Venerable Milwaukee a driver favorite
The Milwaukee Mile will be familiar yet alien territory for the Indy Racing League when the IRL IndyCar Series hits the famous Wisconsin oval for Sunday's Menard's A.J. Foyt Indy 225.
It's the IRL's first visit to America's longest continuously operating oval auto racing facility, and while the IRL's fan base is predominantly from the Midwest, the track has been affiliated with the rival Champ Car series since the open-wheel split of 1996.
That situation changed this year. When CART was facing an uncertain future in the second half of 2003, Milwaukee organizers hedged their bets by securing the track's first IRL event. The Mile has always been one of the most popular ovals on the Champ Car schedule, and since the majority of the IRL field came over from Champ Cars in the last three years, many drivers and teams are looking forward to visiting Milwaukee again.
And the open-wheel rivalry, which likely won't be openly discussed this weekend, could very well be a key theme of the weekend.
The IRL certainly won't have to work hard to stage a more entertaining race than the Champ Car round held in early June, because Ryan Hunter-Reay just about lapped the field in that snooze-a-thon.
The current performance disparity between Champ Cars and IndyCars will be plain for all to see; Sam Hornish turned the fastest lap in IRL pre-race testing at 164.8 mph, some 15 mph slower than the Champ Cars ran a month ago. When the IRL cars are dialed in for qualifying, expect a pole speed in the 168 mph range. The cars will run maximum downforce and the bravest drivers will likely circulate the wide, lightly-banked Milwaukee oval without lifting.
"It's a fun little track that you really have to drive," said defending IRL series champion Scott Dixon of Target/Ganassi Racing. "It's a very flat track, but I think that it will suit our car quite well, as it is mostly about handling. It'll be very important to qualify well because there is really only one line, and it isn't easy to pass on this track. You can't go two- or three-wide there, but if you do, it certainly won't be for long, and someone won't be making it to the next corner."
Several veteran IRL drivers have commented that the 2004 IndyCars have similar characteristics to Champ Cars of the early 1990s. If that's the case, it's good news for the Milwaukee fans because the Mile's Champ Car event used to be a cracker before CART's horsepower war broke out in the second half of the decade and single-file racing became the norm.
Adrian Fernandez took pole and finished second in the 2002 Milwaukee CART race, and the Mexican owner/driver is looking to crack the IRL podium for the first time.
"I have been racing at the Milwaukee Mile for a long time," Fernandez said. "I like racing at this track and I feel very positive about our chances for this weekend. It is a track that we know as a team, and we had a good test here last month. We have shown consistency in finishing the last five races in the top 10, but we need to break into the top three."
Marlboro Team Penske's Helio Castroneves also has tasted success at The Mile, earning his first pole position and podium finishes while he was in Champ Cars. However, the emotional Brazilian has never climbed the Milwaukee fence in victory.
"This track will always have a special place in my heart," Castroneves said. "It will be fun to come back this season after being away for three years."
Castroneves' teammate Hornish last raced in Milwaukee in the Toyota Atlantic Championship and he has sentimental reasons for wanting to do well there.
"My mom is from Milwaukee, and we still have family there," he said. "One of the first dates my mom and dad went on was at The Milwaukee Mile, so it would be great to win there."
The two drivers everyone will have to beat are Tony Kanaan and Buddy Rice, but their Honda horsepower advantage will not be as marked on the short oval, where drivability and midrange torque are king. That should give the Toyota and Chevrolet runners a better chance of success than they've shown of late on the IndyCar Series' 1.5-mile speedways.
Kanaan enjoys a 61-point lead over Rice halfway through the 2004 season and Andretti Green Racing's four-car attack has been the most consistent in the series.
"I'm going to take each race as it comes," said Kanaan. "It's way too early to be thinking about the championship, other than to just try and get the maximum number of points from each race. That's what I managed to do at Nashville, and that will be what we'll try to do in Milwaukee."
Rice looked set to add his third victory of the season last week at Nashville before his over-aggression on a late restart resulted in a collision with Dan Wheldon and a sixth place finish. "That was a tough one to take," Rice said. "Our team was dominant but we didn't lead the last lap. I think there could be a good outside line at Milwaukee, and if the outside is working well, the racing will be great."
Rice's Rahal Letterman Racing teammate Vitor Meira has turned in sensational performances in the last two races, but is still in search of his first IndyCar Series win. So is Dario Franchitti, who crashed out in his last Milwaukee CART appearance in 2002.
Other drivers to watch this weekend include Townsend Bell, who has performed solidly in his two starts for Panther Racing after replacing Mark Taylor, taking fifth place last weekend at Nashville.
"I won at Milwaukee in 2001 when I was driving Indy Lights," recalled Bell. "We run maximum downforce there with the IRL package, so that makes it a lot of fun because the speeds are pretty high, and you're driving the car quite a bit."
Fellow rookie Taylor's sacking from Panther worked to the advantage of the cash-strapped Access Motorsports team, as Taylor stepped into that ride last weekend and took a career-best seventh place finish.
"It's been good so far," Taylor said of his new surroundings. "It's more relaxed than what I was used to at Panther. We've jelled quite well, and we're just working out what I like on the car. I'm looking positively toward Milwaukee."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.