History of the Milwaukee Mile

The Early Years
The Milwaukee Mile has a storied history that many racing and Milwaukee history aficionados are enthralled by. Originally a privately owned horse-racing track, the one-mile oval has been in existence since at least 1876. In 1891, the Agricultural Society of the State of Wisconsin purchased the land to create a permanent site for the Wisconsin State Fair. The track has operated as part of the fairgrounds ever since.

The Milwaukee Mile has hosted auto-racing events every year since 1903, making it the oldest continuously operating auto racing facility in the world. During that time, the track has seen nearly every type of motorsports competition, from turn-of-the-century "speed contests" and 24-hour endurance races to Depression- and WWII-era open-wheel car duels, USAC stock car events, midget racing, and now CART and NASCAR competition. The roster of past winners at The Milwaukee Mile is a veritable "who's-who" of racing history, including names like Barney Oldfield, Rex Mays, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Mario Andretti.

Auto racing at The Milwaukee Mile debuted on September 11, 1903, when William Jones of Chicago won a five-lap speed contest, setting the first track record with a 72 second, 50 mph lap in the process. 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.

DePalma also played a significant role in The Mile's development. In 1911, he won the inaugural Milwaukee Mile Championship Car race, as well as the famed Indianapolis Speedway Race held the following weekend. He was one of ten racers to compete in both events.

The Milwaukee Mile faced a series of unique challenges during the years surrounding World War I. Since the original purpose of the track was for racing horses, the early retaining walls were little more than picket fences until concrete barriers were installed in the 1920s. With the horsemen and auto racers sharing the same track, special attention to the dirt surface was necessary, forcing the track's groundskeeper to loosen the surface for horse racing and to harden it for cars. In the 1920s, board tracks sprang up across the country and The Mile fell from favor with many drivers, who preferred the smoother and faster board tracks. However, this gave the facility a chance to develop a number of local drivers and its first promoter of note - Tom Marchese. During his tenure, which lasted from 1929 through 1967, Marchese promoted more major races at The Milwaukee Mile than any other promoter in the history of the speedway.

 

 

1933-1953
In the 1930s, The Mile returned to national prominence with the development of a new grandstand area, which replaced the original grandstand built in 1914. Holding 14,900 spectators, it was built over time in three sections, and then merged via a common roof in 1938. Fortified several times through the ensuing decades, it stood until September 2002.

Some of the first big events held in the newly improved facility had nothing to do with auto racing. Through much of the 1930s, the Green Bay Packers played two games a year on The Milwaukee Mile's infield, and the site even hosted the 1939 NFL Championship game in which the Packers beat the New York Giants, 27 - 0. The Milwaukee Chiefs from the American Football League also played their home games there in 1941.
Champ Cars made their first appearance at The Milwaukee Mile on July 17, 1933. But before the 100-mile race could get underway, a rainstorm hit the track, washing out the show. A group of drivers, led by Wilbur Shaw, convinced promoter Tom Marchese to run the race the following day, in the process coining the now-popular sports term "rain date."

There were three other Champ Car races held at The Mile during the 1930s with Rex Mays winning in 1937, Chet Gardner in 1938 and Babe Stapp in 1939. Mays was the first to break the 90 mph barrier in 1934 with a lap of 39.47 seconds (91.21 mph). The 1937 race was perhaps the most memorable of the decade, since a scoring error caused it to end prematurely after the 96th lap, instead of the 100th.

The 1930s also saw the emergence of Tony Willman, who is still considered one of the top Midget and Sprint Car drivers ever to come out of Wisconsin. Willman's fame peaked on August 4, 1939, when his hometown of South Milwaukee made him honorary mayor and paraded him to that day's race in the official town car with another 200 supporters' vehicles driving behind. Fittingly, he won the event.

Although interrupted by World War II, the 1940s were marked by the continued growth of racing at The Mile and the continued domination of major events by Rex Mays, who won the 100-mile race in 1941 and again in 1946 (when racing resumed). In 1948, the facility held its first 200-mile Champ Car race as well as its first major stock car race.

From 1947 through 1980, The Milwaukee Mile was the site of more national Championship midget, stock and Indy car races than any other track in the country. Milwaukee had established itself as the premier one-mile oval in America. In July of 1950, 33,161 fans watched Myron Fohr win a 150-mile stock car race at The Mile, an attendance record that stood until July 4, 1993, when 34,260 people witnessed the return of the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series to Milwaukee.

In 1950, the June 100-mile race was named the Rex Mays Classic, while in 1961, the 200-mile August event was designated the Tony Bettenhausen Classic. These two races became mainstays on the Champ Car schedule through 1982, when the August event was eliminated.

Under Tom Marchese's skilled promotion, the track prospered as it enjoyed the unqualified backing of the State Fair Board and management. As the growth of racing continued, improvements were still being made, one of which would take the track into the modern era of auto racing.

1954-1980
The modern era began in May 1954 when the track was paved for the first time. However, during the 1950s and 60s, the quarter-mile dirt oval in the infield was the sight of numerous, weekly racing programs. Miles Melius of Slinger was the dominant driver, and Carl Kulow of Plymouth won frequently as well. Horseracing events also continued during The Wisconsin State Fair on the interior half-mile oval until 1959.

During the 1960s, Norm Nelson of Racine dominated the USAC late-model stock car ranks. He won Championships in 1960, 1965 and 1966 and started in 75 straight USAC late-model stock car races at The Mile, winning 11 times.

The 1960s were also marked by the emergence of rear-engine vehicles on the Champ Car circuit, debuting at Milwaukee in 1962. In 1963, the rear-engine Lotus-Fords of Jim Clark and Dan Gurney dominated the field in the August race, with Clark taking the checkered flag in a record speed of 109.303 mph.

The last victory for a traditional roadster at Milwaukee came at the 1964 Rex Mays Classic when A.J. Foyt outclassed the field. Although Foyt would also switch to a rear-engine car before that season was over, he did have one last unintended appearance at The Mile in a front-engine car. In 1965, Foyt was forced to tow his dirt track car, a front-engine Offy, to Milwaukee from Springfield when his rear-engine Lotus-Ford, along with his crew, did not arrive in Milwaukee in time for qualifying. He proceeded to prepare the car himself for racing on pavement and then put the car on the pole with a speed of 107.881 mph. Foyt led 16 of the 200 laps but eventually finished second to Gordon Johncock. By 1966, only three roadsters were in the Rex Mays Classic field. The last year a front-engine roadster raced at The Mile was in 1970 with Bob Harkey at the wheel. The entire track was repaved at the end of the 1967 season. By 1970, most of the 1.2-mile road course in the infield had been obliterated with the enlargement of the pit area. The quarter-mile oval also went out of existence around the same time.

During the 1960s and into the early '70s, the most dominant stock car driver was Don White of Keokuk, Iowa. He won 14 stock car races, more than any driver in Milwaukee Mile history. Dominating stock cars in the mid-1970s was Butch Hartman, who won two USAC Championships and an amazing seven out of eight races on The Mile, duplicating the record of Parnelli Jones in the 1964 and '65 seasons.

The pre-eminent Champ Car driver of this period was Al Unser Sr., who won four times at The Mile and finished three miles ahead of the field at the 1970 Bettenhausen 200. Rick Mears also made his first appearance in Milwaukee during the late '70s, although surprisingly it came in a USAC stock car. Mears came back to win a USAC race in Milwaukee a year later and won Champ Car races at the track in 1988 and 1989.

1981-1991
1980 saw the first race sanctioned by Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) - the Tony Bettenhausen 200 on August 10. After 36 years of hosting two Champ Car races a year, just one race was run in 1983, and that has been the case ever since.

A controversy marked the finish of the 1983 race as Tom Sneva won the race - his second at The Mile - by a margin of 10 seconds. An inspection of Sneva's car revealed that it didn't have proper ground clearance on the side pod's mounted skirts, so Al Unser, Sr. was declared the winner. CART's technical staff later upheld a subsequent appeal by Sneva and reversed the ruling, giving the win back to Sneva two weeks later. Sneva won for the third straight time at The Mile in 1984, his fourth victory in five races at Milwaukee. 1984 was the first year the June event was 200 miles in length, which proved fortuitous for Sneva, snaring the lead from Rick Mears on lap 199.

NASCAR made its debut in Milwaukee in 1984 with the Busch Late Model Sportsman series, now known as the Busch Series. The Busch Late Model Sportsman division also raced in Milwaukee in 1985, NASCAR's last visit to The Mile until its return in 1993. Sam Ard drove to victory in the 200-mile race, followed by the two Wisconsin stock car legends, the late Alan Kulwicki and Dick Trickle, as well as Bobby and Davey Allison and Dale Jarrett, respectively. The 1985 event saw one of the most exciting finishes in Mile history as Jack Ingram and Rick Mast swapped the lead four times in the last six laps with Ingram winning by less than one car length.

In 1985, Miller Brewing Company became title sponsor of the Champ Car event. That year, Mario Andretti set a qualifying record of 147.608 mph and went on the win the Miller American 200. It was his fourth victory at The Mile, but his first since 1967. 1986 went down in history as the first time a father and son had won back-to-back races in Milwaukee as Michael Andretti took the checkered flag. He picked up his second win in a row at Milwaukee by winning the Miller American Racing 200 in 1987.

In 1990, the Champ Car race took the name "Miller Genuine Draft 200." Al Unser Jr. won that event after leader Michael Andretti ran out of fuel on the 198th lap. Little Al's victory made it the ninth Milwaukee Mile win for the Unser family. His father, Al, Sr. and his Uncle Bobby, each have four. In 1991, a first in the worldwide history of auto racing occurred as three members of the same family finished 1-2-3 in a major Champ Car event. Michael Andretti won the race followed by his cousin, John, in second and father, Mario, in third. Michael's brother, Jeff, was also in the field, finishing 11th.

1992-2001
In 1992, with Milwaukee in danger of losing its CART race, Carl Haas was given a long-term contract to organize all racing activity at the storied facility. Working feverishly with the combined help of 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 that have culminated with the completion of the new grandstands for the 2003 season.

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. Bobby Rahal, who set a new track record in qualifying, finished second followed by Scott Brayton in third. The 1993 event saw reigning Formula One World Champion, Nigel Mansell, pass Raul Boesel with 19 laps remaining to claim his first career oval track victory. Mansell went on to win the CART Championship the same year.

In 1994, Team Penske swept the top three positions in the only rain-shortened Champ Car race in Milwaukee Mile history. Al Unser Jr. won, with Emerson Fittipaldi finishing second and Paul Tracy in third. The following year, Tracy moved to the top step of the victory podium, driving for the team owned by Haas.

Haas was back in the victory lane again the next year when Michael Andretti held off Al Unser Jr. by less than two-tenths of a second to record his fifth Milwaukee Mile victory. The track was resurfaced again prior to the 1996 race, which was won by Michael Andretti. More new names were added to Milwaukee Mile winner's list when Greg Moore won in 1997 and Jimmy Vasser took the checkered flag in 1998.

In addition to stellar CART action, the Carl Haas era in Milwaukee has also been marked by the return of NASCAR racing for the first time since the mid-80s. On July 4th 1993, a record crowd was on hand for the NASCAR Busch Series Havoline "Formula 3" 250, which was won in thrilling fashion by Steve Grissom. Another exciting NASCAR finish occurred in 1996, when local hero Dick Trickle was passed with just four laps to go by Roy "Buckshot" Jones, who went on to win the first major race of his career by a scant .002 second over Mike McLaughlin.

The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series visited The Mile in its inaugural 1995 season with Mike Skinner winning both the pole and the race. The Truck Series has returned each year since and the track has proven to be the perfect match. In 1996, the series record was set when 17 lead changes occurred during the race.

Both the NASCAR Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series have been extremely popular at The Milwaukee Mile, with attendance records set at the 1993 event and again at the NASCAR Busch Series events in 1996, '98 and in '99 when 43,434 saw rookie Casey Atwood win. In 2000, the NASCAR Busch Series event at The Mile went to Jeff Green, and was then swept for the next two years by Greg Biffle.

The Milwaukee CART races have been marked by a series of foreign-born winners, with Canadian Paul Tracy grabbing his second victory in 1999, followed by Juan Pablo Montoya of Columbia in 2000, Kenny Brack of Sweden in 2001, and then Tracy again in 2002. But America is not without her due. In 2000, Kurt Busch captured both the pole and the race in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. The following year, the victory went to former Franklin resident Ted Musgrave, and in 2002, the spoils of victory went to Terry Cook.

2002 - present
Wisconsin State Fair Park has made numerous upgrades and facility improvements at The Milwaukee Mile started in 2002, and they have been substantial to say the least.

The bleacher seats were replaced with all-aluminum seating in the north and south terrace in 2002. In time for the 2003 Centennial Season at America's Legendary Oval, a completely new center grandstand area with 25,000 seats with improved sightlines, brand-new restrooms, concession areas and other fan-friendly amenities was completed. Combined, there are now nearly 40,000 brand new seats at America’s oldest operating motor speedway.

Not only was the facility enhanced, the amount of racing activity increased substantially.

The historic speedway’s infield road course underwent a transformation, as well, with a complete retrofitting of the infield road course, paving and widening the road course layout to 36 feet wide, offering greater usage of The Mile with a variety of course layouts. Increased car club and karting activity has blossomed, in addition to corporate outings, factory roll-outs and police training activities.

A non-tax supported bond also allowed the removal of older structures in the infield paddock to make way for new construction of a critical care/media center building, new pavement along hot pit road, a new pit wall, and new scoring pylon which replaced the two-panel scoreboard dating back to the 1960’s. In addition, the paddock area was expanded to allow pass holders closer access to the action.

The 2002 major event winners were Champ Car favorite Paul Tracy, with Greg Biffle becoming the first NASCAR driver to score three Milwaukee Mile victories by winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series race, one day after Ohio native Terry Cook won in NASCAR Camping World Truck Series action.

In 2003, Michel Jourdain, Jr. won the first-ever Champ Car World Series night race at The Mile on May 31st. That year also provided a nighttime setting for the speedway’s popular NASCAR doubleheader weekend under a temporary MUSCO Lighting System, which set into place the tradition of Friday night NASCAR Truck Series races followed the next day and evening by NASCAR Nationwide Series (formerly Busch Series) activities each June. NASCAR event winners in 2003 were NASCAR veterans Brendan Gaughan and Jason Keller.

In 2004, The Milwaukee Mile introduced season tickets and partial season ticket options and doubled the number of major racing evetn weekends to four, with the addition of the IndyCar Series and the return of a weekend offering grass roots stock car racing under the ressurected Governor’s Cup banner.

In what was the 172nd and 173rd sanctioned United States Auto Club (USAC) events at The Mile, Silver Crown and National Midget Series victories in 2004 went to Dave Steele and J.J. Yeley, respectively. It had been an 11 year span since USAC last visited America's Legendary Oval.

A huge crowd was treated to Dario Franchitti's victory celebration after inaugural IndyCar Series race in 2004. The late Paul Dana scored the win in Firestone Indy Lights racing on a memorable July open wheel weekend.

American Champ Car driver Ryan Hunter-Reay manhandled the field in '04, with NASCAR victories on Wisconsin's biggest motorsports weekend that year going to Ron Hornaday, Jr. in the Alan Kulwicki 250 presented by Forest County Potawatomi Racing Nationwide Series race, and former Franklin, Wis. native Ted Musgrave winning for the second time at The Mile in the Truck Series.

Second generation racer Bryan Reffner of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. won the final ASA National Tour event at The Mile in August, 2004.

Headling 2005 action was another historic, Milwaukee Mile first. Johnny Sauter of Necedah, Wis. was a full-time NASCAR Nationwide Series driver who dominated that year's Nationwide Series race, producing the first home-grown NASCAR victory by a Wisconsin driver.

For the first time since 1983, the ARCA RE/MAX Series returned for a ninth visit to The Mile in 2005, as ARCA legend Frank Kimmel perservered. Later that season, the first USAC Sprint Car Series event since 1960 was held, with Indiana’s Bobby East the victor in the Parnelli Jones Classic, which was a prelude to the NASCAR Autozone Elite Division, Midwest Series 150-mile race, won by Alabama’s J.R. Norris under the direction of Green Bay, Wis. native Richie Wauters as the team's crew chief.

In 2005, Ohioan Sam Hornish, Jr. became a popular Milwaukee Mile IndyCar Series race winner at the same speedway his father and mother, who is a Milwaukee native, shared their first date. Hornish provided legendary team owner Roger Penske with his eighth pole position earned and sixth open wheel championship race victory at The Mile.

The 2005 Governor's Cup weekend was highlighted by a return of Wisconsin racing legend Dick Trickle, who started on the front row of the super late model race only to suffer suspension failure and post a 16th place finish in one of four races held that weekend. Illinois native and short track ace Jeremy Miller capture two feature victories that weekend, as well.

The year 2006 celebrated racing legend A.J. Foyt's 50th year of involvement in IndyCar Series racing. Prior to the IndyCar Series race named in Foyt's honor, the ABC Supply / A.J. Foyt 225, The Mile's victory lane was appropriately badged "A.J. Foyt Victory Lane." Foyt had started more races as a driver at The Milwaukee Mile than at any other speedway during his storied career. Tony Kanaan was the first driver to pull into A.J. Foyt Victory Lane after winner his first of two consecutive IndyCar Series race wins (2006 and 2007).

Paul Menard of Eau Claire, Wis. kept the NASCAR Nationwide Series trophy in the Badger State in 2006, while Johnny Benson started his string of three consecutive victories in the NASCAR Truck Series that year. The final Champ Car Series victory went appropriately to the northern Illinois-based powerhouse team of Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing and driver Sebastien Bourdais.

Governor's Cup weekend race winners included Phil Bozell in ARCA action, Mauston, Wis. native Kelly Bires, Lake Geneva, Wis. driver James Swan, and Marshall, Wis. standout late model racer Nathan Haseleu.

The world-class competition on the oldest active motor speedway continued to attact a growing, loyal fan base in 2007. The NASCAR Nationwide Series event drew national headlines, as rising star Aric Almirola was replaced mid-race by NASCAR 'Cup star Denny Hamlin. Hamlin made up a lap and scored an improbable victory for Milwaukee-based sponsor Rockwell Automation.

The 2007 IndyCar Series action was also stellar. On his way to an apparent victory, then-race leader Helio Castroneves suffered a dramatic wing failure 25 miles shy of the finish, allowing Kanaan to repeat at The Mile. Kanaan's protege Jaime Camara won in dramatic fashion the prior afternoon with a stellar late-race pass for the Firestone Indy Lights victory, which made it a clean sweep for Andretti Green Racing.

The 2008 season will be remembered for the historic occasion of noted team owner Roger Penske's 300th professional motosports victory, thanks in part to driver Ryan Briscoe, who scored his first-ever IndyCar Series victory after passing '08 champion Scott Dixon under green flag conditions for the memorable victory.

It was a magical race day in 2008 for Firestone Indy Lights race winner Bobby Wilson, who's known for his road racing expertise. He became an instant hometown hero in A.J. Foyt Victory Lane, as the aspiring racer grew up 35 miles west of America's Legendary Oval in Oconomowoc, Wis.

In 2009, the track met with challenging times. There was promoter turnover, but despite this, IndyCar and NASCAR races ran at the track and race fans came out to support the races. In the post-season, the Fair Park Board was forced to terminate the contract with the existing promoter and begin the search for a new one. Months of searching and negotiations with potential promoters left the Fair Park Board empty-handed. Ultimately, sanctioning bodies for major races could wait no longer and races were moved to other tracks for the 2010 season.

In 2011, the IZOD IndyCar series returned to the Milwaukee Mile for the Milwaukee 225 led by new promoter.  This action packed weekend of racing featured 7 races and events across the entire fairgrounds. Dario Franchitti took home the win in the feature event on Father's Day Sunday.  Unfortunately, the event was lightly attended and the promoter announced that the Milwaukee 225 would not return in 2012.

Enter Michael Andretti into the picture.  The Andretti family has a rich history of success at the Milwaukee Mile, and Michael knew the value of the track to open wheel racing and the racing community in general.  In February 2012, Andretti Sports Marketing announced the return of the IZOD IndyCar series to the Milwaukee Mile as part of a new festival called Milwaukee IndyFest.  The event featured a carnival-like atmosphere in the infield of the Milwaukee Mile.  Combined with great racing on the track and an exciting win by American driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, the event was a success.

Also added to the schedule in 2012 was the Howie Lettow Memorial 150.  Dedicated to the memory of legendary midwest crew chief Howie Lettow, this event featured some of the biggest names in NASCAR including Rusty Wallace, Matt Kenseth and more!  A crowd of over 15,000 turned out on a Tuesday evening for this event and nearly filled the frontstretch grandstand.  Putting the icing on the cake, Wisconsin native Johnny Sauter took the checkered flag in the inaugural Howie Lettow Memorial 150.

Milwaukee IndyFest returned to the Milwaukee Mile in 2013 and looked to build upon the success they experienced in 2012.  With the addition of the Pro Mazda Series and World Federation of Rickshaw Racing, the action on the track was non-stop (although sometimes slow in the case of the rickshaw races!).  Ryan Hunter-Reay once again took the checkered flat in the IZOD IndyCar Series race and the overall event was a success once again.

The Howie Lettow Memorial 150 returns to the Milwaukee Mile on July 8-9 as part of an expanded event titled ARCAFest.  This two day event features a concert on Monday night by rock band 38 Special and five series racing at the Milwaukee Mile.

The Wisconsin State Fair Park Board continues to seek a new full-time promoter for the historic track where the legacy of auto racing continues at The Milwaukee Mile, America's Legendary Oval.