Milwaukee Mile returns – Upon its latest return, Milwaukee’s history can’t be all that saves its future

TSO Note: Our longtime contributor and friend Tony DiZinno lives in Milwaukee and as such, had some thoughts to reflect on the return of The Milwaukee Mile to the 2024 NTT INDYCAR Series calendar. Here’s his initial column on the 2024 Labor Day doubleheader based on what we know now from a local perspective.

By Tony DiZinno

The return of The Milwaukee Mile to the 2024 NTT INDYCAR Series schedule isn’t entirely surprising based on recent rumors. It’s a welcome return, and my hope is this revival doesn’t serve as the last chance for one of the series’ most historic and venerable facilities.

History is perhaps Milwaukee’s greatest calling card, as the oldest-operating speedway dating to 1903 with 114 Indy style races at the track since 1939. That said, recent history the last 20-plus years is checkered, thanks to a mix of promotional challenges, date changes and inconsistent racing product taking place on the classic mile oval. Oftentimes, the margin between an amazing car/package and a disastrous, ill-handling one is microscopic.

The reality of bringing old venues back to recent INDYCAR calendars is a mixed bag. The quartet of Road America, World Wide Technology Raceway, Portland International Raceway and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca have all returned since 2016 and remain on the schedule now eight years later. Road America has excelled from a crowd and buzz standpoint, and it’s worth noting there’s a good, near three-month gap between the two Wisconsin venues on this calendar. WWT started strong and has been consistent, though better at night. Portland and Monterey have attracted a core hardcore but smaller number of fans to long-term West Coast venues.

Cautionary tales are met with the revivals and departures at Pocono Raceway, Phoenix Raceway and Watkins Glen International, with one of each having dropped off between 2017 and 2019 and only Pocono lasting longer than three seasons on the calendar.

Milwaukee could easily fall victim to the latter category if it’s not careful. Fortunately, it does have the strength and blueprint it could follow from two other venues: the streets of Detroit and Iowa Speedway.

That leads this Milwaukee resident to take Monday’s news and accept it with a mix of cautious optimism but also careful realism.

The best thing this revival has going for it is the appearance of shared unity and vested interests from the three entities that often haven’t been on the same page in years past: the sanctioning body, the state government, and the State Fair Park board.

That Roger Penske is personally invested in this race given its history means a lot for its future, and that he shared a dais with Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and State Fair Park CEO and Executive Director Shari Black (along with Scott Dixon and David Malukas, who span multiple generations of current drivers) speaks louder than any of the words in the transcript.

Given his daily responsibilities and the state’s taxing, polarizing political climate, Evers taking time out of his schedule to attend a Monday morning press conference at the Speedway is an important show of support.

Black seems to be on the same page as INDYCAR and will have to be, given the track’s announcement that State Fair Park with support from INDYCAR will promote the event. The state has allocated $3 million in funding to fix the track; the race could not have returned without it.

Lessons learned from the organization, operation and non-race-specific draws done at the three other Penske Entertainment-led venues at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but more closely Detroit and Iowa, will undoubtedly be used for Milwaukee’s return. While race times weren’t confirmed, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Dave Kallmann reported the Saturday race will likely run late afternoon. A concert feels likely, but who and when remains to be seen.

The second positive is the immediate confirmation this is a multi-year deal (provided it holds), which is already a step ahead of Andretti Sports Marketing’s revival in February 2012. That entity was only able to announce a return for 2013 on race day, 2012. It then changed dates – twice – after a pair of June races in 2012 and 2013 to run in August in 2014 and July in 2015 before dropping off. Michael Andretti told me in July 2015 attendance that year was “good, but not great.”

The third item to note could be taken as a positive or negative, which is the new date choice itself. It marks a perfect transition in deciphering how this event could proceed. Labor Day weekend has not been kind for date equity in IndyCar: Portland moves off the weekend after a run since 2018, Watkins Glen had it before that in 2016 and 2017, the schedule ended by Labor Day in 2014 and 2015 and Baltimore had it for its only three-year run from 2011 to 2013. That covers a rather difficult stint for the date in the last baker’s dozen years.

Putting Milwaukee on Labor Day does enhance its standing in championship importance, and that it’s getting two races for next year – a first in the venue’s 114-race history – increases the likelihood the event matters more than if it did in a traditional June date. We could once again find ourselves in a situation where a championship is clinched a race early, even if the formalities don’t occur until the finale at Nashville. The Milwaukee-Nashville closing stanza is an intriguing one to cap off the 2024 campaign.

That said, there are several outstanding question marks, and hopefully ones that can be overcome.

For an event that’s fallen off the calendar multiple times and resuscitated even more, it truly needs both corporate support and community buy-in. An entity that does so now has the HyVee template to match. From the extensive rolodex of Penske Entertainment corporate partners comes a need to ensure there’s a match or matches made to ensure this event has staying power beyond the usual two or three years. Additionally, there’s a need for said partner(s) to accept the 2024 reality of the races being on Peacock and USA, knowing a big TV number appears unlikely (north of 750,000 for either although again, a big number would be a welcome surprise).

The community support is also vitally important, perhaps more so than the corporate element. It’s been a running joke for years in the RACER Mailbag of pleas for Milwaukee to come back. Now, it is. And the people have to show up. I’d be happily surprised if there are as many voices that actually fill the stands as there are that comment on the idea. Milwaukee has a lot more interests for folks locally to attend to, particularly on the unofficial last weekend of summer, so standing out in a crowded sports and entertainment environment is tougher now than in 2015.

The good news is the Milwaukee Brewers are out of town for both 2024 Road America and Milwaukee weekends, and the Green Bay Packers won’t open their regular season until a week after Milwaukee. Concerns about the Wisconsin Badgers home opener 80 miles to the West in Madison poaching fans is a red herring; locally, crossover fandom between the two is negligible.

Candidly, the debate over how well – or not well – short oval racing in IndyCar has gone recently is something to note. Milwaukee may probably lean closer to a World Wide Technology Raceway type of race than an Iowa Speedway race, so it won’t be easy to nail the downforce and tire configuration first time out. If one Milwaukee race is underwhelming, two in the same weekend might be untenable. That, more than any promotional and/or date challenges, could be what dooms the race beyond a reasonable, long-term future.

Milwaukee, perhaps more than any other venue aside from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is the most history-specific venue on the IndyCar calendar. Its future will evolve based on the variety of IndyCar stakeholders showing up to support that legacy to lay the groundwork for greater, newer, modern chapters to be written in the history books.