Monday, December 14, 2009

America’s Oldest Racetrack May Die This Year

The Milwaukee Mile, in West Allis, Wisconsin, is America’s self-proclaimed “oldest operating racetrack.” The former horse track held its first automobile race in 1903 – eight years before the first Indy 500. However, due to a series of unfortunate events, including a renovation project, a debt-ridden promoter, and a “country bumpkin” board president, America’s Legendary Oval may never see another car again.

First, let me set up the story:

The track first started hosting open-wheeled races in the 1930’s, and became a tradition to race there the weekend immediately following the Indy 500 by 1947.

The track has hosted ASA, USAC, and ARTGO races, allowing drivers like Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki, Dick Trickle, Scott Wimmer and Mark Martin to cut their teeth.

NASCAR began racing at “The Mile” in 1984, and has been a regular stop and a favorite of drivers in the Nationwide Series since then, and the Camping World Truck Series since its inception in 1995.

But, the track had deteriorated. The Mile once had an infield road course, though no one could tell anymore. The grandstands were an ill-maintained throwback to its horse track days. The press box was suspended beneath the canopy.

This changed in 2003, however. As NASCAR was becoming more popular, the track needed to update for the sake of its own future. The grandstands were torn down and replaced with a higher-capacity, state of the art setup. The infield was replaced. The electronics were overhauled. The fest grounds behind the track suddenly sported new buildings.

This project, however, left the track saddled in debt. Promoters came and went – first Milwaukee Mile Holdings, LLC wanted to sell the track to land developers because it couldn’t cover its debts.

Then, Wisconsin Motorsports, LLC took over the reigns in 2008. They couldn’t handle the debt either, however, and ceased operations after the NASCAR weekend in 2009, leaving millions of dollars in unpaid fees to both NASCAR and the IRL. The races for the rest of the year were canceled.

The summer and fall of 2009 was tumultuous. Both NASCAR and the IRL insisted they would not hold a race at The Mile in 2010 unless they were paid in full. Negotiations were ongoing with the next promoter, the still-mysterious Historic Mile, LLC, but uncertainty loomed. When schedules were released, The Mile was not to be found on the IRL schedule, but NASCAR, to the great surprise of many, scheduled their yearly Nationwide/Truck weekend.

That was until Historic Mile, LLC also failed to come up with the financial backing, and withdrew themselves from consideration to be the new promoter.

Good news loomed on the horizon, however: Frank and Dominic Guiffre, who promoted the track in the 1980’s, had found financial backers, secured a line of credit from the bank, and were willing to promote The Mile.

The Milwaukee Mile has been saved, or so we thought.

That was until the Wisconsin State Fair Park Board, which owns The Mile, changed the proposed contract with the Guiffre Group from giving them three years to secure or replace a national race to six months.

This move infuriated the Guiffre Group so much they too pulled out of consideration, leaving the future of The Mile up in the air and without another potential promoter in line.

In a letter to the Wisconsin State Fair Park Board, the Guiffre’s called Sue Crane, the President of the board, a “country bumpkin” who “can’t be trusted.” You should read the letter (click here). It’s actually quite entertaining.

Now, the Guiffre’s are respected businessmen and passionate promoters, and the Guiffre Group was made up of other wealthy, respected business men – John Menard (yes, that Menard), John Kaishian, and the Decker family – and they are wealthy, respected business men for a reason. They wouldn’t resort to calling the president names unless there was a darn good reason.

NASCAR is very obviously willing to help The Mile. After all, after insisting they would not schedule a race there as long as The Mile had outstanding debts, they did anyway. I mean, the renovation of the track that caused all this was to try to meet their high standards, wasn’t it?

While promoters come and go and while the board fumbles their every Hail Mary, the fans have gotten involved to write letters and try to get the word out – during Trackside on SPEED at Bristol, a lonely stood in the back of the crowd with an orange sign proclaiming “Save the Milwaukee Mile.”

Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin has even considered stepping in.

The Facebook group “Save the Milwaukee Mile” has reached over 1,200 members. Former Camping World Truck Series champion Ted Musgrave (a Wisconsin native) is an active member.

I am hardly a dispassionate third-party in this story; I have been going to The Mile every summer since 2001. I still have every ticket. Saw Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Jack Sprague, and Kurt Busch for the first time at this track. I heard (and felt) the power of 43 cars for the first time at this track. I walked behind a SPEED camera (thereby getting myself on TV) for the first time at this track. I had my first Richard Petty Racing Experience at this track. You get the idea. So, you know how I feel.

But, the Guiffre situation turned the events at the track from a debacle into a scandal. Does the board have sinister motives? Do they want to wash their hands of 106 years of racing history, tear it down, and build houses?

NASCAR finally listened and considered the fans in the midst of all the turmoil in West Allis. Then the Wisconsin State Fair Park Board let them all down by turning on the Guiffre Group – a group of dedicated promoters all set to start, who were just waiting to sign a piece of paper.

Fortunately, the fans were considered by NASCAR. Maybe now the Wisconsin State Fair Park Board will listen to them. Here’s the address for the Board:

Wisconsin State Fair Park Board
640 South 84th Street
West Allis, WI 53214

Once again, click here to read the Guiffre’s letter. I also wrote a letter to the board after I read the Guiffre’s letter. Click here to read my letter.

It’s not like the Milwaukee Mile was struggling to gain attendance. Even with the promoters playing “The Weakest Link,” the 2009 Nationwide race was near sold out, and the IRL race had a hefty crowd as well.

Even if you’ve never attended a race at America’s Legendary Oval, it is still worth saving. It’s one of the last of the independent tracks in the big leagues, and an historic place – many of your favorite drivers cut their teeth at this track. It’s worth saving this landmark for future generations. Without help from the fans, America’s Legendary Oval, America’s Oldest Operating Racetrack, The Milwaukee Mile, might die this winter.

-David Dubczak

Monday, December 7, 2009

Can Jimmie and Chad Win With Another Team?

I really couldn’t tell you why, but Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus haven’t been given the credit they deserve for their four straight championships. If the Yankees won four straight World Series or the Bears won four straight Super Bowls, they would be the biggest marketing powerhouse in the history of sports.

But, when it comes to marketing surveys, Budweiser is still the most recognized sponsor I NASCAR, with Lowe’s and Jimmie Johnson still but a blip. I suppose they do have a few things working against them:

The Chase, which people use to claim that Johnson, Knaus, and team don’t have to be good in all 36 races, just the last 10. Those other 26 don’t even really matter, do they.

Hendrick Motorsports. I mean, it’s easy to win the Sprint Cup Championship when you’re driving for the best organization in motorsports, right?

Even Chad Knaus is able to steal some of Jimmie’s thunder – Kurt Bush remarked at Jimmie’s Roast in Las Vegas that Jimmie really isn’t very good, and proposed a new Chase format where all the Chase drivers picked one race out of a hat where they get Chad Knaus as their crew chief.

What I want to look at, however, is whether Jimmie and Chad can win at another organization apart from Hendrick Motorsports.

I think they can.

Jimmie Johnson is one of the most focused drivers in the field. He studies the track, the car, what other drivers are doing, and what he can do differently with a level of dedication and intensity admired by the rest of the drivers. Even Mark Martin admitted Johnson is better than him in this regard.

Chad Knaus obviously has the technical expertise to hack it with any team, but this attribute is shared by most crew chiefs. What makes Knaus different is his eye for detail and his knack for planning. Not one aspect of the car misses being catalogued in triplicate in Chad’s brain, and he’s been known even to grind and smooth even the smallest of bolts on the underside of the car to make it more aerodynamic. What Chad Knaus does, others copy.

Johnson and Knaus, together, have that that one X-factor that all drivers and crew chiefs look for: chemistry. As we’ve seen, you can’t just throw any driver and any engineer together and make it a good driver-crew chief combo.

The driver and crew chief must almost be married to each other to make it work. This chemistry is one of the most important factors because, let’s face it, most of the crew chiefs know as much as all the other crew chiefs (with a few exceptions). Jack Roush and Richard Childress have been known to upheave their entire organizations to seek this chemistry when it is lacking.

(And could you imagine being married to Chad Knaus? Re-grouting the tub every-other week because it’s not smooth enough, constantly tearing apart the garage door opener to make the drivetrain more efficient, or running the family Impala out of gas one block from the driveway because he really thought they could make it? What about moving the baby seats around to redistribute the weight? Don’t even get me started on the lawn-mower.)

That’s the X-Factor, and that’s what make Chad and Jimmie good together. With Jimmie Johnson’s drive (no pun intended) and Chad Knaus’ eye for detail, the two could go anywhere.

Now, will they? As you can surmise, probably not. Hendrick has resources no other team has, and a crew chief like Knaus spoils himself with that.

Jimmie, on the other hand, can apply his talent to whatever car Knaus prepares for him, because he’s developed a feel for them and he likes them. Unless the two mutually decide they want a new challenge, and their contracts at Hendrick end at the same time, it’s doubtful they’ll attempt to dominate with another team.

But it’s fun to imagine, right?

-David Dubczak