Milwaukee is back.
That’s the biggest takeaway from the announcement of the 2024 NTT IndyCar season schedule, release on Monday, Sept. 25.
When the last laps were run at the Milwaukee IndyFest in 2015 and Michael Andretti was throwing in the towel after vainly trying to make the once-popular race a success again, it was assumed that was the last hurrah.
Now steps in Roger Penske and his Penske Corporation, in conjunction with the local partnership at the Wisconsin State Fair Board.
With the support of local government funding which rehabbed the facility, IndyCar has revived a legacy event to continue building on its recent growth for the future.
But at what cost? Leading up to the schedule release, multiple news outlets reported that the addition of the Milwaukee Mile would happen but then so would the removal of Texas Motor Speedway. Now, these decisions weren’t related, as the future return of NASCAR’s spring Texas race is what forced IndyCar’s hands, but it does offset the positive energy from the Mile’s rescue from hibernation.
Considering those two storylines, there were mixed results for the 2024 IndyCar schedule.
That’s the number of American open-wheel series races that have been run at Milwaukee (some reports say 114, but the 1980 race was counted twice for USAC and CART sanctioning). In comparison, the Indianapolis 500 just completed its 107th running. The series foundation might be the Month of May, but its roots are anchored in Milwaukee. Returning this track to the schedule is a win for IndyCar and the fans, regardless of what else happens in 2024.
Now, it’s imperative that the event succeeds, financially and on the track. The last attempt by Andretti and his promotion company had good intentions. But the event still didn’t take off. What’s been surprising about the crowd struggles of late is the Milwaukee television market is usually at the top of IndyCar’s annual top-10 viewership for the Indy 500. However attendance hasn’t matched the series’ heyday in the era of CART.
The difference in 2024 is that Penske isn’t leaving any stone unturned to make this a success. Just like at the Detroit Grand Prix, the Hy-Vee IndyCar Weekend at Iowa Speedway and IMS, Penske’s going to be involved in the promotion effort. Having the full brunt of Penske Entertainment resources to help with marketing operations will give this effort a step-up on previous trials.
Turning the race into a doubleheader, increasing the amount of on-track action for the fans, is also an advantage. However, IndyCar will need to take a hard look at the aero package. As previously mentioned at Frontstretch, since the universal aero kit was adopted in 2018 the races on flat ovals, to include Indianapolis, have been less than stellar. The main issue is cars are unable to overtake deep in the field, and if that is the case for the doubleheader next year at Milwaukee, then all this waiting for a return will be a let down for the fans, the city and the series.
Where have the 1.5 milers gone?
Keeping in line with the numbers game from above, 36 IndyCar races have run at Texas Motor Speedway, 37 if you want to count CART’s attempt in 2001. No tomato throwing, please! Unfortunately for the series, there won’t be a stop in the Lone Star State in 2024. With the loss of the high-banked oval, IndyCar will not race on a tri-oval superspeedway, ‘cookie cutter’ style track for the first time since the three race 1996 season. All the rage in the late 90s and early 2000s track building bonanza, the series relied on those ovals after first trying out Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the 1996-97 combined season. But after the merger in 2008, the once-abundant venues like Kentucky, Kansas, and Chicagoland fell off. Now, Texas, the long holdout and supporter of open wheel racing and it’s high-speed chess matches, goes away.
It is unknown if this is a temporary schedule hiatus or transitions to a long-term disappearance. IndyCar signed a multi-year agreement with the track just last year, so the sides possibly have a contractual obligation to uphold beyond 2024. NASCAR appears to be moving their annual visit to TMS to the spring and seems the track and IndyCar couldn’t come to terms on a date that would benefit both sides next year, but with a full year to negotiate for 2025, there could be options.
With the track’s absence, IndyCar will lose one of its best races from the 2023 season, and the only oval before the Indy 500, a Penske objective. Josef Newgarden and Pato O’Ward’s duel to the end was fantastic theater, but the race also saw drivers able to move up through the field in an updated package that gave hope for the future of ovals. Moving forward, if IndyCar is in the market for other banked superspeedways, there are plenty in the Midwest region where the series has a dedicated fan base. If Milwaukee is successful, does the momentum build for Penske to promote one of those other tracks? Or does one of the tracks jump in on its own with IndyCar to replace Texas if it doesn’t return?
Night Racing Returns
High-speed IndyCars under the lights is coming back next year. Not only is the Bommarito 500 flexing back to an evening race, but the first race of Iowa’s doubleheader weekend is too. That latter point is a change from the last two years of the Hy-Vee sponsored event, as the races have been run in the heat of the afternoon sun. Putting one of the features in a night-time condition will hopefully add more variety to the show since Newgarden has dominated the last two years there.
Racing under the stars at Gateway will also help IndyCar’s aero package and put on better racing. The event in 2022 was interrupted by rain, and arguably experienced more thrilling action when the race restarted in the cooler night temperatures than the prior afternoon warmth.
Even better for the series is that the Iowa race will be on network television in the critical prime time viewing hours. The fact that IndyCar was able to grab that is a win for them, as the race will not be forced to cable, and its generally lower audience numbers. In 2020, the Texas race was the last IndyCar presentation on evening broadcast television, earning 1.28 million views, which would have ranked as the most watched non-Indy 500 telecast if it was on this year.
Speaking Of Television
NBC will put 10 of the 18 races (including the Thermal Club exhibition) and Indy 500 qualifications on network TV. Six other races will air on USA Network and two exclusively on Peacock – Toronto and the additional Milwaukee Saturday race. That is a loss of three network slots and the streaming only races increase to two. So the series will be facing an uphill climb to set viewership records similar to this year as the additional cable races will likely lower the average audience total by the end of the season.
Furthermore, leading into the season finale at Nashville, the previous four races – Gateway, Portland, and the Milwaukee doubleheader – will either be on cable or Peacock only, which could impact the chance to maximize attention on the run to the championship.
The series set NBC viewership records this year, with 1.32 million average viewers per race.
Not One, But Two Gaps
In 2023, IndyCar had a void to fill. There were three off-weekends between the first race at St. Pete and the second one at Texas. Momentum is a crucial storytelling device, and the series found itself in a hole which they had to address.
At Laguna Seca, it looked like that was done when IndyCar announced the $1 million challenge at the Thermal Club. Then, news about TMS made its way into all the feeds. With no early April showdown in Fort Worth, the series has exchanged one gap for another, this time between race two – a non-points race – and the second points-paying race of the year at Long Beach.
But that’s not all folks. Then there’s the Olympics. The great international sporting event will force the series into a Formula 1-like summer vacation in August, which will be good for the teams as they reset from a hectic mid-season stretch. But it will be another void that takes the series and its stories off the map for a month. One that is actually unavoidable with their relationship with NBC – and frankly the right call, as all sporting events will dip in viewership in that span.
Hats off to the series for almost finding a solution with the early season gap filled with the new exhibition at the Thermal Club. But circumstances outside their control will put them back to finding a way around this hole again when building 2025’s schedule.
No NASCAR Doubleheaders
Unless something shocking comes out from NASCAR’s future schedule announcement, there likely won’t be a doubleheader feature between the Cup series and IndyCar. With the second IMS road course race not on the docket for next year with the eventual Brickyard 400 return, the all-in event that benefited all motorsports fans will have to wait another year for the simplicity of seeing the stars of America’s top racing series at the same track. And that’s not even a sure thing, as Texas was proposed as a doubleheader between NASCAR and IndyCar according to RACER Magazine, but the idea was declined.
Is It March Yet?
Now with the schedule out, one of the biggest offseason questions has been answered. The series has to drop the long-time Texas oval and the second IMS road course, but adds a new event at the Thermal Club and some more night time racing, while juggling events around to make up for a unique summer hiatus for the Olympics.
Oh, and lets not forget this.
About the author
Tom is an IndyCar contributor at Frontstretch, joining in March 2023. He also works full-time for the Department of Veterans Affairs History Office and is a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. A native Hoosier, he's followed IndyCar closely since 1991. Follow Tom on Twitter @TomBlackburn42.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.