It was almost a perfect day for Michael Andretti: as promoter of this year's Milwaukee IndyFest, he got to put on a show that was both better presented and better attended than previous years, and got to announce that the contract was already signed to do it all over again in 2013. And as team owner, he got to put two of his drivers onto the podium at the end of the race itself.
The one thing that didn't go according to plan was the weather, which started pouring down shortly before midday and left teams, drivers and media milling around under tents in the infield waiting for the rain to stop and the one-mile oval to get dried off so that they could go racing. It wasn't anywhere in the league of the embarrassment of Detroit Belle Isle's mid-race delay for track rebuilding work, but it was a delay that everyone could have done without.
When everyone finally got summoned to their cars and the green flag came out 90 minutes behind schedule to get things underway, they were facing a very different track form the one that they had left after Friday qualifying, now that all the rubber that had been laid down had been washed off.
"The rain delay through us for a bit of a loop," admitted James Hinchcliffe after the race. "That first ten was a bit stale, there was no two grooves. We had to take some time to build that, but after that first stop it went good ol' fashioned Milwaukee. It was great short track racing, cars were falling off, guys were having to drive it."
The best place to be in such circumstances is out in the clear air at the front, and Dario Franchitti duly used his out-of-nowhere pole position to take the lead for the first run of the 225 mile race, with fellow front-row man Ryan Hunter-Reay slotting into second.
It was a routine opening stint, with only Josef Newgarden deviating from standard operating procedure by coming into the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing pits on lap 24. He was penalised for driving over an air hose that one of the pit crew was too slow to pull clear, but it didn't matter anyway: the early stop was due to fuel pressure alarms, and the glitch wasn't going away, forcing him to park on lap 48.
The rest of the field continued through to pit stops that began around lap 60, but were then interrupted by Simona de Silvestro spinning and crashing on lap 67 while racing with Tony Kanaan and Oriel Servia.
"I just made a mistake," she admitted. "TK passed me and Oriol tried to tuck behind him, and I just got in the marbles. It's just unfortunate. Sometimes you make mistakes; that's what happens."
Helio Castroneves had briefly led under the caution but was among those to come in for a pit stop, so when the restart came on lap 79 it was EJ Viso in the lead alongside his KV Racing Technology team mate Rubens Barrichello, the two having been among those to stay out.
The initial attempt at a restart had been thwarted by an unusually slow Justin Wilson, and while he was up to speed for the next try at a green flag the cause for his initial sluggishness became graphically clear on lap 94 when smoke and flame burst from the back of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing car.
"It was a disappointing end to the day," said the Englishman. "We had a great race car and we were making good progress during that first stint, picking guys off one by one. Then we got caught out with that yellow and after that we were trying to come back through
"On that last restart I lost second gear, which is why I dropped to the back," he explained. "We found third gear eventually, but having to use that for the restart made it tough. I was still able to pass guys, so I'm just disappointed that we're out of the race."
Unfortunately his compatriot and team mate James Jakes would have little better luck: he got taken out of the race just minutes later when Takuma Sato spun on the low line and crashed into Jakes, putting them both into the SAFER barrier.
"I just think Takuma got low on the inside and was loose and I was caught on the outside, and he just came straight in the side of me," he said. "You can see it there on the TV. Maybe his banzai moves are a little bit too much at times."
Sato refuted that 'banzai' comment and pointed out that he had been racing for a top position while Jakes was already a lap down at the time the accident happened.
"After the restart I was side-by side a couple of times and one stage it was with James Jakes, who was a lap down," explained the Japanese former F1 driver, now with Rahal Letterman Lannigan. "We were side-by side from Turn 4 and on the main straight into Turn 1 I was on the inside and was kind of boxed in. I tried to hang on but the track was so slippery on the extreme inside. The car started sliding and we ran out of space."
Helio Castroneves had taken the lead under the previous Wilson-sparked caution by staying out while others pitted under yellow, and he led again into the next waved-off restart on lap 102 and the successful one next time around on lap 103, the Penske team clearly intent on making a long-run fuel-conservation strategy work for him. It looked like his main challengers were set to be Ryan Hunter-Reay and Ganassi's Scott Dixon.
Dixon had been one of the big movers so far in the race, slicing through the field to get as high as third place having started from 21st position following a lacklustre qualifying and a ten-place grid penalty for an engine change. Just when it seemed that everything was coming together for the Kiwi came news that he'd been handed a drive-thru penalty for jumping the restart, putting him right back down again.
Dixon uttered the usual protestations of innocence, and the TV replays showed him doing ... precisely nothing wrong. Everyone scratched their heads. Then the tape was wound back another minute to that waved-off restart (aborted by Castroneves going too early) and yes, arguably that showed Dixon moving too soon, but then only because Viso had been slow to react and slowed up everyone else. In any case, the green flag had never been shown that time so Dixon could hardly be penalised for a restart that never happened.
"I really don't know what happened on the restart where we got penalised," said a perplexed Dixon afterwards. "I think the one they waved off was the one we got out of line when EJ Viso was trying to restart at 20mph. I was in first gear and when it went green, I went. I don't know what the issue was but I'm really looking forward to the explanation from IndyCar ... That punishment is pretty harsh."
The drive-thru together with a sticking throttle later in the day ended Dixon's hopes of competing for the win, dropping him from third to 15th. When race control did finally get to re-examine the incident later in the day, a mortified Beaux Barfield realised what had happened: the time codes used on the video equipment had been slightly out of sync, and when Barfield had called up footage of the restart he got the waved-off one from 39s earlier instead. He hadn't watched on far enough to realise that this had been the aborted start.
"It was obviously the wrong call based on the reality of the situation," admitted Barfield. “But based on the clock leading us the wrong way, technology completely got us ... It's one of those strange things that we've probably never heard of and hopefully never hear of happening again.
"I take responsibility for it being the wrong call," he said. "It was a perfect storm." He said that he had gone to Dixon and the Ganassi team afterwards to explain the miscall: "They appreciated my candour with them, explaining to them truthfully exactly what happened, and thought, 'It's racing,'" he said, adding that "Once a penalty is served, I can't then jump back in there and undo it."
Up at the front, after having led the race for a total of 50 laps, Castroneves had a momentary problem getting loose in turn 2 on lap 142 that gave Ryan Hunter-Reay the chance to steal the lead - and the Andretti Autosport #28 needed no second invitation.
"I was saving my tires behind him, kind of biding my time, saving some fuel. Everybody was strong on new tyres," said Hunter-Reay later. "Then he had a wiggle, then another wiggle, then he got off into the grey. I just went for it and got him into turn three."
Once in front in the clear air it was still a battle to keep the car under control on the Milwaukee Mile, but a heck of a lot easier than it had been stuck further down in traffic.
Case in point: polesitter and early race leader Dario Franchitti, who had lost the lead during the first round of pit stops and caution and who ever since had just dropped slowly backwards down the field as his ill-handling form from Friday practice reasserted itself and he found himself stuck midfield, through the next green flag pit stop cycle and a brief yellow for a very light rain shower that rapidly passed over the track on lap 182.
But Franchitti had never looked like reviving his fortunes or challenging for the lead, even before he tangled with Ryan Briscoe at the restart on lap 192 - Briscoe apparently not seeing Franchitti on the inside an pressing him right down onto the grass verge, banging wheels as they went.
"I was on Ryan's inside and he just kept coming down there," confirmed Franchitti. "I just don't think his spotter told him I was there. I had half a car on the rumble strip."
Neither car seemed the worse for the encounter, however - at least not until next time by when suddenly the backend of the Ganassi #10 snapped around and Franchitti found himself making quite the impression on the turn 3 and 4 SAFER barrier.
"The next lap I went in there and something broke in the back end of the car," said Franchitti. "The spine just snapped down. You actually see the car drop in the back there before it hit so I think the suspension "
When the race got back underway on lap 201, it was an uninterrupted green flag all the way to the finish. Hunter-Reay was still firmly in the lead, and now the opposition simply dropped away. Castroneves' long-run fuel-conservation strategy didn't pan out and after the final round of pit stops he fell back to a sixth place finish - respectable, if not quite as good as he'd hoped for.
"We took a gamble today with the pit strategy in the #3," he said later. "The car was running really well and we thought we could be aggressive with our plan. We definitely had a car that could win the race today but I am still happy with our result. I will take sixth place and look to do better next week at Iowa."
The pit stops and final cautions had popped Tony Kanaan up into second place ahead of Oriol Servia and James Hinchcliffe for that final stint, and apart from Hinch getting the better of Servia eight laps form the end, that's how the race finished.
"It's amazing," said Hunter-Reay, celebrating his first win since last year's controversial victory at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He's also previously won at the Milwaukee Mile, having taken the chequered flag in the CART series in 2004.
"What a race! I know we would all have liked to see a little more passing, but from the car it was so busy, just trying to hang on to it," he went on. "It's unreal, hanging on to those last few restarts were too much. I don't need that!"
Finishing in second, Tony Kanaan admitted that he'd had nothing more with which to challenge for the win. "I didn't have anything at the end for Ryan," he said. "I did something I never do, I try to protect my spot because I couldn't stay with Ryan."
The race winner was particularly happy that the Milwaukee event had been a success in terms of its staging at the crowd attendance, after fears that low crowd numbers last year might have meant that one of the most venerable US oval racing tracks might not be hosting any more IndyCar races in the future.
"Milwaukee has been so important to IndyCar for so long - I think this is a huge event for Milwaukee, these two belong together," he said, thanking his team owner Michael Andretti for stepping in as race promoter when no one else seemed willing. "I really thank Michael for sticking his neck out coming back here and really doing it the right way."
Kanaan agreed: "It was a long day, but this is typical Milwaukee," he said. "That's why I love this place. You've got to drive it. If you don't drive it, you never get it, so I'm extremely happy."
For Andretti, it was a poignant occasion: when he had been racing and won at Milwaukee, his car owners had been Paul Newman and Carl Haas - and Haas had been the race promoter. It was deja vu all over again.
"It didn't happen on purpose, but it's cool that it happened," said Andretti. "Carl was great to drive for. I have my best memories in racing in Newman Haas. We miss Carl and Paul a lot. But they've done so much for racing - like keeping Milwaukee going back in those days was one of the things they did."
With the contract for the Milwaukee event in 2013 confirmed, Andretti was already looking ahead 12 months down the line.
"I think we proved to everybody that this is going to be a first class, world class event," he said. "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."
And he'll be working just as hard to ensure that the podium once again has at least two if not three Andretti Autosport drivers on the podium at the finish.Full race results