WEST ALLIS, Wis. — Once a fixture on the IndyCar racing circuit, the Milwaukee Mile lost its spot on the schedule and was in danger of closing altogether on multiple occasions.
Now the 120-year-old facility is making a comeback as remarkable as any that drivers have staged on this 1-mile oval track over the years. IndyCar is returning to the Milwaukee Mile next year as part of a Labor Day weekend doubleheader just before the final race of the season.
Roger Penske, owner of both IndyCar and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, hopes this time it’s back for good and rattled off a list of motorsports greats who raced at the historic track.
“You think of Rex Mays and (Tony) Bettenhausen and some of the greatest drivers -- Rodger Ward racing up here,” Penske said Monday. “These are the great names in the sport. Always right after Indy they used to come, obviously would come here to Milwaukee and run. To me, it was just part of the DNA of the series. And we kind of lost that.”
The track is located at the Wisconsin State Fair Park and bills itself as the oldest operating motor speedway since it has hosted at least one auto race every year since 1903, aside from World War II. It began as a dirt track before it was paved in 1954. The facility also includes an infield that hosted selected Green Bay Packers home games from 1934-51.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers noted that the state’s Executive Residence where he lives includes a poster from 1939, when the Milwaukee Mile held its first IndyCar event.
But the track struggled to remain on IndyCar’s schedule due in part to attendance issues. IndyCar left Milwaukee, briefly returned from 2012 to 2015 and hadn’t been back since. Milwaukee Mile hosted its first major national event since IndyCar’s departure when the NASCAR Truck Series visited last month.
State and IndyCar officials are confident they can make it work this time.
“Anytime you have a chance to redo history and take this into a whole different level, you have to take advantage of that,” Evers said.
Mark Miles, the president and CEO of Penske Entertainment Co., said Penske officials met with Evers more than a year ago to discuss the possibility of bringing IndyCar back to Milwaukee. Miles also noted that “the State Fair Board welcomed the opportunity and is really embracing it, and I don’t know that that was that true last time around in Milwaukee.”
Fan response also will be critical. The Milwaukee Mile features grandstands that hold up to 30,000 fans, but previous races here rarely approached that attendance.
Having the Milwaukee Mile back on the calendar means Wisconsin will host three of the 17 events on IndyCar’s 2024 schedule. IndyCar will maintain its annual stop at Road America, a road course located about 60 miles north of the Milwaukee Mile in the town of Elkhart Lake.
IndyCar’s return to Milwaukee exemplifies the series’ commitment to getting more races on oval tracks. Penske believes those tracks provide the type of competitive racing preferred by fans.
“The drivers love this kind of racing,” Penske said. “When you think about qualifying, some of the ovals, within one second we had 27 cars. You just don’t see that in other types of sports. We can showcase that.”
Scott Dixon, a six-time IndyCar champion who won an IndyCar race at Milwaukee in 2009, says Milwaukee is different from other ovals and actually shares some characteristics with road courses.
“It’s just the lack of banking,” Dixon said. “Ovals typically have some pretty good banking to them. The corners are quite different from each other, they don’t look that different but 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 are vastly different just in how you can set up the car and how it works.”
Drivers may need to get used to it. Wisconsin’s State Building Commission approved nearly $3 million worth of upgrades to the Milwaukee Mile last year, and Penske has discussed the possibility of capitalizing on the fairgrounds site by scheduling a Saturday night concert to take place between the two races.
Penske officials are committed to remaining in Milwaukee for a while. Penske said Monday that “I think it's hopefully for decades” while citing IndyCar's long connection with this site.
But there's no guarantee it remains a doubleheader site beyond 2024.
“I wouldn’t call it one-off, but I also wouldn’t say that the concept of Milwaukee requires a doubleheader,” Miles said. "We’ll see. We really will cross that bridge, I’m sure, later next year as we’re starting to think about the ’25 schedule.
"Look, we just love the market. There’s so much great IndyCar history there. The investment in improving the facilities for fans and for drivers is important. That was all more than enough to get us to want to go back there."