WEST ALLIS, Wis. — When Ryan Hunter-Reay drove to victory at the Milwaukee Mile in 2004 he led every lap of a 250-lap race in the old Champ Car Series. Saturday’s victory wasn’t quite as easy but was just as satisfying as the Andretti Autosport driver hung around the front of the field before making his move and taking the lead on Lap 142 of the 225-lap race.
Hunter-Reay cruised from there to win Saturday’s Milwaukee Indy Fest presented by XYQ for his sixth career win and his first this season.
“What a race,” Hunter-Reay said. “I know we would have like to see a little more passing but form the car it was so busy, just trying to hang on to it. Hanging on those last few restarts were too much. I don’t need that.”
This race was promoted by Hunter-Reay’s team owner Michael Andretti and the first effort was impressive with a larger crowd than has attended IZOD IndyCar Series races at the Milwaukee Mile in quite a few years. The crowd was estimated in the 25,000 to 30,000 range.
“The script is perfect,” Hunter-Reay said. “This is an Andretti Sports Marketing event. Michael Andretti loves the sport and does a lot for it. Milwaukee and IndyCar go hand-in-hand. This is the oldest racing facility in the country and we just won.
But the race wasn’t awesome for the driver of perhaps the best car in the contest —Scott Dixon. He had started 21st in the race after receiving a 10-grid spot penalty for an unapproved engine change earlier in the week but had raced his way up to third place by Lap 121 when he got a great restart. But INDYCAR Race Director Beaux Barfield issued a drive through penalty after he believed Dixon had jumped the restart. That took the Target/Chip Ganassi Racing driver out of contention for the win and Barfield would later admit that a technical malfunction in the timing unit used to synch up with the restart was off by 36 seconds.
In reality, Dixon’s restart was legal and he should not have been penalized according to Barfield.
IndyCar officials have an elaborate technical procedure that matches the exact time of day on the official scoring system to match it up with the replay machine to match the clock. However, the clock actually matched up with a waved off restart the lap before where Helio Castroneves had jumped the start and the yellow flag remained out.
“I took one quick look at it, the time of day, the restart, when the pass occurred and the finalized the call, made the announcement and served the penalty,” Barfield said. “As it turns out when it got brought back to our attention we tried to trace it down and continued to review it through the process I just explained. When we did our complete download after the race the clock on our restart machine was 36 seconds off and that synched up perfectly to the lap before. If it had been 40 seconds off it would have been obvious we had a clock issue. It synched up so perfectly it was convincing that we had made the wrong call.
“Technology completely got us and I take responsibility from that. It was a perfect storm that happened to mesh up with what we saw on the video.”
Unfortunately for Dixon, once the penalty was served there is nothing that can be done to undo it.
“Once a penalty is served I can’t jump back in there and change it,” Barfield said. “Scott Dixon, Mike Hull and Chip Ganassi were told exactly what happened and were very gracious. They appreciated my candor with them and it’s a situation we hope never happens again.
“My biggest error in this is I didn’t play it far enough forward to realize it was the called off restart and it didn’t make sense. This is probably going to make us gun-shy for the next few decisions we make like this.”
Although Dixon never made it to the lead he had a car capable of contending for victory. Instead, he finished 11th and addressed his frustration before he had his meeting with Barfield in the IndyCar transporter.
“I don’t even know what they are talking about because the one restart where I got out of line is the one they waved off,” Dixon said. “I don’t know what the issue is yet. I personally don’t think I did anything out of turn and to get a drive through is a pretty harsh penalty. They just need to be consistent. If that is what happens that is what happens. Sometimes they just let you give the place back but at Milwaukee you go from third all the way back to 20th. I thought we had a really good car.
“The car was really good. We were trying to get to the front and race it out like we needed to.”
That issue certainly should not detract from Hunter-Reay’s outstanding drive that took him to victory lane at a race promoted by his team owner. While there were five lead changes among five drivers only one of those came on the race track and that is when Helio Castroneves got loose in Turn 2 and Hunter-Reay was able to set him up for the pass for the lead in Turn 3 on Lap 142.
“I was saving my tires behind him, kind of biding my time, saving some fuel,” Hunter-Reay said. “Everybody was strong on new tires. I just wanted to see where he went off. It started happening. It started happening through two. Lap after lap he looked weaker through there. I still let it go, didn’t push too hard. Then he had a wiggle, then another wiggle, and then he got off into the gray. I just went for it and got him into turn three. Kind of similar deal with Dario Franchitti, as well.”
Other than a 90-minute delay to start the race because of a rain shower and the technical issue that resulted in Dixon being unfairly penalized the race could be deemed successful by Andretti and his management team. In fact, Andretti announced before he gave the command to start engines that this race would return in 2013 and tickets would go on sale next week.
“This one is special,” Andretti said. “To have Ryan go out and win our first race that we’re promoting is huge. We had this sort of feeling back when we did the first race that we promoted back in St. Petersburg; we had a 1-2-3-4 finish there in St. Petersburg. People are probably starting to think these things are rigged. But those are things that will always go up there as being one of the special ones, and this one ranks right up there.
“I think it can be a lot bigger. We got in so late, it was hard to get people to come and activate. I think there were people skeptical, are we going to be able to pull it out. Sponsors told us, ‘Let’s see how you do it this year, then we’ll look at it.’ I think we proved to everybody that this is going to be a first class, world-class event. I think we’re going to have a lot more interest next year, especially on the corporate side. I think on the fan side, too. I think there were some skeptical fans out there because of past problems they had. I think our team did a great job. I think we proved you’re going to get a real bang for your buck. You’re going to have a great race, because Milwaukee is always a great race, but you’ll have fun and have fun with the whole festival activities.”
Hunter-Reay won the race in a Dallara/Chevrolet and defeated fellow Chevy driver Tony Kanaan of KV Racing by 5.1029 seconds. Andretti Autosport took two of the three positions on the podium with Canada’s James Hinchcliffe finishing third in a Dallara/Chevrolet. Another Chevy driven by Oriol Servia of Spain finished fourth with KV Racing’s E.J. Viso finishing fifth in a Dallara/Chevrolet. The top six positions were Chevrolet drivers including sixth-place Helio Castroneves of Team Penske.
Alex Tagliani of Bryan Herta Autosport was the highest Honda driver at seventh.
After winning at Milwaukee by leading every lap in a Champ Car Series race in 2004 and then backing it up with Saturday’s victory, Hunter-Reay can claim the title of “Mr. Milwaukee.”
“Every driver that drives the Milwaukee Mile knows you can’t do it without a good race car,” Hunter-Reay said. “I enjoy short-track racing. Places like Milwaukee, New Hampshire, they’re very challenging. The car changes so much through a stint, it’s just a really challenging, different type of racing. I really enjoy it. But you’re no better than the team you’re with. They’ve certainly given me a great opportunity here and I have them to thank for it.
“I’ll tell you what, though, 225 laps around here feels like a 500-mile race. It’s a short little place, it adds up quick.”
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