Milwaukee a welcome return
WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- After a year away due to promoter difficulties, Indy car racing returns to one of its spiritual homes this weekend at the Milwaukee Mile. The Milwaukee Indy 225 (Sunday 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC) is the first of three short tracks on the Izod IndyCar Series schedule that counterbalance a similar number of 1.5-mile oval venues.
They don't call them "Milwaukee cars," but major open-wheel races were staged on the mile oval at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds since before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was built. With a history of horse racing dating to 1876, the first race for cars at The Mile was run in 1903. Since 1945, 115 Indy car races have been held at a track that is a favorite among racers and fans.
Why is The Mile so popular? For fans, it's a great place to park your car in the infield, enjoy a bratwurst and a beer and get closer to trackside than you can at any other oval venue.
For the drivers? It's a driver's track, plain and simple. Unlike many longer ovals where the driver merely needs to plant his or her right foot to the floorboard and steer, Milwaukee actually requires them to drive the car, slowing and sometimes downshifting for the turns, and working through a multitude of possible lines.
"It's the closest to a road course that you can get on an oval," said Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, who led all 250 laps on the way to victory in a CART-sanctioned Indy car race at Milwaukee in 2004.
"It's either fire or ice for me," Hunter-Reay added. "But that's Milwaukee. If you have a great car, it's some of the most fun you can have. If you have a mediocre car man, is it challenging."
2008 IndyCar champion Scott Dixon knows that. Dixon was the most recent winner at The Mile, emerging victorious from a spectacular race-long duel with Ryan Briscoe and Dario Franchitti in 2009. But he's also been at the other end of the spectrum.
"I've won a race there and I've destroyed two cars in four laps, so I've had good and bad times," Dixon said. "It feels so good to come back because I dig Milwaukee. It's a fun place. It's a driver's track, it's extremely tough and we can really race there.
"I think everyone missed coming there last year."
One driver who is probably especially looking forward to racing at Milwaukee is IndyCar championship leader Will Power. Currently the top road racer in the series, Power broke through for his first oval race win last Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway and the Australian arrives in Milwaukee as a favorite for Sunday's 225-lap race.
Power emerged fastest in recent testing sessions at The Mile.
"It's always a boost when you win a race and I'm enjoying the ovals a lot this year," Power said.
"I just love Milwaukee," he continued. "It's a flat track, you have to lift [for the corners] and you have to downshift and upshift. It creates good racing because you can run a couple of lines. And it's a great track with a lot of history, so I think it's important to have on the schedule. I think everyone's going to be happy."
Always nice to be back at Milwaukee. It's one of the most tradition-rich tracks in the series and it's a real driver's track.” -- Tony Kanaan
Power leads Franchitti by 21 points and Dixon by 70 points in the championship chase, but Franchitti is another driver with a successful track record at Milwaukee. The Scot won the 2004 IndyCar Series race at The Mile (the first run under IndyCar Series sanction) and has added a pair of seconds and a third in his past three starts at the famous venue.
Other former Milwaukee winners entered in the field of 26 include Tony Kanaan (2006 and '07) and Briscoe (2008), who earned his first Indy car triumph at The Mile.
"Always nice to be back at Milwaukee," Kanaan remarked. "It's one of the most tradition-rich tracks in the series and it's a real driver's track."
Helio Castroneves and Marco Andretti have never won here, but have started from pole position. Meanwhile, Newman/Haas Racing has claimed seven wins at Milwaukee and the team's lead driver, Oriol Servia, has earned second- and third-place finishes at The Mile. Servia believes his charge back to sixth place at Milwaukee in 2008 after losing a lap while having his car's nose section changed was one of the best races of his career.
The Milwaukee weekend includes no fewer than five support races. Short track star Bryan Clauson will compete in three categories -- USAC Midget, Silver Crown and Firestone Indy Lights.
"I think I have a great chance to win in all three series," said the 22-year-old from Noblesville, Ind. "The challenge of competing in the three races will be fun.
"I jump between the Midget and Silver Crown cars so much, so that adjustment isn't so big anymore," he added. "I'll just need to make sure I get in the right mindset for the Indy Lights car when I get back in it and make sure I'm thinking rear-engine -- not the USAC cars."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.