Harris: George Era Ends In Controversy
Love him or hate him, everyone who follows American open-wheel racing has an opinion about Tony George.
Now, with his sudden plunge from the top of the open-wheel world, the haters can rejoice and the supporters are left to wonder what happened, how did George go from the most powerful man in the open-wheel sport to going, pfft, in less than a year.
His fall became complete recently when it was announced that Vision Racing, the team he started in the IZOD IndyCar Series to give stepson Ed Carpenter a ride, has closed its doors due to lack of sponsorship for the 2010 season.
George has been a controversial figure since the moment he took over as president and CEO of the family-owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1989 at the age of 30.
Anton “Tony’’ Hulman, George’s grandfather, was an icon to many people in open-wheel racing, hailed as the man who saved the speedway when he bought and refurbished the sprawling facility on the west side of Indianapolis after World War II.
Hulman was almost universally loved and respected and most people were inclined to give his grandson the benefit of a doubt when he succeeded retiring family friend Joe Cloutier as the speedway boss. But George’s propensity to ignore the speedway’s single-minded focus on tradition was enough to turn off many long-time fans.
Spending large chunks of the vast Hulman-George family fortune, George brought the Brickyard into the 20th century, upgrading the place with new luxury suits, a track warmup lane and a new Pagoda and media center in anticipation of enticing Formula One back to America.
His biggest, and most successful, move was opening up the Taj Mahal of open-wheel racing to NASCAR in 1994.
Although traditionalists hated the idea of the Indianapolis 500 sharing billing at the ancient track with NASCAR and F1, IROC and MotoGP, their biggest gripe against George during his 20-year reign at the Brickyard is the Indy Racing League, which he founded in 1996.
The IRL was intended to be a lower-cost alternative to CART (later known as Champ Car), as well as giving American racers a chance to move up from grassroots racing – particularly sprint cars and midgets – to Indy cars.
But the advent of the IRL began a 12-year split between the two open-wheel series, also splitting the open-wheel fan base, sponsors and TV audience. Both series struggled mightily, losing ground steadily to NASCAR as the stock car sport gained mainstream popularity.
And, worse for the Hulman-George family, George kept spending their money to keep the IRL afloat . Estimates of his expenditures begin at $100 million and go up, well up.
Even the end of the open-wheel split, with the IRL absorbing what was left of Champ Car in February 2008, was not enough to save George’s legacy. It was too little, way too late.
His mother, Mari Hulman George, chairman of the board of Hulman & Company and the speedway, along with his sisters, asked George to resign last June as CEO of IMS and Hulman & Company. He remained a member of the board and his new role was supposedly to concentrate on making the IRL more viable.
But the slippery slope had begun and he resigned from the board in January, leaving his only connection to the IRL the team he co-owns with actor Patrick Dempsey. Now, even that is apparently done.
The day the formation of the IRL was announced, a friend – a longtime racing executive – called me and said, “This is the beginning of the end for open-wheel racing. It will never work and Tony George is not the right guy to make it happen.’’
Turns out, he was right about George. Hopefully, there’s still the chance of a successful future for the IRL’s IZOD IndyCar Series.2 Comments