Andretti's IndyFest efforts keep West Allis in racing spotlight

June 19, 2012

West Allis - Since The Milwaukee Mile turned 100 back in 2003, it has seen dwindling crowds and fewer interested spectators each year.

Despite hosting epic Indycar battles for decades - featuring stars like A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Rick Mears - the racetrack's impact on the city of West Allis had seemingly stalled completely when the local Indycar event was left off the 2012 IZOD Indycar Series schedule altogether.

Then Michael Andretti stepped in to save the race.

The son of Mario Andretti is a five-time winner as a driver at the Mile - and now a four-time winner as a car owner, after his driver Ryan Hunter-Reay won on Saturday.

Regaining traction

After a revolving door of promoters for several years, it was Andretti who stepped up and took the risk of promoting the fledgling race. Once the decision was made, the work began immediately to produce ideas to revive excitement in the event.

"We had a round-table discussion throwing out ideas of what we could do, and that's where we came up with IndyFest," Andretti said. "Then, from that, someone mentioned 'Why don't we take the festival into the infield?' and it just snowballed from there."

Dubbed Milwaukee IndyFest, the idea was to relate to the area's tradition of summer festivals in an attempt to cater to more than just die hard race fans.

The infield of the racetrack was filled with inflatable slides, a Ferris wheel and even bumper cars among other attractions. In addition to the carnival rides and midway, an area was set up to emulate the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Snake Pit, a place for fans with debauchery on the mind.

Though the Pit area seemed lightly used for the weekend, adjacent to that was a music stage, which hosted a local battle of the bands Friday night and national recording artist Smash Mouth following the race.

Beyond the loop

All of the activities inside the grounds may have taken away from any genuine impact even the modest crowd of about 20,000 spectators could have on local area bars and restaurants.

But Indycar CEO Randy Bernard believes the IndyFest idea has a chance to grow and eventually become a part of the surrounding community again. Bernard said the series understands the importance of keeping this event alive, not just for the race fans but for the city that hosts it.

"It's the oldest racetrack in America, and with so much rich history and tradition it would be a shame not to race here," Bernard said. "I think that Indycar wants to make sure that we do everything we can to keep the Mile in our series.

"We all just have to remember that we have to walk before we can run and we can build this back up to what it once was."

A starting flag

It might take a year or two for the changes to the event to become tradition, but some changes could be appreciated immediately.

Friday, the grandstands were open to the public free of charge so that fans could watch Indycar practice and qualifying along with the Indy Lights race before deciding whether to pay for admission to the infield festival area.

Race day wasn't free, but with ticket prices lower than last year's race and the value added from the festival and concert, the cost made for a more than fair deal. A deal that Andretti hopes brings more people in next year.

"We will have it next year and then hopefully for many years after that," Andretti said. "We know this isn't something that is going to happen overnight, but I think for a first time out it was really successful."

"There is something about this place that we just love."

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