By A.J. Foyt
The return of the IZOD IndyCar Series to the Milwaukee Mile is one that could be considered a qualified success for our ABC Supply team and Michael Andretti, whose sports marketing team took on the promotion of the race in February.
I was glad to hear that the race would return because it has a lot of tradition which I think is important for the IndyCar Series to continue even as they try new things. One of my favorite things about the old Milwaukee races was that they were held during Fair week.
While the Indy cars can’t run with the fair anymore—we have too much equipment with the teams, the hospitality and the TV production—I thought it was pretty cool that Andretti Sports Marketing tried to give the race that kind of atmosphere. The turnout was pretty good too—22,000. Back in the old days that might have been considered a sellout because the grandstands were much smaller than the 45,000-seat one built 10 years ago.
It was a good enough turnout (despite a rainstorm that day) that Andretti said the race will be back next year on Father’s Day weekend. With a whole year to promote instead of just three months, we could easily see a sellout crowd. It’s good news for our team because our sponsor ABC Supply is located in Beloit, less than an hour southwest of the track. They always have a big hospitality event at The Mile--this year there were nearly 800 ABC Supply guests.
Making it more special was having Skylar Stecker, the 10-year-old granddaughter of Diane Hendricks (who along with her late husband Ken started ABC Supply) sing the national anthem. Unfortunately, the rain came when the pre-race activities were starting so Skylar had to sing inside the media center. They showed her on the big screen and you could hear her on the p.a. system but I felt bad that the crowd couldn’t show their appreciation for her performance. She sang it for me in our transporter and rolled up one of my hero cards to use as a ‘microphone’. I couldn’t believe that powerful voice came from such a tiny little girl. I’m sure she’ll have a big future!
This track has always been one of my favorites on the schedule even though I’ve seen both victory lane and the local hospital. What makes the Milwaukee Mile a favorite with the drivers is that drivers have to drive the track which means that handling is really important.
We had some things working against us at the Mile this past weekend. Being a one car team is tough when you try to sort out a new car. Although we tested here after Indy, we still didn’t have a great handle on it. We had Ray Leto (who worked with Wade Cunningham in our second car program at Indy) as our engineer for race weekend as a sub for our regular engineer Don Halliday. Ray was a great replacement for Don (his daughter got married on Saturday) but it’s tough on Ray and Mike Conway to establish the communication needed in just a day.
We figured out that what we had in practice wasn’t working for Mike so we made some big changes before qualifying and used that two-lap run as a test for the race. We knew we had to take a 10-spot grid penalty because we changed the engine after it had problems when we were testing at Iowa Speedway last week. This year when you change the engine before its 1850-mile limit, you start 10 spots behind where you qualify.
Mike didn’t push like he normally would in qualifying (I didn’t want him to) because of the grid penalty and to be honest, we weren’t sure how the car would react to the setup change. He thought the car was better. And in the race it was.
The bad part was that we had to start last—not good on a mile track where it’s hard to pass and leaders start lapping slower cars in about 15 laps. We know the car was good because when the leaders did make it to the back of the pack, they couldn’t pass Mike. Actually, they dropped back once tire wear set in.
Mike got caught out by pitting a couple laps before a caution but we got that lap back. And while the car was running good, eventually he did get lapped with about 50 laps to go in the 225-lap race. He finished 16th.
Still I was happy with two things, we didn’t wreck and we showed speed—which really hadn’t been the case since we started running there in 2005. In fact last year, we parked the car because it was a matter of time before it did wreck.
I know we don’t have the results to show for our progress but our ABC Supply team is getting stronger with each race. As we head into the second half of the season, I think you’ll be seeing a difference in those results.
I’m hoping that we start with this week’s races at Iowa Speedway. Yep I said races because they are doing something very different for qualifying. Instead of single car qualifications, there will be three 30-lap heat races to determine the starting grid. The fastest eight cars from combined practice will compete in their own heat race after the first two 30-lap heat races are run with the remaining 17 cars. Those cars will be divided into two groups (based on even and odd-numbered positions from practice) with the finish from the first heat race determining the outside lane of cars and the finish from the second race determining the inside lane.
Tune in to the NBC Sports Network Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET ET. With 25 cars racing on a banked, 7/8-mile track, it should be an exciting show for everyone!