when doing a weekend debrief of last weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest, the third crack by Andretti Sports Marketing in promoting a race at the legendary, one-mile oval.

One, the date changed. Date equity is often one of the keys to a successful event; it’s been something that Milwaukee is readjusting to. For ages, it was the week after the Indianapolis 500, but then it was shifted to later in June upon its return to the calendar in 2011, and then for 2014, switched to August.

Two, it didn’t rain pre-race. Each of the last two years, the Father’s Day Saturday, pop-up showers occurred and had an adverse affect on the walk-up crowd. With a glorious, sun-soaked Sunday this time around, the infield pre-race was buzzing.

Three, there is a general perception that oval attendance looks worse visually than at road and street courses. A road or street course race weekend may get as little as 10 to 15,000 patrons on race day, but if they’re neatly packed into say, three or four grandstands around a two-mile course, it looks like a sellout. But 20 or 25,000 at a Texas, Iowa or Milwaukee looks worse because the grandstand capacity is much bigger – either north of 30,000 on the short ovals or exceeding 75,000 at the 1.5-mile TMS.

So, consider those factors and the fact that visually speaking (top is 2013, bottom 2014), the grandstands appeared to be fuller this go around and you’ll have to say there were more positives than negatives to take away from the 2014 edition of an event that needed a big weekend.

Promotionally speaking, Andretti Sports Marketing had an active city presence for the better part of five months. Various driver appearances and other pre-race elements were chronicled throughout the process on MotorSportsTalk. There were at least some billboards present on the freeways driving up from Chicago/Indianapolis up north.

If there was one complaint I heard during the weekend, and perhaps fairly, it was that the event merchandise selection was lacking. So were the cream puffs for those outside victory lane. But certainly, the entertainment options weren’t. With rides, a Ferris Wheel, various food options, tweet-ups, the National Volleyball League and a concert stage all packed into the infield, there was plenty for families to engage in.

Crowd reports have been mixed. Honestly, I’d peg it a bit as close to 30,000. Robin Miller estimated a lower amount (18,000) in a piece for RACER.com but if event general manager Kevin Healy estimated last year’s at nearer to 28,000 (which seems high), and this one felt busier (believe me, it did) in a piece for the Business Journal Serving Greater Milwaukee, so it should be a little bit higher. And any growth, especially given the above factors, is a good thing. Estimates of 35 to 40,000, as ABC Supply Co. owner Diane Hendricks hoped for, were wide of the mark.

Did the fans get treated to one of the best races of the year? Frankly, no. Will Power checked out in one of his most clutch performances in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and he won with tenacity (he survived an early battle with Tony Kanaan), pace (consistent 150+ mph laps before the tires fell off) and fuel saving (going 62 laps on a final stint).

But that says something more to the quality of IndyCar races throughout the year than it does a lack of excitement with Milwaukee. The downside to the racing in Sunday’s case was that it required a second screen experience – generally the Verizon INDYCAR 14 app or a laptop – to enhance the viewing of the race, and follow the respective strategies and timing & scoring.

Perhaps the tires fell off too fast, and the horsepower isn’t high enough to where it could be. Still, neither Juan Pablo Montoya nor Kanaan blamed anything bad about Sunday’s race on the current package – they blamed it on drivers who were difficult to pass as slower traffic.

The corporate support for this race was up, and that is a big takeaway. Michael Andretti said pre-race how happy he was with the uptick, and considering events need all the local and corporate support they can get, it’s a positive sign. ABC Supply’s presence as title sponsor is a good thing – so is Direct Supply’s, Marcus Hotels, the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, and on down the line. There was a street party on the Friday night, with a charity event for Racing for Kids also well-received.

Seeing news reports that “Milwaukee has just been confirmed for 2015” is erroneous. The race was announced as being locked into a two-year deal last October. The only new news this weekend about the event’s status was its reported 2015 date, initially pegged as August 22-23 (so a week later, but still a week after the State Fair) by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Dave Kallmann.

All told, while there continue to be elements the event needs to improve on, both on and off-track, I think Andretti Sports Marketing delivered another solid event overall.

As always, the fan interest needs to back up the promoter and corporate efforts – and that will remain IndyCar’s biggest challenge on ovals going forward.

IndyCar drivers, SI Swimsuit Models are gonna “Play the Feud”

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Photo: IndyCar
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There are no full-season five-car teams in the Verizon IndyCar Series although there are a handful of four-car teams, and one of those four (Andretti Autosport) expands to five cars for the Indianapolis 500.

There is, however, a five-driver IndyCar team that’s gonna play the feud later this year – Celebrity Family Feud, that is.

Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, James Hinchcliffe and Conor Daly will be IndyCar’s contingent that goes up against five Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, Nina Agdal, Samantha Hoopes, Tanya Mityushina, Robyn Lawley and Hannah Ferguson.

The season premieres on June 26 at 8 p.m. ET (ABC), with specific episode dates – including the IndyCar and swimsuit model show – to be revealed at a later time.

And yes, lest you think this is merely an excuse to show swimsuit models in a racing post, there is a charitable aspect at play here.

The IndyCar team will play for the Indy Family Foundation, a fund intended to aid those in the motorsports community (regardless of the sanctioning body) who find themselves in financial need due to hardship caused by illness, injury or death.

This is IndyCar’s second big racing-meets-entertainment venture announced in the last couple weeks. Last week, Castroneves, Kanaan and Josef Newgarden also took part in filming for an episode of NBC’s American Ninja Warrior.

Domed skid debate rages on as IndyCar drivers test in Texas

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 06: Will Power of Australia, driver of the #1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 6, 2015 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
(Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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FORT WORTH – It’s only 7 millimeters of metal.

But as with a lot of things in the Verizon IndyCar Series, politics and opinions come attached to the metal plate called the “domed skid.”

It’s the piece that will be fixed to the underside of the series’ race cars when they visit three speedways this season – Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway.

The plate is the series’ solution to keep cars from going airborne, as they did three times at Indy in 2015 during preparation for the Indianapolis 500.

Honda drivers are concerned about how having 7 millimeters less space between the bottom of the car and the race surface will impact competition.

Meanwhile Chevrolet driver Ed Carpenter doesn’t “think it’s that big of a deal” and Honda drivers “really like to talk and complain about” it.

The plate was present on the 15 cars that were at TMS Tuesday for the first speedway test during the month of May, ahead of three weeks of action at IMS.

Indianapolis 500 practice begins on May 16, following the next round of the season, the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, on Saturday, May 14.

Carpenter, Josef Newgarden and three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves were the three drivers who had the airborne incidents last year.

Castroneves proceeded to make his stance on the 7 millimeter plate and its purpose clear.

“I’m not going to go into a Honda-Chevy dispute, but my thing is (that) I was the one that was upside down last year and no question adding the dome skid, for sure, for safety, that’s what we’re looking for,” Castroneves said during a break in testing.

“It doesn’t matter what car it is … when the car is sideways, (the domed skid) adds at least 500 to 1,000 pounds more downforce when you are sideways – which means you’re going to keep the car on the ground.”

Castroneves and teammate Will Power also don’t believe it’s too late to be bringing the plate into the mix, citing the nearly yearly change in aero packages and the Texas test being the second after one at Indy last month.

“The hype about this dome skid was brought about by Honda,” Power said. “They’re the only ones because it would benefit them massively to have strength in the dome skid because they have a lower downforce package, they have what we run in qualifying, so of course they’re going to politic very hard to say that’s it’s bad and this and that.”

After two hours of morning testing, Castroneves said “it’s too early to say” how the domed skid will impact the racing at Texas, a 1.5-mile track with 24-degree corner banking.

Graham Rahal, the only Honda driver who spoke in the media availability Tuesday, said the addition of the domed skid “definitely hurts us” as the car must be raised 10 millimeters to install the plate, adding to the car’s ride-height.

“The guys that tell you it doesn’t make a difference are lying, to be honest,” Rahal said. “There’s obviously some politics going on, I think the Chevy guys don’t want the side walls to help make up for that, but we need it for sure.”

Rahal has been the top finishing Honda driver in two of the first four races. Heading toward the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, Rahal is sixth in points and frustrated that talk of the 7 millimeter plate could be a distraction from the event.

“That’s what I told IndyCar, I don’t even know why we’re doing this because we didn’t need to turn attention to something like this,” Rahal said.

“We should be talking about how great the Indy 500 is. Instead we’re talking about domed skids, which no one even knows what the heck that is other than us. But it does affect the car and we’re going to have work hard to make up for it.”

Juan Pablo Montoya also tested at Indianapolis and said he didn’t have any problems. But the 2015 Indy 500 champion later said driving in qualifying trim added a wrinkle to his test.

“Then it gets interesting really fast,” Montoya said. “It’s either really good or really interesting. In traffic, it’s a different world. It’s tough because the track’s really green so you don’t know how clean is that second groove. You’re not going to win anything by being really good today.”

They will have to be good when it counts, in the Indianapolis 500 on May 29 and the Firestone 600 at Texas on June 11.

Sauber cancels Barcelona test appearance

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Felipe Nasr of Brazil driving the (12) Sauber F1 Teamo Sauber C35 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Sauber F1 Team won’t be running at the May 17-18 test at Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona for a couple reasons, the team confirming its absence today.

Sauber said it doesn’t have any car updates coming for the next round of the season, the Spanish Grand Prix, and additionally doesn’t have a suitable young or reserve driver it could use for the test.

It’s the latest less than ideal bit of news for the venerable Swiss outfit, which per Autosport also lost its head of track engineering, Tim Maylon, left the team after three months.

Felipe Nasr and Marcus Ericsson are yet to score this season. Nasr debuted a new chassis in Sochi.

With McLaren’s pair of Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button, plus Renault’s Kevin Magnussen and Force India’s Sergio Perez also getting on the board in Russia, Sauber and Manor MRT are now the only two teams yet to score points this year.

The second in-season test is scheduled for July 12-13 in Silverstone, after the British Grand Prix.

What replacement venues could work for Boston?

FONTANA, CA - AUGUST 30:   Scott Dixon of New Zealand driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Chevrolet leads a pack of cars during the Verizon IndyCar Series MAVTV 500 IndyCar World Championship Race at the Auto Club Speedway on August 30, 2014 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)
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With the Grand Prix of Boston not happening, there’s a lot of replacement options that have been discussed.

Right now it appears there’s more talk about potential replacement options than there are movement on actual ones, although you figure if a replacement event gets finalized, it would need to get finalized sooner rather than later to allow for a somewhat ample amount of promotional time and to slot into whatever TV window.

It’d be easier to go through the possible tracks one-by-one as based on reports:

  • Providence: A Rhode Island street race has been rumored for years, even going back to when Tony Cotman discussed the idea back in 2012 (I remember writing on it for another outlet at the time). The realism of a second first-year street race coming together in an even shorter time frame, given all the permits needed, seems unlikely. And while the Boston Herald reported the Boston race could be in line to move to Providence, the Providence Journal reported Tuesday that the Providence mayor hasn’t been in touch with INDYCAR.
  • Fontana/Auto Club Speedway: Auto Club Speedway president Dave Allen likes INDYCAR but wanted a more amenable time and date for his race rather than the Saturday, mid-afternoon race in June last year, and so ACS was an unfortunate casualty for 2016. Could it return? Veteran Inland Valley Dailey Bulletin reporter Louis Brewster pondered the possibility thusly: “It’s good bet, under the right agreement, the Fontana track could host such a race and attract a decent crowd. Of course the series will point to the June 2015 race that didn’t attract much more than 20,000 fans. However, that was the direct result of IndyCar not wanting to compete after Labor Day and moving the race for the fourth time in four years. IndyCar should give serious consideration to ending its season in Fontana.” Ah, but ending its season in Fontana would likely go against the wishes and desires of the other California track that is promoting and likely has in its contract the rights to the 2016 season finale: Sonoma Raceway up the coast. Theoretically Fontana could work on the Labor Day weekend; it hosted NASCAR races that weekend from 2004 to 2008 and has an open gap in its schedule; the track has events scheduled August 26-28 and Sept. 10-11, per its website.
  • Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca: Don’t bet on this happening. The full complement of Mazda Road to Indy series and Mazda Prototype Lites are at the track Sept. 8-11 for a singular Mazda branded weekend at Mazda Raceway in Monterey, and there’s little to no chance that Sonoma or INDYCAR would be cool with two races in the same market on back-to-back weeks. Same story applies with Pirelli World Challenge, a usual INDYCAR dance partner, running here separately Oct. 7-9. Sonoma’s got the INDYCAR finale and if there’s one thing that won’t be changing, it’s that.
  • Gateway: Here’s one that could make sense. One of a handful of tracks identified in Robin Miller’s “what next” report late Friday night for RACER.com, Gateway Motorsports Park is known to have an interest in returning and has had Ed Carpenter test at the track for evaluation. Gateway hosted seven total open-wheel races from 1997 through 2003.
  • Milwaukee: Like Gateway in Madison, Ill., Milwaukee could be a cost-effective, quick short-term solution for teams to fill in and replace the Boston round. The problem, however, is finding a suitable promoter. With Andretti Sports Marketing having gone away, the remnants now fused into the new LST Marketing organization (separate from Andretti), and the eternal dilemma in Milwaukee where you also have to factor the State Fair Park board into play, it’d be hard to find a shotgun promoter last-minute without INDYCAR doing it itself. The difference between Phoenix and Milwaukee in terms of promoting a one-mile race is INDYCAR was able to co-promote Phoenix with the track, a track which hosts other successful events during a year. Milwaukee, with no other major events, stands alone. The last time a first-year promoter did Milwaukee, the AB Promotions mash-up of Avocado, LLC and BMG Event Productions in 2011, it didn’t go well.
  • Watkins Glen: An SVRA weekend at the track runs Sept. 9-11, the weekend after Labor Day. With the Phoenix connection, another ISC track, re-established on an IndyCar schedule you wonder if Jay Frye and company could work some magic to put another ISC track on the venue. The track’s just been repaved though, so any race here might require an exploratory test. IndyCar last raced “the Glen” in 2010.
  • New Hampshire: Miller rules this one out because of NASCAR races there on July 17 and Sept. 25, and with Labor Day so close to the Sept. 25 date (week two in the Chase), having two races in four weeks isn’t a likely option.
  • No replacement or A.N. Other replacement: The least favorable of the options: either no replacement or another one that hasn’t already been publicly discussed. Big question here is whether 16 races is the magic number for INDYCAR to fulfill its contractual requirements or if 15 is the standby option. In 2012, when IZOD was the title sponsor, the series ran 15 races following the cancellation of the China round. Last year’s Brasilia cancellation dropped the number from 17 to 16. Now with Verizon as series title sponsor, it will be interesting to see whether it prefers to have a Northeast presence and/or if it stipulates that 16 races are required, or if 15 can work.

Where would you like to see IndyCar race to replace Boston? Check the poll below: