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.

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500