What Tony George Should Do
When the Board of Directors of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp convenes today, it could take on historic significance. Robin Miller reported last month that Tony George had been voted out as CEO at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. What seems more likely is that the board (read: Tony George’s three sisters) has requested a plan from George that will allow him to focus on the most important entity that IMS Corp is involved in.
Apparently, that plan is due today. In all likelihood, Tony George will relinquish his duties at the Speedway in order to focus all of his attention on the struggling Indy Racing League. It’s evident that the IRL is the property that requires the most attention. It has been a money-pit and is the primary reason that the sisters are causing a stir. They are tired of seeing their inheritance evaporate as Tony George has reportedly spent around $600 million of Hulman-George money in order to prop up the league.
My question is this…would Tony George be making a mistake to follow that path? The crown jewel in the Hulman-George portfolio is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Since 1945, the Hulman-George family has owned the property at 16th & Georgetown. Since that time, they have done a spectacular job of maintaining it and securing its place as the premier racing facility in the world. The Hulman-George family has a vested interest in making sure this facility thrives for the next one hundred years. Tony George has done an exemplary job as caretaker of the storied oval and that’s where I think he should continue.
Is he the right person to lead the Indy Racing League? Quite frankly, I don’t think so. Although Tony George comes across as a stoic non-personality, the man has passion for racing. He also has emotions underneath that stone-faced facade. Those emotions are what drove him to form the league in 1994, after he was told that neither he nor the Speedway would have a voice in the direction of CART. His emotions also were the driving force behind some of the stubbornness, which swayed some of his decision-making.
The Indy Racing League has always been beset with problems, but perhaps none as great as what it is facing now. All forms of motorsports are struggling in this economy. Sponsorship dollars are hard to come by. Teams are cutting back or withdrawing altogether. Manufacturing support is dwindling. Fans are re-evaluating their priorities on where and how to spend their entertainment dollars. Given what all types of racing are facing, the IRL could not have picked a worse time to start having a boring product. If the race at Richmond represents what a fan or sponsor will be investing their money on, the league will dry up shortly.
I am taking a leap here to assume that the league will fix the hideous product that is now on the track. I realize that is a big leap, but for the sake of this article; let’s assume they get that done by the Kentucky race, which is their goal. That will make for some decent road/street course races and then hopefully four exciting ovals to close out the season on a high note. What then?
Based on what I have seen from Tony George, he has not always made the best business decisions. I like what he has done with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during his tenure, but other than that…his track record is poor. He has historically put his trust in the hands of the wrong people regarding the Indy Racing League. Leo Mehl was a racing icon during his career at Goodyear but when he retired, Tony George made him executive director of the league. Mehl’s reputation will always be tarnished by that three-year stint from 1996-99 that was marred by indecision and poor decisions. It’s no knock on Mehl, as he was simply out of his element.
There was also the forgettable link with Simmons-Abramson Marketing, which brought us that magical jingle “I am Indy”. Gene Simmons over-promised and under-delivered a marketing prowess that never arrived. Couple these with two short-lived and failed corporate sponsorships with Pep Boys and Northern Lights, and it’s clear that Tony George has not been able to articulate his “vision” in a business sense; not to mention the laughable performance of Vision Racing which is now in its fifth year of existence and is probably further away from its first win than ever.
Now that we are in the post-unification era, it’s as if Tony has lost his focus in the absence of a rival. The Yankees need the Red Sox. Ohio State needs Michigan. AJ Foyt needed Mario. I think Tony George needed CART/Champ Car to give him a sense of purpose. He used to crow about bringing his hammer to work every day when the CART-IRL battle was raging. Since Tony George won the open-wheel war, he may have lost his edge.
So what should Tony do? What he SHOULD do, and what he WILL do are two different things. What he should do is to relinquish control of the IRL entirely. Place it squarely in the hands of a RACING person that also has a marketing background, solid business acumen and would not allow emotions to sway sound business judgment. This would allow George to remain as CEO of his beloved Speedway, a job he has excelled in. He could also focus on bringing Vision Racing up to a reasonable level so that Ed Carpenter can step out of the cockpit and run the team.
Who would run the IRL? I don’t have the answer to that. Fortunately, it doesn’t look like it will be Humpy Wheeler. I’ve heard the name of Eddie Gossage thrown about. He would be excellent, but I don’t think he would take the job. It’s a job with a daunting challenge that only a very select few would take. Robin Miller always thought Chris Pook would be the answer for CART and he was a disaster. I feel quite certain though that if Tony announced plans to step away, that the right person could be found…so long as it isn’t an aging rock star.
But all of this is purely hypothetical. Before the day is out, it will be announced tonight that Joie Chitwood will assume more responsibilities at IMS, whilst Tony accepts more of a role in trying to fix the mess that he created with the Indy Racing League. Thus we will have more of the same until it gets worse.