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.

Graham Rahal tries to get up to speed in IndyCar iRacing Challenge

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Although he’s just 31 years old, Graham Rahal has been driving an Indy car since the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he still a teenager.

When it comes to the virtual world, however, Rahal is an admitted “newbie.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver hopes to get up to speed in time to be competitive in Saturday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama virtual race. It’s part of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and will be televised live by NBCSN at 2:30 p.m.

The six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner got his virtual racing rig before last week’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but was still learning the nuances of the iRacing platform. He started 12th and finished 14th out of 25 cars in the contest. The first 12 finishers were on the lead lap. Rahal was one lap down.

“I had never done it before,” Rahal said Friday. “At least it probably had been 10 years since I had driven any sort of sim. It’s addicting…rather addicting. Second of all, it’s bad for your marriage, but it’s a great way to kill a day of quarantine.

“But I think it’s been a big challenge just to get used to the way that you feel a car, the way that you drive a car in the sim, it’s all completely different than real life. To get used to that sensation, to get everything set up right is a huge part of it.”

Inside the cockpit of his No. 15 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal feels at comfortable in his own element. It has taken him time to find that comfort level in the virtual world.

“For me it has been a challenge to just figure out the right settings, what to do from afar, too,” Rahal said. “Obviously you don’t have anybody here (at his home) that plays iRacing or anything to help you firsthand. It’s been a bit of a challenge; but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, which in the real world is a very challenging course but it puts on some of the best road course racing on the real IndyCar schedule. Rahal believes it will also be quite a challenge on iRacing.

“I think Barber is going to be actually more difficult than Watkins Glen,” Rahal said. “The track has a little bit less grip than Watkins Glen did last week. Although everybody was still crashing at Watkins Glen, I think you can get away with more than what you can at Barber. In real life it’s that way, too.

“I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”

Rahal is married to former drag racing star Courtney Force. Both are playing it safe by staying home by statewide order from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. But Rahal still has to find the balance between husband and virtual race driver.

By contrast, some of the other IndyCar drivers are spending 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing.

“That’s the challenge,” Rahal said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I could definitely spend way more time on it. My line to Courtney is, ‘Just give me two laps.’ Then, one hour and 45 minutes later I’m still sitting there. It’s frustrating.

“As Robbie Wickens said, the frustrating part is you go out, you put in a good lap, then it’s, ‘I need to go beat that.’ You spin and you spin, and you spin. Then you get mad. The competitiveness in you, two more laps, two more laps. You try to go and go and go.

“You sit there for hours and hours and hours.”

Rahal admits he can’t stay away from iRacing for long. He is genuinely curious and interested in seeing what the competition is doing.

“I go on pretty frequently to see what’s going on,” Rahal said. “A lot of guys are on all the time. Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais has been on a load, Tony Kanaan, Willie P (Will Power). I think everyone is enjoying it. But it’s a huge challenge.

“There are a couple of guys that are clearly quicker than everybody else, Will being one of those. I’m trying to figure out where and how to find the lap time. I’m telling you, it’s so different than reality in that way.

“But it’s been fun, man. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It’s good for the exposure, good because people are paying attention. You can see it on our Instagram. If you look at the clicks or page views in the last seven days, they’ve been doubled since we started to do this stuff. While it’s great for that, it also does help kill a ton of time.”

These are unique times as the world has essential shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more humans are testing positive of the potentially deadly virus, the threat becomes more real.

It has also created a tremendous void as people try to find something to do to pass the long times of isolation.

By giving race fans a few hours of entertainment, even if it is virtual instead of real, then Rahal believes it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people are just dying for something to do, something to watch,” Rahal said. “The competitiveness in all of us wants to see some sort of sport.

“I know there are other buddies like hockey players that are watching it because they just want to watch something. They need something to do. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

“I think it’s great that NBC Sports is covering it this weekend other than just being online. I think it will be tremendous to see how that turns out.

“This is very realistic. When you see the cars on track, you watch a replay, see the photos, it’s eerily real looking. I did a race at St. Louis last weekend. It was extremely entertaining I think for the drivers that were participating. Other than 400 yellow flags, which happened early in the race, it was really, really entertaining to be a part of. People who watched that race would have loved the show that they had been seeing. I think there’s a lot of realism to it.

“I think it’s also people just want something right now. The desire and the demand is there to log in or tune in and see something competitive on TV.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500