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Ingram: The Fall Of The House Of Hulman?

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 30 2009
Tough times have cast a shadow on the future of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the family that owns it.

Tough times have cast a shadow on the future of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the family that owns it.

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Indianapolis – The news of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway going the way of the House of Usher may be exaggerated. But in the season of celebrating the 100th year since the gates first opened at America’s biggest and best known racing facility, these are trying times.

Like the House of Usher, there’s a dark-haired, somewhat anxious inheritor caught in a dilemma over how to best determine the future of the Speedway. Sisters are involved and much like the mood cast in Edgar Allan Poe’s perverse story, the situation is murky for those on the outside looking in toward the offices of the proud, gigantic racing plant owned by Hulman & Co.

The crack in the foundation at 16th St. and Georgetown Road has been the recent drop in ticket sales for the summertime NASCAR race along with yet another tire controversy just three years after the debacle at the 2005 running of the Formula 1 race.

There’s a twist to the plot on who may have the upper hand when it comes to the current drama. It was Tony Hulman George who was removed from his job as president of the Speedway by the Hulman & Co. board composed of his mother, Mari Hulman George, three sisters and a business partner.

It all began to go awry with the re-paving of the track in the spring of 2005, when some bumpy spots were levigated by diamond-grinding. When those patches proved to be a problem for Firestone’s tires during IndyCar testing, the entire track was diamond-ground. That saved the Indy 500, but Michelin, during the subsequent F-1 race weekend, and then Goodyear in last year’s tire-popping NASCAR event have suffered serious problems in light of the peculiar surface.

The teams, drivers and NASCAR did their best to put on a race last year (unlike the F-1 boycott by Michelin teams) and efforts to focus on resolving the problems this year were well publicized. After a slow start to advance sales, a crowd of estimated at 180,000 graced the stands capable of holding close to 300,000.

The problem is, in part, one of coincidence. A slowdown in all NASCAR ticket sales has collided with the recent past negative publicity for the Speedway, which includes the departure of F1 after 2007 due to a huge jump in sanctioning fees, 30 percent of the vast grandstands empty this summer and the departure of title sponsor Allstate the day after this year’s NASCAR event.

An unanswered question looms over the situation not unlike the mystery hanging over the stone walls and turrets of the House of Usher. Was George profligate in his use of the income from the NASCAR race to fund the creation of the Indy Racing League and the subsequent dismantling of the rival Champ Car series? Does the current dwindling of the income stream further explain the action of the family-controlled board at Hulman & Co.?

As an aside here, there are those who suggest George spent billions – with a b – to establish the IRL at the expense of Champ Car, using the money from the NASCAR race. Usually offered by those disgruntled by the demise of Champ Car, this figure fails to pass the smell test.

It is commonly understood that money spent on the IRL was made possible by profits generated at the summertime NASCAR race. But even by the most generous estimates of margins on tickets, concessions, TV rights and sponsorship, it’s impossible to come up with $1 billion in profit since the first Brickyard 400 in 1994. Besides, the only way to spend that much on a racing series over a little more than a decade would include literally lighting a lot of cigars with $100,000 bills.

But it is accurate to say that hundreds of millions have been spent by George in his tenure as founder of the IRL and president of the Speedway. This includes the upgrade of the Speedway offices, media facilities and suites that befit the stature of the track as well as the re-modeling necessary for the F-1 series and now the MotoGP.

Was all that money spent for naught? Or is this power struggle a matter of restoring the cash flow to the coffers – and holding accountable whoever is minding the store?

The scenario falls in part under no good deed goes unpunished. Having made the necessary upgrade to the buildings and established the Speedway’s control over its own destiny at the Indy 500 through the IRL – instead of having terms dictated by Champ Car or its predecessor CART – George has been asked to step aside. Along the lines of the Usher household, he’s being buried alive in faint praise by his mother and sisters.

George’s only public statement on the situation has been to say he will submit a new proposal to the board about the structure of operations. But he’s already been replaced by some of his former employees at the Speedway and his own righthand man, Joie Chitwood, will soon be moving on.

Can the Speedway be pulled under by the millstones of a bad economy, NASCAR drivers that can’t pass one another due to COT chassis and an IRL that has yet to catch the imagination of the American public despite tons of promotion? Perhaps it will be torn asunder by a poorly functioning family two generations removed from Hulman & Co.’s primogenitor Tony Hulman. Could the future be dependent upon yet another woman – Danica Patrick?

In Poe’s story, the ancient House of Usher literally cracks in half  during a storm after terrible deeds take place within. It is incomprehensibly dark beneath a blood red moon when the structure finally crumbles into the adjoining lake. At Indy, dark times are indeed upon us if a crowd of 180,000 can be regarded as the beginning of the end.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, July 30 2009
2 Comments

2 Comments »

  • Moose says:

    The F1 problem was not due to diamond grinding. The F1 problem was due to the light construction of the Michelin tires—the tire’s side walls gave out. Note that Bridgestone had no troubles. They are, of course, the parent company of Firestone, so they had all the experience they needed to build a tire that could survive.

    The reason open wheel race cars don’t have problems with the diamond grinding, is because they don’t slide like a tin top does. The truth is that in qualifying setup, when the cars do in fact slide, an Indy car will wear out its tires on the rough surface in short order. If the track is clean, the tires won’t last substantially longer than NASCAR’s Goodyears did during the race from hell. NASCAR’s troubles were compounded (ha!) by the fact that the Goodyear tires had such a hard compound that the track didn’t rubber-in.

    So, anyway, you should double check those diamond grinding facts (don’t just take my word), and then correct your article. I realize that you’re trying to maximize the doom and gloom for your own reasons, but you still gotta get the facts straight. It’s simply wrong to say that the diamond grinding was the start of any more trouble than that one NASCAR race.

    • Jonathan Ingram says:

      Moose,

      Thanks for your comment.

      The diamond grinding has presented problems for every tire company that has raced cars at Indy.

      If you asked Tony George if he could do it over again and not have to diamond grind the surface after a proper re-paving job, I suspect he’d like to have avoided that route. It’s not about blame, it’s about what happened and the degree of difficulty of running a major superspeedway.

      The Firestones had problems with transitions over the patches –even without slipping.

      The Michelins had problems with lower than recommended tire pressures used by teams including Toyota and no control tire — hence no options once the problem arose.

      But the transition from the diamond ground surface to the infield surface constituted the same problem Firestone
      encountered with the patches and Indy cars. Somehow Michelins worked everywhere but Indianapolis that year — and the year before the diamond grinding they worked at Indy. The one thing
      missing from Pierre Dupasquier’s arsenal was the knowledge
      the Firestone engineers passed on to Bridgestone.

      In NASCAR, if you asked a tire engineer off the record (as I have) if he would rather have raced on the smooth surfaces
      produced in the days of Clarence Cagle or a diamond ground track, the answer is obvious. The diamond grinding presents unique and unnecessary problems, compounded by the fact the NASCAR crew chiefs chose not to test at Indy in 2008 after NASCAR limited all testing.

      If the diamond grinding was not a key issue, why did Goodyear use a laser machine to carefully define the surface it was dealing with at Indy prior to this year’s race, equipment used for the first time by the racing department?

      Recall, too, that in 2005 the Charlotte track surface was diamond ground and tires popped left and right and so did angry drivers. No COT, etc., etc.

      Blame the tire companies or blame the writer, but don’t insist diamond grinding is a good thing. It was done under the pressure of a rapidly approaching Indy 500 and because Firestone couldn’t figure out any other solution. There’s a certain terror that looms if the Indy 500 has major issues, perhaps one Poe himself might sympthaize with, so any solution was a good one at the time. Especially in the middle of a conflict with a rival sanctioning group.

      I grant you that Speedway representatives laud the diamond grinding as creating an excellent racing surface. But it was not the original plan. Please tell me all the other superspeedways that have used this method since 2005, excepting Charlotte, of course.

      Regards,

      Jonathan