How the Milwaukee Mile Might Be Saved

America’s oldest continuously operated motor speedway hadn’t seen much activity for years – but that’s been changing.

From left: David Kircher, Tim Osterbeck, Bill Mitchell and Jim Tretow stand along the Milwaukee Mile
The two Super Late Model race cars whizzing around the Milwaukee Mile Speedway drew a singular gasp from the crowd when they slammed. The leader relinquished its position as it spun to a stop on the backstretch at the inaugural Father’s Day 100. Farther back, a third car careened into the wall and launched into a sideways somersault, landing on its roof. Synchronized cries from the stands punctuated each impact, ending in unison with a collective exhale when the driver emerged unscathed.

“The fans just lit up,” says Jim Tretow, radio host of “Racing Roundup.” “It was good to hear that pulse back in the life of the Mile.”

The wild scene was a decent shorthand for the past decade of Milwaukee Mile programming. The oval predates both the Indy 500 and the Model T. Early Packers football games were played on the infield. Yet until this June, nearly four years had passed without any circuit racing.

Questions about the speedway’s fate have swirled since at least 2008, the year before NASCAR left the venue. Politicians floated the prospect of bulldozing the track.

Seizing on the local push to keep Milwaukee’s soccer team, the Wave, in town, Osterbeck created to build support for the track. Setbacks plagued his efforts for years. IndyCar withdrew after 2015, leaving the course all but abandoned. The official Milwaukee Mile website went dark, and Osterbeck’s father died. If he felt alone in pursuit of a hopeless cause, though, he’d soon learn there was backup. 

Motorsports Milwaukee was founded by local racing insiders to push for the return of circuit races to the Milwaukee Mile. Its president, David Kircher, began frequenting the grounds as a 12-year-old in 1961. By the end of that decade, he’d become a scoring official at Road America in Plymouth, a position he still holds. He recruited powerful outsiders like Gregg McKarns, president of the ARCA Midwest Tour racing league, and Track Enterprises promoter Bob Sargent.

Austin Nason beat dozens of other racers to win the Father’s Day 100; fans packed the Milwaukee Mile for the race.

Everyone saw business potential despite the speedway’s setbacks. Milwaukee Mile’s owner, Wisconsin State Fair Park, was in no hurry to dismantle the 45,000-seat grandstands and bleachers used for concerts. Police and racing schools used the track, too.

Smaller drag race events tested in 2018 were deemed successful enough for the three to commit to the larger Father’s Day 100. The group barnstormed for publicity, using Tretow’s media platform and Osterbeck’s grassroots network. Everything was paid largely out of everyone’s back pocket, according to Kircher, who woke up June 16 to demoralizing weather.

“The day started out cloudy with a misty rain. Pretty scary,” he recalls. The drizzle stopped moments before starting time, and a team of track-drying specialists leapt into action. An audience between 6,000 and 8,000 spectators trickled in as the racers warmed up. Turnout was enough to encourage the team to try again next year, with their fingers crossed that more planning time would net them corporate sponsorships essential to ensure long-term viability.

“You cannot put a race on with your heart. It’s going to fail miserably. The risk has to be worth the reward,” Tretow says.

Regular smaller-scale shows will continue in the meantime. Another round of drag races – with at least 18 brackets for various car types – is set for Sept. 17, and twice this month, Milwaukee Track Days will give fans the opportunity to run their street cars around the oval.

Some even dare to dream that NASCAR or IndyCar might return. It’s an expensive dream. It would cost $2 million to land either league, and millions more for a single race, according to Tretow. But it’s one that appears much closer than it did three years ago, thanks to the efforts of a few men who refuse to let Milwaukee Mile racing die.

“We didn’t put all that work in to only do one event,” McKarns says.

“Extra Miles” appears in the September 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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