WEST ALLIS, Wis. – Eager to return to a historically significant track that consistently delivers competitive racing, IndyCar drivers enthusiastically welcomed the Milwaukee Mile back to the series schedule this year.
Now they're hoping fans feel the same way and turn out for the Milwaukee IndyFest, a two-day event highlighted by Saturday's race that is being promoted by former driver and current IndyCar team owner Michael Andretti.
It's a lifeline for a track that has hosted racing events since 1903 but has fallen on hard financial times after several different promoter groups piled up big debts and bad feelings.
"With all the problems, it looked like we weren't coming back," Dario Franchitti said. "Many of the drivers that I spoke to were very disappointed that it looked like it wasn't going to happen. (It was) a good effort by the IndyCar series and Michael Andretti and his team to put this together. Just from a pure competition point, it's great to be back in Milwaukee. I think it provides amazing racing. It's a track we all love, and there's so much history. I think in order to build IndyCar racing back to where it needs to be, we need places like this."
Milwaukee once was a cornerstone of the IndyCar schedule, hosting a race on the weekend immediately after the Indianapolis 500. But financial problems left the track without an IndyCar or NASCAR event in 2010.
Another promoter brought IndyCar back to Milwaukee last year, but the race drew a lackluster crowd. NASCAR's Nationwide and Truck Series haven't returned; Nationwide instead races next weekend at Road America, a picturesque four-mile road course a little more than an hour north of Milwaukee.
Milwaukee initially was left off the 2012 IndyCar schedule until a last-ditch commitment by Andretti's group to take another swing at making it a success. Michael's son, Marco, who races for the Andretti Autosport team, said it would mean a lot to win Saturday.
"Obviously, having dad promote it is very special, and loads of history here with my family," Marco Andretti said. "And I need a win, just being selfish."
Michael Andretti has said his group has studied mistakes made by past promoters.
"This place has so much potential," Ryan Hunter-Reay said. "It's a part of IndyCar racing. Milwaukee and IndyCar go hand-in-hand. This is the right opportunity to make this happen. I don't think last year was. This is the right opportunity. If it doesn't work this time, it's not meant to be. I think it's going to work out. It's good for the series."
Drawing on Milwaukee's longstanding tradition of hosting neighborhood and ethnic festivals all summer, Andretti's group hopes to make the weekend about more than racing. The infield is filled with activities, including a zipline, a Ferris wheel and a family-friendly area. The musical act Smash Mouth will play after Saturday's race.
Ticket prices were reduced; this year's highest-priced ticket is $59, after topping out at $80 last year.
And instead of taking place on the Sunday of Father's Day weekend last year, the race now is on Saturday.
"I think having it on Saturday is a wicked play," driver James Hinchcliffe said. "Obviously, it's Fathers' Day weekend, but it's not the day itself. So I think that was a really smart move. And again, this race got added to the calendar last minute, and you look around, even just here on a Thursday, what they've built, the amount of time they've done it, I think it's super impressive."
Friday's qualifying session will have an additional level of intrigue after IndyCar officials have issued penalties to at least six cars for unapproved engine changes. Will Power and Scott Dixon — who are first and second in the series points standings — and Justin Wilson, Mike Conway, Takuma Sato and Josef Newgarden all face 10-spot starting grid penalties.
IndyCar has established mileage minimums teams must hit before they are allowed to change engines, an attempt to help teams save money by forcing them to make their engines last longer.
It's also the first run on a short oval for this year's new-spec IndyCar chassis, although several drivers have tested at Milwaukee and no major issues are expected.
"Based on the test here, I think we're going to see another exciting race," Hinchcliffe said. "This has always been a track that's sort of had a good ebb and flow to it, tires fall off (wear down) a lot during a stint here, and you see guys that maybe were really quick at the beginning of a stint fall off at the end. And it always provides good racing. So I think based on what we saw here in the test, we're going to see more of that."
Connect with AP Sports Writer Chris Jenkins: www.twitter.com/ByChrisJenkins