Tony George: Sour Grapes Or Sympathetic Figure?

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One item that seemed to slip under the radar this weekend was Tony George’s latest statement that was posted on the Vision Racing site on Sunday morning. It may have gone unnoticed because there wasn’t a whole lot in there that we didn’t already know, although it confirmed some strong suspicions about a lot of things. But as the article wrapped up, Tony George made a couple of pretty insightful comments and a pretty good jab at his successor.

At first, I was afraid that this was going to be nothing more than sour grapes. But as I read, it made me realize that was not the case. It starts off talking about how he is settling into his new role as strictly a car owner and discussed some of the personal things that have been going on in the George family. Lauren George had blogged just a couple of days earlier about the George family vacation along with Tony, Jr’s recent wedding.

But then Tony George begins to tell about the last eighteen months (roughly) since unification took place. He correctly notes that just as the storms of unification were beginning to subside, the economy tanked. He maintains that a solid plan had been developed for 2009 and he had explained to the board that patience would have to be followed in order to see the plan through. Then, as we all know by now, the board voted to remove Tony from his position as CEO.

Tony George remains perplexed by the board’s actions and has yet to receive a verbal or written explanation as to why they chose this course. Then he cleverly finished the article with a parting shot aimed toward new CEO, Jeff Belskus by saying; “My question for the board has been not one of who is going to manage the company, but rather, who is going to lead it? There is a distinction.“ Ouch!

I never though I would ever make this claim but I kind of sympathize with Tony George. The man I have cursed for the better part of fifteen years finally got what many think he deserved, and I feel sorry for him. Not in a way that makes me want to shed tears, but I do think he was treated unfairly. Most importantly, I think that the board probably dumped the best man for the job of running the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

With the July departures of CEO Tony George and President Joie Chitwood, that leaves Jeff Belskus to do the job of those two plus his own duties. Belskus was probably very well suited for his original duties, which gave him a voice on the board without the public hearing that voice. Now that he is front and center in the limelight, he needs to somehow develop a flair for public speaking. I don’t see that happening.

But Tony George’s salvo doesn’t address public speaking. It addresses leadership. Tony George himself had no public skills. He was publicly aloof and had the personality of a doorknob. But the man was a leader and got things done. When you look at the vast changes and improvements that took place under his twenty-year watch, his record speaks for itself.

Just some of the changes the speedway saw included the construction of pit entry/exit lanes in 1993 and a new scoring tower in 1994. A major facelift occurred in 2000 with the construction of the new pagoda, new Formula One garages, and the new infield road course along with many other structural and cosmetic changes. During that time he brought NASCAR to the Speedway in 1994, Formula One in 2000, Moto GP in 2008 and for better or worse; he founded the Indy Racing League, which began running in 1996.

Some will argue that the latter move ultimately killed open-wheel racing in the US. It may have, but that’s a discussion for later. Like him or loathe him, Tony George always had an eye on the big picture and was constantly focused on improving the Speedway that his family owned, and his grandfather cherished. He was not simply a caretaker who managed the Speedway. He was continuously moving it forward.

This is why his parting shot rings so true. Jeff Belskus may be a capable man — not very adept as a face for the Speedway, but a capable man, nonetheless. He will probably be a good steward of the Speedway and the Indy Racing League. Tony George sometimes made emotional, irrational and sometimes stubborn decisions. Jeff Belskus will be a little more level headed in his decision-making. What he will lack however, is that passion which drove Tony George. Belskus will be the manager that Tony George was referring to, but he will not be a strong leader. Unfortunately, that is what will be sorely needed in the next several months.

You can read Tony George’s statement here and Lauren George’s “Vacation Blog” here.

George Phillips

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2 Responses to “Tony George: Sour Grapes Or Sympathetic Figure?”

  1. leaving aside the open-wheel civil war –

    george made things happen. I’m concerned these other guys will all sit around and wait for someone else to make a mistake. or worse, nothing will happen because all decisions will be made by a committee.

  2. SkipinSC Says:

    I suspect the fear of everyone who cares about OWR is that the sisters will “cash out” now that there is no visible leader on board. None of them have ever worked a day in their lives while their brother basically (for better or worse) has held three jobs and done at least one of them (managing the Speedway) with exceptional aplonmb, in spite of his lack of personality.

    Say what you want about the IRL or Vision Racing, the Speedway will miss his guiding hand.

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