MILLER: A glorious throwback

MILLER: A glorious throwback

IndyCar

MILLER: A glorious throwback

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There’s not an over-abundance of joy in the IndyCar paddock nowadays and it’s totally understandable. The purses, from Indianapolis to Iowa to Long Beach, are a joke and the ridiculous schedule has already worn the teams to a frazzle. But over the past weekend there was an atmosphere of downright happiness among the drivers and mechanics, because for three days they performed at a real racetrack in front of passionate fans that truly appreciate their craft.

IndyCar’s return to Road America for the first time since 2007 was glorious throwback to those days in the ’90s when big crowds poured into Portland, Mid-Ohio, Laguna Seca and Elkhart Lake to watch Andretti, Unser, Tracy, Rahal, Fittipaldi, Mansell, Montoya and Zanardi.

And the Kohler Grand Prix was somewhat of a rarity these days in that it was a smashing success at speed as well as the box office. There were more people on Friday for practice than IndyCar draws at most races and Sunday looked reminiscent of those CART days with people stuffed everywhere around the scenic, 4-mile road course.

It felt like a big-time event and it looked like a big-time event.

“We had an amazing crowd at one of the best tracks in the world and I think we put on a great show,” declared Josef Newgarden following his gutsy charge from last to eighth while driving with a broken right clavicle and bone in his right hand. “This is exactly why I did everything possible to be there. It’s why we drive these cars and I wasn’t going to miss this race for anything.”

Newgarden’s splendid battle with Juan Montoya (below) for seventh place all by itself was worth the price of admission but it was 90 minutes of the best road racing you will ever see with 134 passes throughout the field.

“If anyone complains about the racing today then they should probably go watch horse racing or something,” said Montoya.

It’s a crime IndyCar ever left one of its bastions since 1982 and it’s equally frustrating it took almost a decade to return. But, thanks to Derrick Walker’s persistence and George Bruggenthies’ insistence on a proper date and time, a precious jewel was returned to its proper place on the Verizon schedule.

“I called George and asked why we weren’t racing up here anymore and he said he was waiting on us,” recalled Walker, the former IndyCar competition president, of their 2014 conversation. “So I drove up to Road America, we sat down and began talking.

“I found George to be a straight shooter and a tough bargainer, but he’s a good promoter and he knew what he needed and stuck to his guns.”

Bruggenthies, who gave Champ Car a sweetheart deal from 2003-’07 in an attempt to help the floundering series, wasn’t going to be held at gunpoint by IndyCar’s sanction fee (“they were unrealistic”) or date (“I wanted something that was appealing for our fans”).

“I wanted an early enough start to the race so that people could enjoy the day and still have time to get home at a reasonable hour,” he said of the 12:20 green flag.

What we witnessed over the weekend was proof that IndyCar’s fan base is alive and well in the Midwest when the race is properly presented and positioned. A motorhome space got your family in (no gouging for kids), a general admission ticket got you access to the paddock (no added price) and there was non-stop racing all day for three days.

More promoters need to copy Bruggenthies’ template and if Milwaukee was returned to the Sunday after Indianapolis and given a 1 p.m. starting time with proper promotion, it would work as well.

Sure it helps to have a gorgeous, sprawling, 640-acre facility with some of the most challenging corners and best viewing spots in road racing. But Bruggenthies spent a considerable sum of money on a tunnel, new Victory Lane, repaving the golf cart paths (they rented 500 golf carts to fans) and just making Road America even more appealing.

The coolest thing was to see the drivers thanking the fans for coming out and the fans thanking the drivers for coming back.

Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon rode their scooters out among the masses on Friday evening to say thanks and were swallowed by the crowd. Kanaan’s career began at the tail-end of CART’s heydays in 1999 when big crowds were the norm and he likens Road America to another one of his favorites.

“I knew how this place was, and when you try to describe that to some of the young guys, I don’t think I can do it justice,” said IndyCar’s most popular performer. “It’s like telling somebody how great Indianapolis is. If you don’t go there, you’re never going to experience it – and this place didn’t let us down.

“I showed up here on Thursday and this place was packed. I took the scooter around the camping grounds, and it’s amazing. This is the type of places we want to race. If you ask any driver about this road course, it’s one of their favorites by far, and the fans, too. It’s a great combination.”

Graham Rahal grew up watching his dad run Elkhart Lake and Mid-Ohio and understands the heritage better than most and why these tracks are treasures.

“It’s the atmosphere,” said Rahal following his second podium in two starts at RA. “It’s coming for an event. It’s coming for a weekend with the kids or a weekend with the family as a whole, whether it’s extended family or what. That’s what makes it so unique.

“And there’s just so much action. If you watch, there’s just always something on track, and that’s great for the fans. They get their money’s worth. I hope we can just continue to go to more places like this. I think this is proving that we don’t need to be trying to overthink the destinations we need to race at. They’re right in front of us.”

MX-5 Cup | Round 2 – Daytona | Livestream

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