MILWAUKEE – Attendance counting and hand wringing have become two of the most popular pastimes about IndyCar on ovals.
Yet for 250 laps on Sunday, I opted to focus more on edge-of-your-seat racing and badass driving.
There was an air of negativity and doubt lingering in the local air in the weeks and months leading up to Sunday’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250, regarding the future of the event. Even after the race, there still is.
However, the quality of the racing on display Sunday, for just less than two hours, briefly put the concerns about the next time, or if there is a next time, in the back seat.
From the grandstands for the opening half of the race, I remembered why I became a fan of North American open-wheel racing nearly 20 years ago.
The drivers were on the edge of adhesion through and through, and you could really see and witness the different styles and the drivers working every second, every single lap.
Some of the moves early on were great to watch. Traffic played its part. You had various comers and goers depending on track position; Josef Newgarden looked on rails and unbeatable early, then race winner Sebastien Bourdais came through and made Newgarden’s own “stomp the field” effort look pedestrian by comparison.
You had rookie Gabby Chaves racing past IndyCar champions Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Ryan Briscoe ran well before a bad pit stop and subsequent spin and crash.
Justin Wilson came back and looked like the “badass” he truly is on-track, while maintaining his usual gentleman status off-track. He stayed at least an hour after the checkered flag to ensure the kids who were still there could get an autograph, even though he’d just debriefed following a mechanical failure and spent a few minutes answering a couple of my questions.
The thing that is great about Milwaukee is it rewards both the drivers and engineers in a way few other ovals, bar Indianapolis perhaps, can. And with a condensed, primarily one-day schedule, unloading strong off the trailer was a big key to success.
Drivers like Newgarden, Bourdais and Graham Rahal noted how much their setups were good straightaway. Meanwhile, Team Penske had a rare mulligan weekend that included missing its scheduled time for Helio Castroneves to qualify and a lack of pure pace by comparison.
In the race, you really saw the drivers working the car, more so than it would appear at a race with a perceived “pack racing” bend, as Fontana had been two weeks earlier. Milwaukee is a much tougher race to handle from the cockpit, and it showed for the majority of the 24-car field.
Attrition was still high, as it was in Fontana, but higher than expected temperatures contributed.
As for the other weekend elements, and there were several, it all added up to a weekend that felt like a successful pilot episode of a show but is one that isn’t fully set to be picked up for wider production.
The biggest weekend element was the, as mentioned, primarily one-day show of second practice, qualifying, and the race all in one day, culminating with a 4:30 p.m. CT and local start time. IndyCar shared the weekend with the Harry Miller Vintage club earlier in the week, and the flood of cars from the past running around the Mile was an added bonus on Friday and Saturday.
But the pressure to succeed for the IndyCar contingent was intense.
“I think everybody got into qualifying thinking, I want to start at the front, but I want to start, period,” Bourdais said. “It’s tough enough I think with these two-day events. Don’t give you a lot of time to turn around and get your stuff figured out. When it turns into a 24-hour thing, it’s challenging for sure.”
Newgarden’s first career pole perhaps wasn’t properly feted given he had all of three hours to celebrate it before the race.
But judging from the amount of infield activity – and fans were streaming in in decent numbers from about 11 a.m. or so, a full five-plus hours before the race – it seemed there was enough on-track activity and infield activity to draw fans for a longer margins.
The crowd is another talking point. Some estimates put the crowd number in the 12,000 range; I estimated higher, closer to 16,000.
The weird thing about that is, that’s not a terrible number by 2015 IndyCar crowd standards. Yet it seems only oval attendance draws the fetal pig level of dissection, unlike road and street course races, which largely escape scot-free despite fewer grandstands. Toronto, for example, stands out as a once-great event that is largely a shadow of itself in 2015.
TV is another point of note. Say what you will about the obscure 4:30 and 5:30 ET green flag times in Fontana and Milwaukee, but they’ve produced two races on NBCSN that have witnessed higher ratings year-on-year, despite the date change (both over 400,000 viewers). This is despite the counterpoint of likely worse on-site attendance year-on-year. TV numbers are what the sponsors view as important, and ratings increases in the final portion of the season will be key to any sustained growth for the series as a whole.
So if you look at Milwaukee, it, like Fontana, was a microcosm of IndyCar on the whole for 2015.
Great racing. Field parity. OK crowd. A salvageable TV number. A historic track. And questions about the future.
Bottom line was IndyCar and Indy Lights put on one of the year’s better shows in a primarily one-day event that made it feel like there was still a product and event worth saving. And to Andretti Sports Marketing’s credit, this was an event that was dead four years ago, and they already have saved it for that long a time period.
If the numbers add up for them, for title sponsor ABC Supply Co. on what would need to be a new contract after their current two-year one ended, and for INDYCAR as a sanctioning body, then Milwaukee won’t hear “last call.”
But if this was the end for Milwaukee, it went down smooth like a nice cold one.