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For IndyCar drivers, the history, challenge of Milwaukee endures

Aug 14, 2014, 12:18 PM EDT

EdRyanIndy AP

It’s a legendary but rare, still living, enduring, and breathing organism.

“It” is The Milwaukee Mile – the lone remaining one-mile oval on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar – and a track whose history dates back to 1903, the oldest operating auto race track in North America.

Despite appearing similar in view, the two high-speed corners of Turns 1-2 and 3-4 pose a pair of separate and distinct challenges.

And then there’s traffic. For the 250 laps that make up the ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the 22 drivers are weaving, slicing and dicing amongst themselves in a battle for position.

How your car is setup and how well you handle the traffic determine how well your day goes. And a tour through the paddock of drivers reveals how important both of those things are.

“Everything’s tough here. It’s a very challenging track to drive,” says Ed Carpenter, owner/driver of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. “It looks to be very similar at both ends, but in reality they are very different. The line’s a little different. The racing surface is a little different on each end. And being a flat (track) makes it so challenging.”

While Iowa Speedway is both shorter (0.875 of a mile) and faster (pole speed average over 185 mph), Milwaukee is longer and flatter in terms of short oval races.

Considering his mastery of both tracks over the last three years (he’s won five of the last six short oval races dating to 2011), Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport made a key point that the short ovals aren’t getting their just desserts in terms of points being awarded.

“The short oval is the only discipline of racetrack that we don’t pay double points. We pay double points on the road and streets and on the superspeedways,” Hunter-Reay explained during an INDYCAR conference call last month.

“We don’t pay double points on the short ovals at all. Short ovals is what IndyCar is all about. That’s kind of where it all started. It started obviously at the Indy 500 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Milwaukee Mile is the oldest racetrack in the world. It’s deep in IndyCar heritage.”

Another driver who knows and appreciates the heritage of the race is Ryan Briscoe, who won at Milwaukee in 2008 in what was a banner day for him and his then team, Team Penske.

The win was the first of seven thus far his IndyCar career, and the 300th overall for Penske in racing. Now, six years later, Briscoe’s trying to beat the Penske trio as part of the Chip Ganassi Racing quartet.

“It’s a really tough track, and it’s tough to get consistency over the long run,” Briscoe said. “There’s different handling from one end of the track to the other. I’ve had some really good races with (Scott) Dixon, often I’ve better in 1-2, and he’s better in 3-4. It’s a compromise of setup and the racing line.”

A driver looking to break through this weekend is Justin Wilson of Dale Coyne Racing, who like Briscoe, if either won would tie the mark of different winners in a season with 11.

Wilson made his oval debut at the track 10 years ago, in 2004 in Champ Car, and has had two near misses on potential wins. He finished second in 2006, and was charging through the field in 2012 before an engine failure.

“It was pretty intense. I remember it being a very long night,” Wilson recalled of his 2004 rookie start, with Conquest Racing. “I was loose on turn in to 1 and 3. And this was back in the Champ Car days when we used to have 750 horsepower! So it was really fast. My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is hard.’ We missed the setup… it wasn’t a lot of fun.

“But then we came back the next year (with RuSPORT) and it was much better. We qualified fourth and things were a lot easier, a lot smoother. It was two extremes within one 12-month period.”

Of his 2006 battle with Nelson Philippe for second, Wilson said he had to have a good car to be able to run side-by-side for 20-lap segments.

In 2012, with Coyne, Wilson qualified second, had an engine change penalty that dropped him to 12thh on the grid, came from there to fifth or sixth twice before the engine blew. It was frustrating, he said, because he knew they had a race-winning car.

A win in 2014 though, 10 years after his oval debut, would be special.

“It’d mean a lot to win here… it’s such a historical track,” Wilson said. “It’s the first oval I raced at, so to come full circle and to get a win would be pretty cool.”

We’ll see whether it’ll be either of the above four or the other 18 entered will break through this weekend.

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