Thursday, July 21, 2011

Who Will Go To Milwaukee?

A question was Tweeted this evening by the one and only Pressdog about the state of the Milwaukee Mile race track and what could be done to attract fans. I understand that the track is owned by the state, as part of the State Fair Park complex. The past couple of years have been tumultuous for the century-plus old facility: After successful events in 2009, NASCAR and Indycar stayed away in 2010 when sanctioning fees went unpaid. I still don't know exactly how or if anything was resolved, but the NASCAR Nationwide series has moved on to Elkhart Lake's Road America road course, the Camping World Truck series has moved on, and Indycar ran a great race last month. Trouble is, few showed up to see that great race.
Drivers and fans love the Milwaukee Mile. In contrast to the Charlotte Motor Speedway clones that dot the countryside, the Mile requires braking and real handling finesse to successfully negotiate. Its long, long history also give it a special pedigree.
The question was posed, if a private company were to clone the track, set it elsewhere in the greater Milwaukee area, and add parking, luxury boxes, and fan amenities, would attendance improve? After all, the existing goodness of Milwaukee (challenging track to drive) is retained, while modern race fans (and sponsors!) get everything they're accustomed to.

I believe the answer to that question is "No." After all, the 2009 races were well attended, and there were no suites then, either. So why did fans show up in 2009, but not in 2011?
Was it promotion and marketing? I doubt it. Looking back, I think I heard less about the race beforehand in 2009 than I did this year.
Was it the weather? Possibly, race day this year was cold and rainy until a couple of hours before race time. A less intrepid (or more distant) fan may not have risked the trip for a wet, raceless day.
Who attended in 2009? The guys I bought my ticket from were servicemen who got freebies. A co-worker said he used to go every year-when his buddy got freebies from Marlboro.
Was it the quality of racing? The 2009 race wasn't nearly as exciting as the 2011 race.
Maybe it was promotion during prior races. In '09, the race was held less than a week after a relatively dull Indy 500. In '11, it was three weeks after the most exciting and interesting 500 in recent history and one week after a buzz-heavy doubleheader at Texas.

Most things point to the '11 race as one that should have been better attended. Maybe "promotion and marketing" are to blame... Yes, some was done, but maybe the wrong kind. I recall the days of the "Detroit Grand Prix", whether or not it was held on Belle Isle. That was a big, big deal in the Detroit media market. The buzz cranked up more than a week ahead of time, and local TV and newspapers kept everyone abreast of all the news, developments, and what the stars were doing. Everyone could go to practice on Friday's "Free Prix Day" for no charge. There were races all weekend, with Saturday's action capped by a Trans-Am race. One might also see stars of tomorrow in smaller Indy-like cars, cars like one drove on the street in the NATCC or World Challenge races, or your favorite radio or TV personality in the Neon Challenge. I saw or heard nothing like this in the lead-up to either Milwaukee race.
Somehow I think the race and the surrounding activities (lots of on-track action, for instance-something done well in 2011) need to be assimilated into the annual summer activities here. We have the Summerfest Music festival, numerous ethnic festivals, the State Fair, the Brewers, several racing weekends at Road America, even June's annual Bead and Button show gets a fair amount of press. Local media has to get talking about the race and let the population know about it. I'm no marketer, but I'm guessing there are defined ways to do this sort of thing? Can they distribute videos to the media outlets? Run drivers and personalities through every major TV and radio station? Give away (or discount) tickets at every turn?

I hope something happens and the race at the Milwaukee Mile becomes an annual institution once again. Not only because it's my "home race," but because it's an interesting, historical track located in a hotbed of racing enthusiasm.

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