The oldest major speedway in the world, the Milwaukee Mile, opened in Wisconsin, US

Friday 11th September 1903

The oldest major speedway in the world, the Milwaukee Mile, opened in Wisconsin, US. William Jones of Chicago won the inaugural race, a five-lap speed contest, and set the first track record with a 72-second, 50-mph lap. Five, 10 and 15-mile races were common in the early days, as were 24-hour endurance races, which were staged in 1907 and 1908. It wasn’t until 1915 that the first 100-mile race was held, with Louis Disbrow averaging 62.5 mph to take the checkered flag. From the beginning, The Milwaukee Mile attracted some of the biggest names in racing, including the sport’s first truly famous racer, Barney Oldfield. In fact, Oldfield’s exploits at The Milwaukee Mile helped build his legend. He set the track’s record in 1905 and again in 1910, when he pushed his famous Blitzen Benz to an average speed of 70.l59 mph. In June 1917, he out-dueled Ralph DePalma in a series of 10, 15 and 25-mile match races, driving a car dubbed the “Golden Submarine” – so named because it was painted gold and completely enclosed to protect the driver in case it overturned.
The modern era began at the circuit in April 1954, when the State Fair Board decided to begin concentrating more on auto racing and agreed to the paving of the one mile oval, though the half-mile interior oval was retained for harness racing until 1959, while the quarter-mile dirt oval saw weekly sprint car action. An infield road course was also constructed, opening on August 15, 1954 and increasing the diversity of events that could be held. This was the first infield road course constructed and evidently they didn’t get it quite right; the first version was slow and the track surface broke up during the first meeting, leading to competitors to switch to the oval with straw bale chicanes. The road course was slightly modified the following year to make it less sinuous and fix the surface issues, in which form it has remained ever since.
Into the 1960s, the Milwaukee Mile claimed another slice of history, when Jim Clark sped to victory in a rear-engined Lotus-Ford in 1963, marking the beginning of the end for the traditional Indy Roadster. A.J. Foyt would take the last win for the front-engined machines the following year before he too switched to the rear-engined revolution, although he gave the roadsters a final and unintended hurrah in 1965. When his primary car and crew couldn’t make it to Milwaukee in time for qualifying, Foyt towed his backup dirt car from Springfield, converted it to asphalt specification and promptly put it on the pole. Even A.J.’s genius couldn’t hold back the tide completely as, despite spending 16 laps in the lead, he was beaten by Gordon Johncock’s by-now-de-rigeur rear-engined entry.
Through the 1970s, the main events remained the two USAC Indycar events, bolstered by regular stock car racing and by 1980 the twin Indycar events came under the sanction of Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART). NASCAR made its first appearance in 1984 with the Busch Late Model Sportsman series (the forerunner of today’s Nationwide Series), while the final sportscar races were held on the road course that same year. The road course was in fairly poor condition by this time and it would be 20 years until it was resurfaced and used for events once more.
After one more Busch Late Model Sportsman series in 1985, NASCAR departed and by the early 1990s, the future of the venue as a whole was at risk. With Milwaukee in danger of losing its CART race, Carl Haas was given a long-term contract to organize all racing activity. Working with the Wisconsin State Fair Board, Wisconsin Sports Authority and Miller Brewing Company, Haas was able to save the race and begin a series of improvements.
Shortly after Haas took over, a new front stretch wall was installed and 700 gallons of paint were used to give the grandstand and other structures a fresh look in time for the Miller Genuine Draft 200. A record crowd of more than 43,000 saw Michael Andretti make it two wins in a row with a record average speed of 138.031 mph, driving for the Newman-Haas team. The following year, Haas could again watch his team enjoy success at Milwaukee, when reigning Formula One champion Nigel Mansell sped to his first oval victory en route to the Indycar championship.
NASCAR’s second division Busch Series returned in 1993 and was soon bolstered by the new Craftsman Truck Series from 1995 onwards, with these events soon enjoying record attendance figures.
The oval track was resurfaced in 1996, together with some minor modifications to the pit lane exit the following year. This has the effect of widening the turns very slightly, as a small strip of verge was paved over in turns one and two. The track was remeasured and it was discovered that the famed ‘Mile’ was now in fact 1.032-miles… The track was remeasured again by the IRL in 2004, who gave the distance as 1.015-miles, a figure generally agreed on to this day. Just to be different, however, NASCAR sticks with tradition and has continued to use the one mile measures for its calculations.
Facility improvements were undertaken by the Fair Board from 2002. Bleacher seats were replaced with all-aluminium seating in the north and south terrace, while the following year saw the construction of a new main grandstand, boasting 25,000 seats with improved sightlines, brand-new restrooms and concession areas.
Further investment was carried out when the road course was widened and resurfaced in 2004, opening up new possibilities for use on corporate events, testing and driver training and for kart racing. Also new was a critical care building which also incorporated the media centre, a resurfaced pit road and new retaining wall, while the original 1960s score tower was replaced by a modern digital display.
The split in Indycar racing saw the Indy Racing League arrive from 2004, giving Milwaukee the short distinction of being one of the few tracks to host both the IRL and Champ Cars in the same year. From 2007, Champ Car events ended as the series concentrated on road courses, leaving just the Indycars to battle it out each year for single seater honours. Milwaukee retained its place on the unified calendar in 2008, but after the Fair Board was unable to find a replacement promoter (having been earlier forced to terminate the contract of the existing promoter), both Indycars and NASCAR were force to look elsewhere for 2010.
In 2011, a new promoter allowed the resurrection of the Indycar event, but a lack of experience and poor marketing led to poor turnout and the future looked bleak, with an announcement that no race race would be held in 2012.
In stepped Michael Andretti, who was determined not to let the event – and possibly the circuit itself – die. His Andretti Sports Marketing team hammered out a new deal with the State Fair Board and set about re-launching the event, this time with proper marketing. Billing it as the Milwaukee IndyFest, The event featured a carnival-like atmosphere, resurrecting some of the ambiance of the days when the race concluded the State Fair itself. Combined with great racing on the track and an exciting win by American driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, the event was a success.
Andretti continues to promote the event which gathers strength, although pressure still exists from some quarters for the State of Wisconsin to “cut its losses” and close the Milwaukee Mile, converting the land for other uses. This has prompted the formation of the ‘Save the Mile’ campaign group, which since 2008 has been petitioning legislators to ensure that racing continues at the legendary circuit.

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