Friday favourite: A forgotten gem that rivalled even Indianapolis
Four-time Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time Indy car champion Rick Mears reflects on what makes the historic Milwaukee Mile such a great venue for fast open-wheel cars.
With Kenny Brack having recently picked Indianapolis Motor Speedway as his favourite track for this series, we were worried Rick Mears would do the same. Because how could we then say ‘no’ to Indy 500’s four-time winner, six-time polesitter and 11-time front-row starter?
Yet thankfully it wasn’t an issue, because Mears picked the Milwaukee Mile – the flat 1.015-mile oval at Wisconsin State Fair Park. It’s a track that almost every IndyCar fan would love to see back on the schedule but promoters seemed unable to adequately market the series’ events there in the last couple of decades, which is why it hasn’t been used by the series since 2015.
It’s a damn shame, because Milwaukee’s first race was in 1903, so it’s America’s oldest existing track. And it’s a classic track that can produce classic races.
The Mile is not completely flat – the turns bank at nine degrees, same as Indy – but still, that isn’t much assistance when fighting the laws of centrifugal force. Lateral G and speed taken through the turn is pretty much down to downforce, mechanical grip and whatever can be summoned from the tyres. In 2011, Dario Franchitti took Milwaukee’s two-lap qualifying record – a 21.3826s average, which equates to 170.841mph. It was one of the best pole positions of Franchitti’s career. The four-time champ’s response was, “You liked that one, eh? I’ll be honest: it left me trembling like a shitting dog.”
That’s the kind of track Milwaukee was – and remains – so it’s no surprise that Mears, one of the greatest drivers of any generation, excelled there. In his 18 Indycar races at the Mile, Mears scored three wins, nine other top-three finishes, and took five pole positions. It was the site of his first top five finish, driving a McLaren for Teddy Yip’s Theodore team in 1977, and also the site of his first win the following year, once he had transferred to Team Penske.
Asked what makes Milwaukee special, he first wants to clarify how he made his choice.
“To qualify on, Indy was my favourite,” says Mears, “and because of what it is – the 500 – racing there is the biggest deal on earth. Being lucky enough to win there felt like the greatest accomplishment, and obviously I understand why Kenny [Brack] chose it. There’s nothing like the 500.
“But in terms of the quality of the racing itself, Indy wasn’t my favorite because of how narrow the racing groove became over the course of 200 laps, compared to other big ovals. Michigan, for example, I loved racing at because you could still use the whole track late in the race, so when it came to lapping backmarkers, you could go wherever they weren’t, pretty much. That meant you could still use all your speed, all your car’s speed, to cut through the traffic better than whoever you were chasing or whoever was chasing you. You wouldn’t get artificially held up by traffic in the way you did at some tracks where there was only a groove or a groove-and-a-half left and you didn’t want to get in the marbles.
1988 Milwaukee – Rick Mears (car #5) chases polesitter Michael Andretti (#18) and fellow front-row starter Mario Andretti (#6). Mears would go on to score his second of three victories.
Photo by: Dan R. Boyd
“But if you talk about qualifying and racing, it was the short tracks I loved – Phoenix and Milwaukee – because I had more tools. The driver made a difference in terms of throttle and – in my early days there – the brake, particularly into Turn 1 at Milwaukee.
“We’ve got into this habit of thinking that ovals have to be banked, and progressively banked so there are more lines, more grooves. But to me, by being so flat, relatively speaking, I felt Milwaukee offered more options in terms of what you could do with the placement of the car. And that’s a huge deal when you look at how your car is handling from the start of a stint with fresh tyres and a full fuel load to how it is at the end of a stint with low fuel and with worn out tyres.
“Back then, the tyres would go off quicker, particularly the rears, and when that happened at Milwaukee, if I were to try to run my normal arc, I couldn’t get back to full throttle until I was back out by the wall at the exit of the turn. That’s the arc you use in qualifying and in the early stages of the race when the tyres were at their best. Then as the tyres start to go off, to keep the speed up, you have adjustment on your cockpit tools to shift the balance to help compensate for that loss of tyre grip. You’re using mechanical grip to help keep up the amount of lateral load that the car can take, and keep up your speed.
"Heck, there were times coming through Turn 4 where I was almost cutting across the grass and into the pit entrance to keep the line from the middle of the corner as straight as I could make it!" Rick Mears
“But eventually you max out your tools, you’re out of range, but at Milwaukee you have enough usable track surface left to start making up for the car getting loose. The idea is to reduce the amount of time that there’s lateral load going through the tyres, so that’s when I’d start diamond-ing the turns.
“That’s when you begin your turn-in early – maybe four or five car lengths earlier than if you were arcing it in for a quick lap – and at a much shallower angle. You’re trying to keep the car as straight as possible from out by the wall, then down to shaving the apex and then out toward the wall between Turns 1 and 2 at one end of the track, between Turns 3 and 4 at the other. You stay on the throttle longer, then get hard on the brakes, still keeping the car straight, keeping the lateral load off until you’ve bled off enough speed. Then you put more angle in the wheel, almost overrotate the car, and straightline the dive back from the wall down to the apex of Turn 2 or 4 and onto the straight out toward the wall. If you put a camera on a drone or a helicopter and looked down at my pattern, the line I’m using around the track, it would look like a diamond.
“Heck, there were times coming through Turn 4 where I was almost cutting across the grass and into the pit entrance to keep the line from the middle of the corner as straight as I could make it! Taking that straight line means I’m not breaking the rear loose under power – so I’m not losing time going sideways and I’m not hurting the rear tyres even more – and it also means I’ve been able to get back to full throttle from way back, as soon as I’ve rotated the car.
Mears led Danny Sullivan in a Team Penske-Chevrolet 1-2 in ’88.
Photo by: Team Penske
“The point I’m making is that at Milwaukee, you had enough track to take the conventional line – which for me was late entry, late apex, and unwind to straight as soon as possible on the exit – but when you had to you could also take this extreme line at the end of a stint when your tyres were all done, like I just described. And you could take every point in between, depending on what the car was telling you it needed. Milwaukee just gave you more options than any other track.
“At Phoenix, you could do that diamond-ing of the turns but not to the same extent because its banking transition would unsettle the car, whereas Milwaukee was this one very shallow banking angle through the turns, so you could drive anywhere you felt that your car needed to go to make things better and keep the speed up.
“So having those options made it fun racing all through a stint and fun dealing with traffic. In fact, if you weren’t thinking about points and championship consequences, it would have been fun to start last on those tracks!
“The other thing about Milwaukee that put things more in the drivers’ hands than is usual on an oval, and more of a challenge, was the fact that it had bumps you had to deal with. You had to weigh up which ones were bad enough that you’d need to go around them and alter your line, your pattern, and which ones you’d have to deal with, which meant you had to work with your shocks a bit more. That’s the stuff I loved to play with, deciding what set-up to take for a qualifying run, and which set-up would give the greatest range of options on the race day when you wanted to use all the track.
“We’ve talked about diamonding the corners, using the bumps adjusting the shocks but you know, there was just a tonne of stuff you could do, and Milwaukee’s shape, and angle and surface gave you enough usable racing surface to do it, all the way through to the end of a race.”
Mears went from the ageing if capable McLaren M16C/D to the next-gen Penske PC6, then the ground-effect Penskes, then back to the flat bottomed cars – Penskes and/or Marches, depending on the competitiveness of Penske Cars’ yearly offering. His first Milwaukee win was in 1978, his last Milwaukee pole was in 1991 – so did the techniques for maximising a car at the Mile remain the same across 14 seasons?
“To an extent, yes,” says Mears, “but the cars’ feel changed a lot. In the ground-effect era, once we moved on from articulated skirts, we had to keep the fixed skirts at their optimum height, keep them from dragging on the ground when the car was under lateral load through the turns and wanted to roll, or when the weight transferred forward under braking. The only way to do that was to run much stiffer springs and that lost us feel.
Given how far inside the yellow line he is, Mears may well be diamond-ing the turn here.
Photo by: Dan R. Boyd
“But what comes with that is stronger ground effect which means higher minimum-corner speeds, higher maximum lateral load and so when the car lets go, the ‘string’ breaks instead of stretching under that centrifugal load. So now not only do you have less feedback, meaning you’ve got to really refine your feel, you’ve also got to learn how to develop that feel to give you more time to adjust what you’re doing when reaching the limit. In other words, ground effect altered at what point I started to react to what the car’s telling me, because I know I’m going to have less time to respond to it.
“When we went from bias-ply tyres to radials [in 1987], we also lost feel. So in both cases I had to fine-tune my own parameters – relearn new limits, relearn what the car felt like on that limit just before it let go, and become even quicker at anticipating it.”
You might expect that the bumps at Milwaukee would have forced ground effect cars to run high enough that their shaped underbodies and skirts would have been less efficient, but no – between 1980 and 1982, pole position at the Mile leapt by 12mph.
"If we go back there, we’ll go with an aero package that doesn’t create too much downforce, that keeps the lateral load down and helps widen the groove. I think the last time we went there [2015, first year of the manufacturer aerokits], and even in the last years of CART, they were struggling at Milwaukee with the fact that it was a narrow groove" Rick Mears
“Yeah, ground effect downforce, once it was properly captured, overcame everything!” says Mears, whose Penske PC10 took pole for the second Milwaukee race of ’82 and led 126 of the first 146 laps until the engine let go. “As I said, ground effect cost us a lot of feel, but it also masked mechanical work. In the PC10 [of ’82] we could change toe links, and cambers, and really jack it around and it didn’t care: it would just stick in the high-speed turns… until it didn’t! That’s why we had to refine our feel for where the limit was, otherwise it would snap.
“It was only when we took the skirts off for 1983, we realised how mechanically out of shape we were and we had to get back and focus on what needed to be done to the car to make it fast without all that downforce. But everything was a trade-off. Without the skirts to look after, we could go a little softer on the springs, bring back some feel and mechanical grip, get the car a little lower, and soon we were running the same speeds as we had been in the ground effect era but making the lap time in a different way. That was true at Milwaukee, Phoenix, everywhere really.”
Like everyone, Mears would love to see IndyCar return to the Milwaukee Mile, if a promoter can be found to make it work. Bommarito Automotive Group at Gateway and Hy-Vee at Iowa Speedway have both shown that luring spectators into grandstands for IndyCar’s oval races no longer needs to be regarded as a lost art. If a similarly enthusiastic sponsor can be found for Milwaukee – and there is more than a rumor about IndyCar returning there in 2024 – Mears is confident that the series can put on a good show.
Mears keeps the Milwaukee Mile in a fond place in his racing memories.
Photo by: David Hutson / Motorsport Images
He comments: “I’ve said it several times: I think the current guys, Jay Frye [president] and IndyCar’s technical chiefs [Bill Pappas and Tino Belli] really do get it. They understand what’s needed from the cars to create good racing that still rewards the best drivers.
“So if we go back there, we’ll go with an aero package that doesn’t create too much downforce, that keeps the lateral load down and helps widen the groove. I think the last time we went there [2015, first year of the manufacturer aerokits], and even in the last years of CART, they were struggling at Milwaukee with the fact that it was a narrow groove. No one wanted to pass on the outside due to the cars generating too much lateral load and tyre marbles off-line: the higher the lateral load, the greater the effect of hitting those marbles. You’re straight into the wall.
“So if there’s a chance of us going back there, I’m sure IndyCar will take some good experienced drivers there for a test, and try out some different configurations and come up with a good solution. With the right downforce levels and the increase in power that we’re getting in 2024, there’s no reason why Milwaukee couldn’t still put on a great show.”
Mears, chased by Bobby Rahal, laps Scott Atchison in ’88. Easy to forget how close you could park…
Photo by: Dan R. Boyd
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