OK…Now What?

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Well…I certainly didn’t see that one coming. Apparently, Tony George has resigned his CEO positions at BOTH the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League. The rough translation is that the three wicked sisters ousted him, while his mother could only stand by and watch. It’s a shame, really. I have had a lot of negative things to say about Tony George over the years…and I mean a LOT of negative things. But to fight the, sometimes unnecessary, battles he has fought over the years…only to finally meet his end at the hands of his own siblings, is a little unnerving.

I’m sure we’ll never know the extent of the family squabbling that has gone on for years and finally came to a head last month. It really doesn’t matter at this point. What matters now is where do we go from here?

The Speedway will be in good hands and will continue to function and thrive. The question is…who is running the IRL? There is an old adage in football that says; if you have two starting quarterbacks, then you don’t have a quarterback. Right now, the IRL appears to be structured with two Presidents with distinctly different roles. Brian Barnhart is in charge of the competition side, while Terry Angstadt heads up the commercial side. Who reports to whom? Who is accountable? Surely, this is a very temporary situation. My hope is that Curtis Brighton, who is heading up the Hulman-George Companies effective today (July 1) will quickly find a suitable CEO that both of these men will report to.

The timing could not be worse for this to happen, but I suspect the sisters could care less. It is probably in the back of their minds to either sell or shut down the Indy Racing League in the not so distant future. The sisters have already expressed their desire to go back to the eighties, when a seperate series ran once a year at their fabeled track. Of course, this flies in the face of why their brother started the IRL. He wanted total control of open-wheel racing, while the sisters simply want someone to use their facility.

With their current product in this economy, I’m not sure that a buyer exists. Some say that open-wheel racing is just in a down-cycle. Others say that it has suffered the same fate as the 8-Track player and the powdered wig…other products that at one time had their day, but are now long gone. If such a buyer for the IRL does exists, they would need to (a) commit for the long-haul since things are more likely to get worse before turning around; and (b) run it as a business rather than chasing dreams and putting out fires, as Tony George was tempted to do.

No matter how you spin it, a rudderless ship is never a good thing. Poor leadership is better than NO leadership. Tony George was not a good CEO of the Indy Racing League. The basis he founded the league upon was flawed, he followed an ever-changing business plan and he made poor decisions. Say what you will about the man, but he is passionate about racing and did what HE thought was in the long-term best interest of the speedway and open-wheel racing. Many people don’t agree with a lot of things he did, myself included, but he followed his convictions. You can never totally fault a man for following his convictions.

The next few weeks and months will be telling about the future of the IRL. To say I’m concerned would be an understatement. Had this happened two years ago, the future may not look so cloudy – but who knows. The timing may be such that it’s best it happened now rather than 2007.

On the other hand, perhaps this will evolve into the best thing that ever happened. Given the alternative, I hope that it is. As I said yesterday, the IRL desperately needs new leadership and something this drastic may have been the only thing that would have made that possible. I know nothing about the two men chosen to head up the respective companies; Curt Brighton is to head the Hulman-George Companies and Jeff Belskus will head up IMS Corp. Hopefully, they will quickly develop a long-range plan that will be the magic button that open-wheel racing has needed. The optimist in me says that is the case, the realist tells me to be a bit more skeptical. One side warns me that they may be there just to serve the sisters needs.

And just what are the sister’s plans? Although some have spouses that are connected to different arms of the Speedway, do they have any interest in seeing the heritage of the Hulman-George name carry on at the Speedway? Are their interests seeded in what is best for the long-term interests of the track; or would they like to cash out and let some conglomerate own and operate the facility? Knowing how hard they fought to save the historic oval back in 1945, I imagine Mr. Anton Hulman, Jr and Mr. Wilbur Shaw are spinning in their respective graves, right about now.

George Phillips

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6 Responses to “OK…Now What?”

  1. John McLallen Says:

    I don’t see anything changing in ownership. I do, however, see a new man in charge and that is Jeff Belskus. If I remember correctly, the IRL was basically set up so that the Indianapolis 500 had a group of cars that weren’t going to ask for a cut of the profits like Dan Gurney’s “White Pages” suggested. John Barnes has also said that the series and that the IMS were also “joined at the hip.” I think that tells the story.

  2. IMS will survive, even if they run Silver Crown cars for the 2013 500. Even if the place is half full, they only manage to field 1o year old Dallara’s, or God forbid run the Taxicabs in the 500, it will survive. IMS as an entity does not need the IRL. This is not a matter of opinion, but a fact of history. AAA, USAC, CART, IRL, F1, the league / sanctioning body can come and go but 16th and Georgetown, and the 2.5 Mile Brick Oval remain. Come Memorial Day 2111 there will still be some type of vehicles circling the track 200 times.

    I know that some would like to paint the sisters as evil, money grubbing harpies who don’t care a whit about the tradition. I don’t know much about them, other than IMS is a business, and they’d be foolish business people to let the place fall into disrepair. Bottom Line: They ousted Tony because he bled off a significant portion of the family fortune. Hard to blame them for that. As much as I love Indy and Open Wheel racing, I don’t think I’d be able to sit by and let a sibling spend $600 Million of my inheritance on anything. (Disclaimer – I do not have a $600 Million inheritance. Or even a $600 one, unfortunately)

    The HUGE question mark right now is who is running the IRL, and what will become of it without the large subsidy provided by the Hulman-George family. I can’t see anyone buying it, and without the TEAM money at least half the cars in the field will have to close up shop. Can the league survive with only Penske, Ganassi, and AGR? I seriously doubt it.

    Hooray the Open wheel war is over! Unfortunately, both sides have lost.

  3. Travis R Says:

    Another great article, George and some excellent points made in the comments, too.

    I’m kind of wondering how things will go for Vision now – if Tony had been using the Hulman fortune to help keep Vision afloat and that funding is no longer channeled (let alone the TEAM funding), Vision’s now a lot more dependent on sponsorship dollars. There seems to be the potential that they’ll have a hard time unless they can draw in some really good sponsors. It’s hard to say if Menard’s is a big dollar sponsor or not – John Menard is known for being very disciplined with his money…

  4. James O. Says:

    My crystal ball went into the wall so I have no idea what will happen, but so far all I’ve been reading on the blogs is mostly fear of the future. Considering the past, we have a good reason to fear the future, but at the same time: this could be a new page turning and the next chapter might be great. There’s a real possibility that the next group could be exactly what’s needed to make the races more interesting, captivating old fans and drawing in new ones, which in turn would make the series more attractive to sponsors, teams, and potential drivers.

    I’m not saying it will happen, but since I’m at standing at the door of a new era, I might as well feel hopeful rather than dread it.

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