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.
THERMAL, Calif. – Winning the Indy 500 is a crowning achievement for driver and car owner, but for Chip Ganassi, last May’s victory by Marcus Ericsson had meaning even beyond just capturing one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
When Ganassi was 5 years old and growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his father, Floyd, attended a convention in Indianapolis in 1963. Floyd went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to tour the track and visit the former museum that used to stand next to the main gate on 16th and Georgetown.
Ganassi’s father brought young Chip a souvenir from the gift shop. It was an 8-millimeter film of the 1963 Indy 500, a race won by the legendary Parnelli Jones.
“I must have watched it about 1,000 times,” Ganassi recalled. “More importantly than that, something you did when you were 5 years old is still with you today.
“I was 50 years old when I celebrated my Thanksgiving with Parnelli. It dawned on me that something I did when I was 5 years old took me to when I was 50 years old. That’s pretty special.”
Ericsson and Ganassi were presented with their “Baby Borgs,” the mini-replicas of the Borg-Warner Trophy, in a ceremony Feb. 2 at The Thermal Club (which played host to NTT IndyCar Series preseason testing). The win in the 106th Indy 500 marked the sixth time a Ganassi driver won the biggest race in the world.
Ganassi will turn 65 on May 24, just four days before the 107th Indianapolis 500 on May 28. The 2023 race will mark the 60th anniversary of the victory by Jones, who is now the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500 at 89.
Jones wanted to do something special for Ericsson and Ganassi, so each was given framed photos personally inscribed by Jones.
“Congratulations Marcus Ericsson and my good friend Chip Ganassi on winning the 2022 Indianapolis 500,” Jones said in remarks conveyed by BorgWarner publicist Steve Shunck. “There is no greater race in the whole world and winning it in 1963 was by far the biggest thrill in my life.”
Ganassi’s relationship with his racing hero began 60 years ago, but the two have shared some important moments since then.
It was Jones that signed off on Ganassi’s first Indianapolis 500 license in 1982. Jones was one of the veteran observers who worked with Ganassi and other rookie drivers that year to ensure they were capable of competing in the high-speed, high-risk Indianapolis 500.
When Ganassi turned 50, he got to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with Jones.
“We’ve been friends over the years,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “He wrote me a personal note and sent me some personal photographs. It really says what this race is all about and how important it is to win the biggest auto race in the world.”
Michelle Collins, the director of global communications and marketing for BorgWarner, presented the “Baby Borgs,” first to Ganassi and then to Ericsson.
“More special is winning the Indianapolis 500,” Ganassi said during the presentation. “It’s been a big part of my life. I want to call out my buddy, Roger Penske, and thank him for the stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it means to us. It’s about the history, the tradition and, to me, it’s about the people that have meant so much in my life.
“Thanks for the trophy, Marcus.”
The Baby Borg presentation also came on the birthday of sculptor William Behrends, who has crafted the Bas-relief sterling silver face of each winner on the Borg-Warner Trophy since 1990. The “Baby Borg” presents each winner with a miniature of one of the most famous trophies in sports.
“I have to thank BorgWarner for everything that has happened since winning the Indianapolis 500, including the trip to Sweden,” said Ericsson, who took a November victory lap in his native country. “I’m very thankful for that because it’s memories that are going to be with me for the rest of my life.
“To bring the Borg-Warner Trophy to my hometown, seeing all the people there on the city square on a dark day in the middle of November. It was filled with people and that was very special.
“I’m very proud and honored to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing. To win the Indianapolis 500 with that team is quite an honor. It’s a team effort and a lot of people worked very hard to make this happen.
“Our focus now is to go back-to-back at the Indy 500.”
If Ericsson is successful in becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Indy since Helio Castroneves in 2001-02, he can collect an additional $420,000 in the Borg-Warner Rollover Bonus. With Castroneves the last driver to collect, the bonus has grown to an astronomical amount over 21 years.
Ericsson is from Kumla, Sweden, so the $420,000 would have an exchange rate of $4,447,641.67 Swedish Kronor.
“It’s a nice thing to know I could get that if I do win it again,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “But the Indianapolis 500 with its history as the biggest and greatest race in the world, it doesn’t matter with the money, with the points, with anything. Everyone is going to go out there and do everything to win that race.
“It’s great to know that, but I will race just as hard.”
A popular slogan in racing is “Chip Likes Winners.” After winning the 106th Indy 500, Ganassi must really love Ericsson.
“It doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it? I’m very thankful to be driving for Chip,” Ericsson said. “He likes winners and winning the Indianapolis 500, it doesn’t get better than that.”
When Ericsson was presented with his Baby Borg, he stood off to the side and admired it the way a child looks at a special gift on Christmas morning. The wide-eyed amazement of his career-defining moment was easy to read and met with delight by executives of BorgWarner (an automotive and technology company that has sponsored the Borg-Warner Trophy since its 1935 debut).
“I noticed that immediately and I was watching him look at it wishing I had a camera to capture that,” Collins told NBC Sports. “But maybe not because we always have our phones in front of us and it’s nice to take in that moment as it is. That is what makes the moment well worth it.”
Said BorgWarner executive vice president and chief strategic officer Paul Farrell: “It’s very special to have the big trophy that has been around since 1935 and to have a piece of that. Hopefully it’s something that (Ericsson) cherishes. We think it’s special, and clearly, Marcus Ericsson thinks it is very special.”
The process takes several more steps before the face is reduced to the size of an egg and casted in sterling silver. It is attached to the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy and unveiled at a ceremony later in the year. Ericsson’s face was unveiled last October during a ceremony in Indianapolis.
That’s when it hit Ericsson, a three-time winner in IndyCar after going winless in Formula One over 97 starts from 2014-18.
“Until then, it was strange because you are so busy with your season right after the Indy 500 you don’t really get much time to sit back and think about what you had accomplished,” Ericsson said. “It was the offseason before I really realized what I had done.”
The permanent trophy remains on display at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but has been known to travel with the winning driver on special tours, such as the Nov. 3-7 trip to Sweden.
“It’s been incredible to see the amount of interest in me and the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500,” Ericsson said. “The trophy tour with the Borg-Warner Trophy we did in November really made a huge impact in Sweden. I was on every TV show, morning TV, magazines, newspapers, everywhere. People are talking about IndyCar racing. People are talking about Marcus Ericsson. It’s been huge.
“I was back in Sweden last month for the Swedish Sports Awards and I finished third in the Sports Performance of the Year. Motorsports is usually not even nominated there, and I finished third. That says a lot about the interest and support I’ve gotten back home in Sweden.”
Ericsson continued to reap the rewards of his Indianapolis 500 victory last week at the lavish Thermal Club, about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs, California.
Earlier in the day before the Baby Borg presentation, Ericsson, and Chip Ganassi were among the 27 car-driver combinations that completed the first day of IndyCar’s “Spring Training” on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile road course. The next day, Ericsson turned the test’s fastest lap.
The 32-year-old still seems to be riding the wave, along with his girlfriend, Iris Tritsaris Jondahl, a Greece native who also lived in Sweden and now lives with Ericsson in Indianapolis.
“Today, receiving my Baby Borg, it was another thing of making it real,” Ericsson said. “It’s not a dream. It’s reality. To get the Baby Borg and bring it home. My girlfriend, Iris, and I are house hunting, looking for a house in Indianapolis. It will definitely have a very special place in our new home.”
Ericsson told NBC Sports his most cherished trophy before getting his Baby Borg was for his first NTT IndyCar Series win in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in 2021.
“It was such a huge win for me and such a huge breakthrough for me and my career,” he said. “After that, it catapulted me into a top driver in IndyCar.”
The Brickyard win was another level for Ericsson, who moved to Ganassi in 2020.
“Marcus kept himself in the race all day,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “Anybody that ran a race like Marcus ran, maybe you deserve the race win, but you don’t always get it. Marcus did everything that it took, and we are really, really proud of him.”
Ericsson also proved last year to be one of the best oval drivers in the series, a much different form of racing than he experienced until he came to the United States.
“Racing in Europe and around the world, I always liked high-speed corners,” he explained. “It was always my favorite. I always had this idea if I go to IndyCar and race on the ovals, it is something that would suit me and my driving style. I was always excited to try that. When I came to IndyCar and started to drive on ovals, I liked it straight away. It worked for me and my style.
“The first few attempts at Indy, I had good speed, but it was always some small mistakes that got me out of contention. I learned from them. I’m very proud I was able to pull it off, but it was a lot of hard work behind that.”
The victory in the Indianapolis 500 is etched in history, as is Ericsson’s face on the trophy.
“It’s such a special thing,” the driver said. “The BorgWarner people and IndyCar and everyone at IMS, I get to experience so many cool things since winning the Indy 500. It’s a win that keeps on giving. It never ends. It still does.
“I can’t wait to get back to Indianapolis, the month of May, as the champion. I still have to pinch myself. It’s a dream, for sure.”
Ganassi doesn’t have to pinch himself — all he needs to do is look at his collection of Baby Borgs.
His first Indy 500 win — as a team co-owner with Pat Patrick — came in 1989 with Emerson Fittipaldi’s thrilling duel against Al Unser Jr.
In 1990, Ganassi formed Chip Ganassi Racing. Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, Scott Dixon in 2008, Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2012 and Ericsson in 2022.
“It’s a feather in the team’s cap for sure just to have our representation on the Borg-Warner Trophy with five other drivers,” Ganassi said. “It’s a testament to the team, a testament to Mike Hull that runs the team in Indianapolis. I just feel really lucky to be a part of it. It’s great to work with a great team of great people.
“Just to relive that moment again and again never gets old; never goes away. I’m really lucky to be in the position I’m in. It’s an honor to represent the team with the great people that it took to bring Marcus across the finish line. He and I get to celebrate events like this, but it’s really about the people at Chip Ganassi Racing in Indianapolis that pull this all together.”