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WisBusiness: SBC enters NASCAR world with race at Milwaukee Mile

By Brian E. Clark

WEST ALLIS – Paul La Schiazza, president of SBC Wisconsin, doesn’t exactly have auto racing in his blood, but close to it.

Which is why, in no small part, SBC has entered into a multi-year sponsorship of a NASCAR Busch Series race on June 25 at the historic Milwaukee Mile track.

“I’m a big fan and I’m excited about this effort,” said La Schiazza, whose company began airing ads promoting the race last week.

“It fits in well with what we are trying to do and the audience we want to reach,” added La Schiazza, who is a big fan of racers A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney and Mark Donahue.

Dubbed the SBC 250, the NASCAR event will be televised nationally. It is the first involvement by the telecommunications company with auto racing.

La Schiazza said the Milwaukee Mile sponsorship builds upon a growing marketing strategy for SBC. Recently the company has sponsored promotions tied to movies, music, sports and online video gaming. The SBC 250 is the latest addition.

“We have millions of customers in Wisconsin and Illinois and there are hundreds of thousands of NASCAR fans in and around Milwaukee and Chicago. This race and the Mile are also great tourist draw and an economic engine for our region.”

The Milwaukee Mile is on the State Fair Park grounds. At 102 years, it is the oldest operating auto racetrack in the world. Past winners at the Mile include Barney Oldfield, Rex Mays, Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt, the Unsers, the Andrettis and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

During the 1930s, the Green Bay Packers played two games a year on the Mile's infield, and the site hosted the 1939 NFL Championship game in which the Packers beat the New York Giants, 27-0.

Two years ago, the state invested more than $19 million to replace the track’s aged viewing stands – which now seat 43,000 people - and make other improvements. The state also has made other investments in new buildings at the fairgrounds, totaling more $160 million.

La Schiazza, 47, said he has been hooked on auto racing ever since his family moved from the Chicago suburb of Cicero to Indianapolis 37 years ago.

“I was 10 and we listened to the Indianapolis 500 all the way there,” said La Schiazza, 47. “I’ve been to lots of Indy 500’s since then.”

La Schiazza, president of SBC Wisconsin for four years, called the NASCAR deal a “win-win” for his company, the racetrack, Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

“And for me personally as a race fan,” he acknowledged. He declined to say how much SBC has invested in the sponsorship, citing competitive reasons.

“I will say I advocated strongly for this, though,” he said. “As a company here in Wisconsin, we have a competitive market and people have a lot of options for telecom services.

“We’d been looking for key opportunities to elevate our brand and create consumer awareness,” he said.

“I became aware of the opportunity to get involved with the Mile and NASCAR. I also knew Gov. Doyle was a Milwaukee Mile backer and that the state had made a lot of improvements there. It’s now a great place to watch auto racing.”

La Schiazza called the NASCAR series the “premier” racing series in the country.

“I know from a sponsorship perspective that NASCAR fans are very loyal to their sport and the products that back the series. I wanted to link SBC to that.”

La Schiazza praised changes made at the Milwaukee Mile and said they were crucial to the deal between the Milwaukee Mile and SBC.

According to a state audit, the track lost about $3.4 million in 2004, with much of that figure coming from the debt service on the new grandstand and other improvements.

Gary Girard, the Mile’s acting general manager, said a full schedule, new sponsorships and increased track activity will improve track revenues this year.

“I can’t promise we will make money this year, but the debt will be greatly reduced,” he said. “We’ll have some kind of event – from kids' go-carts to NASCAR - every weekend from May through the end of October. From where we were a couple of years ago, that is a huge change.”

La Schiazza said he was not familiar with the track’s financial woes, but said the money put into the new grandstand was well spent.

“To be successful, you need to make investments,” he said. “The Mile is now is now a state-of-the-art facility, a fine place to watch racing.”

La Schiazza predicted the SBC 250 will be “the” racing ticket to have this summer.

“It will be sold out. The only way to get tickets will be through promotional activities on SBC.com, where people can win a lifetime pass to the Mile and tickets to the SBC 250.”

La Schiazza also lauded former Milwaukee Mile general manager Mark Perrone for his efforts to bring major events to the venue. Perrone resigned this spring for family health reasons and has moved to Boston.

In addition to the NASCAR series, the Mile also will be the site for music concerts and other kinds of racing – including some that use a twisting infield track – through the end of the season.

The Champ Car Weekend will run June 3 and 4. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races is June 24. The Indy Racing League series is July 22, 23 and 24 and the NASCAR Elite Midwest Series is July 26, 27 and 28.

“Mark saw the potential, recognized the great history and took necessary actions to upgrade the facility,” La Schiazza said. “It has been a wonderful transformation.”

But La Schiazza saved his loudest praise for the new grandstands, which he described as more fan-friendly.

“You don’t get splinters when you sit in those stands anymore,” he said. “The improvements have made it a lot more appealing for the spectators, the competitors and the racers.

Though they are markedly different venues, La Schiazza said the Milwaukee Mile offers some advantages over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, known affectionately as the “Brickyard.”

“Indianapolis is a 2 1/2-mile track and you get amazing speeds of up to 227 mph,” he said. “But you can’t see all of the course. You can’t see all the corners.

“With the Milwaukee Mile, the speeds are 40- to 50-mph less. But you can see the whole track, every aspect of the race and all the pit action. You can’t do that in Indianapolis.”

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