WEST ALLIS, Wis. -- It's a gritty one-mile oval with its share of rough edges, set in the middle of a modest neighborhood just west of downtown.
No, the Milwaukee Mile isn't the prettiest or most polished racetrack around. And it nearly slipped off the motorsports map for good last year, when financial problems left it without a viable promoter or a date on the NASCAR or IndyCar schedules.
But man, does the Mile have a history -- a fact that isn't lost on the IndyCar drivers who will lead the return of big-time racing to the track this weekend. Graham Rahal, son of Indy icon Bobby Rahal, said it "it just didn't seem right" for the series to miss Milwaukee last year.
"It's a place that I love coming to and I love racing at," Rahal said. "And I think that's a common theme. Not only for the drivers of this time, but if you talk to my dad or any of the guys that have been around here before, that everybody loved it."
The Mile hosted its first auto racing event in 1903, predating even the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. And Milwaukee once was directly linked to the Indianapolis 500, traditionally hosting a race the weekend right after Indy.
The Milwaukee area was a hotbed during Indy-style racing's popularity peak in the 1980s and early 1990s. But the track hit hard times in recent years, with attendance sagging and multiple promoters falling by the wayside with financial problems.
NASCAR hasn't returned; the Nationwide Series moved on to Road America, a road course about an hour north of Milwaukee, and will race there next weekend.
Now it remains to be seen how big a draw IndyCar will be with a race date that falls on Father's Day; the track's recent announcement of a wide-ranging two-for-one ticket deal is a win for fans, but also could be an indication that demand isn't surging.
"I'm glad to be back," said Tony Kanaan, who won at Milwaukee in 2006 and 2007. "Hopefully, people will come and watch the race so we can keep this race for much longer."
Fans should be in for a good show.
Drivers say the track surface is still in decent shape -- although pit lane is a different story -- and Milwaukee should be, as it always was, a great place to race.
Unlike high-speed, high-banked ovals, where car setup and pit strategy determine the winner as much as driver skill, Milwaukee is seen as a track where a driver can make the difference.
"There's always risk versus reward, but here more than anywhere you get rewarded for pushing that little extra bit," Rahal said. "You can push hard and find that extra little bit of speed and you can get something for it."
With so many cars on such a short track, even the leaders will constantly have to weave through slower traffic. And because there's more than one fast lane to run in, drivers can experiment with different lines around the track.
Now about that pit lane: It's rough, maybe the roughest in the series.
"Pit lane is really bad," said Ryan Briscoe, who won at Milwaukee in 2008. "It's deteriorated a lot. A lot of, you know, you'd almost call them potholes."
When it comes to picking pit stalls, Briscoe said his team is going out of its way to avoid one particularly big bump in the middle of pit road.
"You can't drive over it, because all four wheels will come off the ground," Briscoe said. "There are going to be some cars that are going to have some trouble coming in and out of their (pit) boxes, I think."
Apart from a rough pit road, though, Briscoe said the track is just fine.
"The track is in the same condition it used to be, pretty smooth," Briscoe said. "The track's in good shape, it's just sort of everything around it seems a little bit worn out."
That includes the surrounding facilities, but drivers find a certain kind of charm in the Mile's rough edges.
"When you drive in, you feel there is history here," Kanaan said. "It adds to it. It definitely adds to it in my opinion, for sure. I think if they had changed or remodeled the whole track and put up a nice tower here, it wouldn't be the same."
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