Milwaukee IndyFest

DiZinno: If 2015 was the end for Milwaukee, it went down smoothly

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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.

Bourdais dominant, yet reflective in authoritative second win at Milwaukee

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MILWAUKEE – Sebastien Bourdais summed up the challenge of the Milwaukee Mile immediately after his qualifying run earlier Sunday afternoon.

“It doesn’t take a lot to take a little bit out and have the car turn into a piece of evil crap,” Bourdais told MotorSportsTalk, oh so bluntly and oh so candidly.

“But I think we have a really good race car. We’ll see what happens because it was definitely not the qualifying run we were hoping for.”

Boy, were those words prescient.

Bourdais rather quietly climbed from 11th on the grid up to sixth by Lap 18 in Sunday’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, driving the No. 11 Hydroxycut KVSH Racing Chevrolet.

So he was starting to factor into the race, but hadn’t fully materialized among the leaders until Lap 81, when he was up to third place.

A gamble on pit strategy vaulted Bourdais into the lead almost by accident, as he missed pit in. But it put him P1 and into clean air by Lap 117.

And that’s when the can of “Seabass Whoop-ass” was unleashed on the field.

Bourdais launched into a virtuoso master class from there, as he led 117 of the final 134 laps en route to a dominant victory reminiscent of the old days in Champ Car.

The thing was, he didn’t just lead, but he was running at a clip faster than seemed humanly possible over the second half of the race.

Over the course of a stint, Bourdais would run anywhere from four to even eight to 10 mph per lap faster than the rest of the field.

A restart occurred on Lap 141 following the second caution flag of the race. By Lap 148, Bourdais’ gap to second was 6.9228 seconds; three laps later it was 10.3369.

It grew and grew from there to north of 20 seconds, and then a full lap, on the field.

A late caution nearly sabotaged Bourdais’ race, but even on older tires and still with the clean air, he held on for the final 18 green flag laps. Helio Castroneves and Graham Rahal got into podium positions, but no closer to Bourdais.

All the while, Bourdais knew he had a dominant car, and was thankful to the team to be able to exploit it on the day.

“It’s one of those days where just everything works out,” he said post-race. “We knew we had a really good car this morning. In traffic we felt strong. We could run the bottom, move forward. They were bubbling up on the outside. I thought maybe we could do something today.

“In the meantime, I was like, ‘Boy, only did 10 laps, running in clean air, we’re going to be able to go quick.’ I was thinking, ‘Not so bad.’ Sure enough, another yellow came out. I’m thinking, ‘Boy, that’s not looking very good.’

“At that point I just said, ‘All right, I’m going to have fun in the car, enjoy the clean air, run quick, and we’ll see what happens.’ And that worked out pretty good.”

Bourdais chronicled the stint where he knew he had to push like hell, and essentially go into full rabbit mode, to ensure he banked enough of a gap to pit and not lose his track position.

“The next sequence was the crucial one. When I came out of the pits, boiling, on a mission. They all had to save fuel. They had significantly older tires than me. They didn’t have the pace at that time because they had to drive a pace to save fuel and make it. There was no more yellow to make their life any easier. At that point they were trapped in their own strategy.

“So I just run like hell and start passing one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Here we go, leading the race again. I was like, ‘Man, that’s just awesome.’

“Yeah, after that never looked back, I was pretty much in control from there. Not making mistakes. We didn’t have time to make an adjustment for the last stop, we were really free at the end. At that point I was running in front of the pack and I really didn’t need to do anything crazy to make anything happen.”

The win was Bourdais’ second of the season, second at Milwaukee (2006) and 34th of his North American open-wheel career, which tied Al Unser Jr. for seventh on the all-time list.

Reflecting back on it, Bourdais acknowledged how much tougher the competition is, and how much more on form he is now in his third full season back (fifth since 2011, and 10th overall) in the championship.

“I respect the stats because you put yourself on a very special list with very respected and great drivers,” he said. “But I don’t live for stats. I don’t look and contemplate myself. It’s not me.

“It’s a very competitive field. When you look who can win every weekend, it’s actually not so easy.

“Certainly I’ve dominated series and seasons when there were five, six cars that could really give me a run for my money.

“Now it’s like 15 cars can win every race. So you really got to step up your game. It’s a heck of a lot harder to win races, especially when you’re not in the big buck team anymore.”

Still, Bourdais has been on form this year and showcased the glory days once more on Sunday at a track where history is the word most commonly used to describe the place.

It’s another note Bourdais reflected on post-race, the fact his win came at the venerable Mile, his first oval win since that race nine years ago.

“It’s the roots of IndyCar,” he said. “It’s that special oval that nobody likes in the racing business except IndyCar because it fits our racing style. It’s something different.”

Bourdais dominating on an oval is also something different, but was something to behold on Sunday.

Mixed 250th start for Dixon: up in points, down to P7 at finish in Milwaukee

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MILWAUKEE – If the Verizon IndyCar Series championship battle for 2015 comes down to Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon – and after Sunday’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, it looks like it will – then the final 25 laps on the historic half mile could make all the difference in the final numbers.

Dixon started 10th in the No. 9 Cottonelle Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, but excellent pit work from his crew got him up to second after the first pit stop sequence, and into the lead after the second stop by Lap 103.

He was in podium position the rest of the day from there, before restarting in sixth place on Lap 232 after race winner Sebastien Bourdais, Montoya and Ed Carpenter stayed out on the final yellow period.

Dixon had fresher tires and got behind Montoya by Lap 237, and sought to get around the Colombian. However, on Lap 245, Dixon’s car washed out behind Montoya, got in the gray and fell back three positions. He dropped three positions to eighth, but gained a spot on the final lap in getting around Marco Andretti.

Speaking to MotorSportsTalk after the race, Dixon said it was hard racing but he was frustrated with the way things went down between he and Montoya.

“He just, I think, was racing more in his mirrors, which you’re going to do at that point,” Dixon told MotorSportsTalk.

“I wasn’t sure if his spotter was telling him where I was. I tried the low side in 3 and 4, then he did low side, then he did high side in 1 and 2, then he moved up. It caught me off guard. I got up in the gray and lost three spots.”

Montoya, who finished fourth, saw the exchange differently.

“The 9 car came and his tires were off, he couldn’t pass me,” Montoya told MotorSportsTalk.

Dixon fell out of the lead after the first yellow flag period of the race, with the different strategies moving him back to sixth at that time. That wasn’t what cost him a good result, he said.

“I got pushed out on one of the restarts on the high side and got trounced by a few,” Dixon said. “Then the strategy that the 11 [Bourdais] and the 3 [Helio Castroneves] and those guys were on ultimately worked out, because they had clear track. Same for the 2 [Montoya].

“If you had clear track you could run as fast as you needed to, even against guys who were on better tires. As long as you placed the car in front of the car behind you, they wouldn’t be able to pass you, and that’s what happened between me and Montoya in Turn 1.”

Dixon lost only five points to Montoya on the day, and actually moved into second in points following Will Power’s accident past the halfway mark. He trails JPM by 54 points with four races to go.

But it still was a less than satisfying result for Dixon in his 250th career North American start.

Rahal banks another podium, and again top Honda in Milwaukee (VIDEO)

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MILWAUKEE – It was another good day for Graham Rahal and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team, as they ended third after Sunday’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers.

Rahal banked his fifth podium of the season, and was again top Honda finisher.

Rahal started sixth and ended third, and was rarely out of the top-five all day. One of the keys to his success on the day was his long first stint; he stretched to Lap 60 to lead the race. In the final stages, he pitted for fresh tires and went forward from there.

He’s now tied for third in points with Helio Castroneves, who finished second after a mix of great driving and great strategy to end second after starting 24th and last.

“These Steak ‘n Shake guys did a heck of a job today,” Rahal said. “We were looking at a three-stop strategy. I think we were the only one who could do it and we bailed on it for some reason. I was pretty frustrated.

“But with the way the yellows worked out, it worked out fine. We were quicker than Helio at the end. We just couldn’t get around him.”

Milwaukee’s future uncertain, but helped by “OK” crowd number

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MILWAUKEE – “This could be the last time… this could be the last time… this could… be… the last time… I don’t know.”

The lyrics uttered by The Rolling Stones for the first time 50 years ago could well be the most apt description of the future of the Milwaukee Mile on foreseeable Verizon IndyCar Series calendars.

And the result of today’s race now see contrasting viewpoints from two members of Michael Andretti’s sports marketing group, Andretti Sports Marketing.

Kevin Healy, who is general manager of the Milwaukee IndyFest, spoke to the Business Journal serving greater Milwaukee sports business reporter Rich Kirchen and indicated that today’s crowd could be enough to save the race for 2016 and beyond.

In a brief follow-up with Healy, he termed the crowd “good” when asked by MotorSportsTalk, and observed the crowd from the press box. He also said there were a good number of people in the infield.

Andretti, however, was less than enthusiastic about today’s crowd number at first ask.

“OK, not great,” Andretti told MotorSportsTalk. “We’ll have to evaluate and make a decision.”

Regarding the weather, Andretti said, “There’s no excuse there right? I don’t know why the fans don’t come out. I don’t think there’s anywhere you could have gone in town that you didn’t know the race was on. I don’t know.”

However, race winner Sebastien Bourdais offered an impassioned defense of the race, its attendance and its grown over four years since Andretti Sports Marketing took over the race in 2012.

“I won here in ’06, and there was 1,000 people in the stands,” Bourdais said during the post-race press conference. “It’s good to see this place with a rebirth and a lot of enthusiasm in the paddock, people in the stands. I think Andretti promotions did a great job.

“I hope it keeps going. It’s the oval nobody likes except IndyCar. We don’t need the banking to make exciting racing, unlike other series.”

Bourdais called today’s crowd “good” and hopes the track, promoter and the sanctioning body can reach an agreement to sustain the race’s future.

“We had a good crowd today. I know people are trying to make it work,” Bourdais said.

“There’s a lot of energy to come twice in Wisconsin. We should have never left Road America. But the sporting side and financial side is always very challenging.

“You have to be true to your fans and your sport. It’s a deep anchor.”

On the whole, promotional efforts seemed down according to several series and local insiders, compared to previous years.

This year marks the second and last year of the ABC Supply Co. title sponsorship contract, and the race’s third different date in as many years, following mid-June and then mid-August dates the last two years.

Indianapolis ABC reporter Dave Furst estimated the crowd at roughly 12,000; however, it was almost certainly a higher number than that.

I sat in the Turn 1 grandstands for the opening half of the race and from my vantage point, the crowd seemed healthier looking than last year.

If I had to peg a number, I would say in the 16,000 to 18,000 range, counting the number in the infield as well.

This is not the first year where it feels like this could be the last race at Milwaukee. I had the same feeling in 2009 and 2011.

After 2009, the race did not come back. After 2011, it didn’t, either.

But Andretti’s group made a miracle happen in February of 2012 to bring it back, and has ran it for four years.

Was this the last time? It felt like it could have been. But then again, perhaps it wasn’t.

And thus remains the saga of the Milwaukee Mile in modern day North American open-wheel racing.