Andretti deserves victory lap for IndyFest

West Allis – Just before raindrops began to make the track unplayable for unroofed 650-horsepower machines with slick tires, Hizzoner Barrett reached into his Wizard of Oz sack and presented Michael Andretti with a proclamation that basically declared the guy had the heart, brains and courage (not to mention the money) to save IndyCar racing in our town.

A few hours later, after the track was sufficiently dry to drop the flag, Andretti proved it by in turn presenting Milwaukee with the scorched broomstick of success.

Essentially, the second-generation owner/promoter/retired driver of the noted racing clan hit a grand slam Saturday.

Two of his team drivers, winner Ryan Hunter-Reay and third-place finisher James Hinchcliffe, made the podium. And Andretti's over-the-rainbow idea that he could actually make a go of the moribund IndyCar race at the Milwaukee Mile worked to the point that his first IndyFest will be back for 2013, with dates etched in asphalt.

"What a storyline," said Hunter-Reay. "Milwaukee has been so important to IndyCar racing for so long. The two belong together."

The fact that Milwaukee and IndyCar deserve each other in the best possible way has never been in question. The question was whether the people would respond.

You could feel it from the grandstands.

To the delight of those who value it as important to the city, more than 20,000 showed up for the race that culminated a two-day event that combined the best elements of motor sports, Summerfest and the State Fair. That was a significant bump from last year, when a circa-'90s-early-April-County-Stadium vibe almost caused daddy to permanently confiscate the keys.

"It was a great crowd for the first time out," Andretti said. "It's something to build on. We'll be here next year and hopefully for a long time after that. It can be a whole lot bigger."

You could sense it from the infield, which had much more of a major-event feel. Credit Michael, who has been here enough to know, for recognizing Milwaukeeans require extra bang for their entertainment buck.

"What a great event," second-place finisher Tony Kanaan said. "I love this place. Always have. . . . It's remarkable. Everybody who tried to organize this race before couldn't because they didn't have the name Michael has."

No matter the instant name recognition, a lot of people had doubts. I know I did, especially after sensing that Andretti was nervous as late as three weeks ago. But outside the 90-minute delay, the event came together beyond expectations.

"I think we proved to everybody that this can be a first-class event and a world-class event," Andretti said.

IndyCar has had its problems. Last year's Indianapolis 500 winner, Dan Wheldon, was killed in a horrific crash that cost IndyCar its Las Vegas venue. Danica Patrick left for NASCAR, but you could always catch her act this weekend at Road America.

Then there was the rain that began just before the scheduled start, leaving a skeptic wondering if the sport – and the Mile – could ever catch a break.

But even the delay didn't seem to hurt. In fact, it might have helped. Parents took children to the infield attractions. There was no reason for anyone to leave and every reason for those who attended to spread the word of a worthwhile experience.

"I was glad to see the infield with all the entertainment for the children," Kanaan said. "If children want to come, people will come."

Whether it is for money to de-dandelion Little League fields, a new multipurpose downtown arena or a race, it's not my job to cheerlead. The last I checked, we have a Chamber of Commerce for that. But I can't deny a certain amount of pleasure at seeing this thing off front-yard axle blocks and back on the Mile with a sense of permanence.

"It was a perfect day in a lot of ways," Hinchcliffe said. "It's a race that Andretti brought back to life.

"He really put his neck on the line for this race. They've been working 24/7 since January to make this thing work. The people came out. That was awesome. And we gave them a great show."

Sometimes, things just come together. Andretti won here five times as a driver. He won for the fourth time Saturday as an owner.

"There is something about this place that we just love," he said.

But his biggest victory of all here could have been on behalf of a city that has a reason to return the feeling.

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