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IndyCar returning to Milwaukee in 2011, site of season finale still unclear

The IndyCar series is returning to the historic Milwaukee Mile and series officials are hoping a new event promoter can succeed after past efforts led to sagging attendance and unpaid bills.

IndyCar unveiled its 2011 schedule in an event at the Mile on Friday, including an announcement that the series will return to Milwaukee next June 19 after a one-year absence. Milwaukee has been a fixture on the IndyCar schedule, but the track withdrew from hosting major racing events after its promoter had financial problems and a suitable replacement could not be found.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard said the series has heard from hard-core fans who wanted Milwaukee, which ran its first race in 1903 and has hosted Indy-style racing for decades, back on the schedule.

"This has so much history," Bernard said. "It'd be sad to see the A.J. Foyts and Johnny Rutherfords and all those records go away because we didn't have an event here any longer."

IndyCar will have 17 events in 2011, beginning at St. Petersburg on March 27. The Indianapolis 500 is May 29, and the series is adding events at New Hampshire International Speedway Aug. 14 and a street circuit in Baltimore Sept. 4.

The site of the season finale, however, remains up in the air.

"We'll know in the next couple of weeks," Bernard said.

IndyCar is dropping four venues operated by International Speedway Corp. for 2011: Chicagoland Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Watkins Glen and Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Bernard said he is hopeful that some of the new venues would do more to promote their events.

"We don't want to shut doors with ISC," Bernard said. "We have to go with the places that we think are the best for the series, and it's very important for us right now to be looking at the promoters who want to be aggressive in marketing and activating IndyCars. That's where you'll see us going."

The schedule isn't the only thing changing in IndyCar. Bernard said the series will no longer use the term "Indy Racing League," and will be known only as IndyCar going forward.

"IRL has a negative connotation since the (CART-IRL) divorce, and I think that IndyCar is known throughout the world," Bernard said. "I just got back from a trip to Europe, and everyone I had meetings with knew what IndyCar was, where some didn't know IRL."

As for Milwaukee, Rutherford said the track is special to IndyCar.

"I think this is great for IndyCar racing to be able to put this back on the schedule," Rutherford said. "It always left a void for those of us that had raced here for so many years felt. It was something that was needed, and I'm glad to see it's back."

When the Mile's previous promoter ran into financial problems, the State Fair Park board of directors tried unsuccessfully to find a new promoter.

Next year's IndyCar race at the Mile will be promoted as a joint venture between Avocado Motorsports Marketing and BMG Event Productions. Instead of paying to become the track's promoter for the entire year, they will rent the track only for the event — something Avocado managing director Chris McGrath says will significantly change the business model, presumably making it easier for the event to turn a profit.

McGrath said no public money is being used to fund the event, although he is working with the board on improvements to the track.

Attendance had been lagging at the Mile in recent years, but McGrath said he hopes to sell the event out; capacity is approximately 40,000. Even at 75 percent full, McGrath said the event can be a success.

But he knows he must work to rebuild relationships with fans and corporate sponsors.

"We've said very early on, issues with prior promoters should not be held against the concrete, asphalt and aluminum here at Milwaukee," said McGrath, whose father, Richard, once was the track's general manager. "So let's come up with a plan that we can execute and have a good time with."

George Sechrist, BMG president of event productions, said they hope to use the adjacent state fairgrounds midway as an entertainment venue, and will look to bring in a musical act and other entertainment to give the race more of a big-event feel.

"These guys are going to be very aggressive, and that's what we need," Bernard said. "And we're going to do everything we can to help them. We can only do so much. Our partner has to do the rest."

Drivers are welcoming Milwaukee back to the schedule.

"The nice thing about this track is that it's extremely demanding, and when you do eventually get to win here, it's very humbling," Scott Dixon said.