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: Turn 5 gives drivers fits in Friday’s second practice at Barber Motorsports Park

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You’ve heard of the Fast Six in IndyCar, right?

Well, Friday’s second practice session for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama was the Frustrating Five – Turn 5, that is.

It almost might be easier to list those drivers that were not bitten by the cantankerous turn on the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park layout in Birmingham, Alabama.

Close to 10 drivers in the 23-driver field suffered issues in the turn, ranging from running off the grass and back on, to getting stuck and having to be towed out, to suffering damage.

But by the time the one-hour session was over, Josef Newgarden took a big step towards defending his win from last year’s race there, being fastest in Friday’s second of two practice sessions.

Newgarden covered the 2.3-mile permanent road course in a speed of 122.786 mph at a best lap time of 1:07.4345 minutes.

Spencer Pigot was second (125.599 mph/1:07.5372), followed by Sebastien Bourdais (122.129 mph/1:07.7971), Will Power (122.107 mph/1:07.8092) and last week’s winner at Long Beach, Alexander Rossi (122.065 mph/1:07.8326).

Sixth through 10th-fastest were Scott Dixon (122.044 mph/1:07.8445), Ryan Hunter-Reay (121.975 mph/1:07.8829), Takuma Sato (121.652 mph/1:08.0628), Marco Andretti (121.579 mph/1:08.1040) and Graham Rahal (121.572 mph/1:08.1076).

Now, speaking of all the incidents, here’s a list.

INCIDENTS:

* Right after rookie Matheus Leist spun early in the session in Turn 5, fellow rookie Zach Veach spun with about 45 minutes left in the session in Turn 5. Graham Rahal had to take evasive action to miss Veach.

But that wasn’t all, as Sebastien Bourdais followed in almost the same spot with a spin of his own roughly a minute later, and then Gabby Chaves also had his problems in the same turn, going into the grass but avoiding the gravel.

* Simon Pagenaud joined his Penske Racing teammate Josef Newgarden in the Turn 5 gravel. Newgarden spun into the gravel in the first practice session.

* Rookie Rene Binder, who has struggled in his inaugural season, continued to have issues, running into the wall and causing damage to the front end, needing a tow truck to get him righted.

It appeared Binder snapped part of the front suspension in the incident.

* Turn 5 saw James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan run off-track late in the session, but they were able to continue.

ALSO OF NOTE:

* The third and final practice of the weekend will take place Saturday morning at 10:50 a.m. ET, followed by qualifying beginning at 4:05 p.m. ET, to be televised live on CNBC (with an encore performance at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN). The race, to be televised live Sunday on NBCSN, is slated to start at 3:30 p.m. ET.

* However, the weather forecast does not look promising for Sunday’s race. As of 1 p.m. ET today, the forecast calls for 100 percent rain throughout the day.

* Dixon has had an incredible record at Barber Motorsports Park, with seven podium finishes in eight starts there. Except for one thing: he has yet to win a race there. But he does have five runner-up and two other third-place showings on the permanent road course.

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