Tony George’s Free Fall
When Tony George announced yesterday that Vision Racing was suspending operations, it was just the latest chapter in the eight-month nightmare in the life of Tony George. I am way too shallow of a person to ever be above gloating. I will never claim to be so righteous, that I don’t sometimes gain some joy from someone else’s misfortune. However, this is not one of those times.
I have only recently begun to appreciate some of the things that Tony George has done for this sport. He has certainly upgraded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to make sure that it will remain the most impressive racing facility in the world. I have also learned to appreciate the fact that every move that the man has made has been because he fully believed he was doing what he thought was best for open-wheel racing. It’s hard to truly hate a man when he is following his true convictions.
The problem was – most people, including myself, had problems agreeing with most of his convictions. When the concept of the Indy Racing League was first announced in March of 1994 by Tony George, I knew it would not be good for the sport. There was no way that it could be. But I would be lying if I said I thought it would have the ramifications that it did.
I actually thought the idea of the IRL would be nothing more than a threat to hang over CART, to force them to get their act together and become more what the sport was in the sixties and seventies. I can remember being at Indy for qualifying with my brother in 1995 and telling him that the IRL will never turn a wheel in competition. This was all a big bluff. I guess the next thirteen years showed how little I knew.
Although Tony George presented this as a way to get the American racer back into open-wheel racing, and to give the American racing public an all-oval series – it became pretty apparent that this was simply about who was going to have control over open-wheel racing. Would it be the car owners in CART or the Hulman-George family and the Speedway?
When Wilbur Shaw convinced Tony Hulman to purchase the Speedway in the fall of 1945, the races were sanctioned by AAA. It remained that way for the next ten years. In a two-week span in 1955, auto racing was faced with two monumental tragedies. The first was the death of reigning two-time Indy 500 champion Bill Vukovich as he was going for his third win in a row at Indy. Vukovich may have been the best to ever drive at Indy. To say he was extremely popular is a vast understatement.
The second tragedy occurred less than two weeks later on June 11, 1955 at Le Mans. French driver, Pierre Levegh, drove his Mercedes over the back-end of a slower car and went airborne – sailing into the crowd and killing himself along with eighty-four spectators.
With two devastating accidents so close in time to each other, along with the usual number of deaths that occurred in racing in those days – Congressional hearings were held to actually consider banning auto racing in this country. Fortunately, that didn’t happen but it did lead AAA to pull out of racing altogether.
It was this sudden lack of a sanctioning body that led to Tony Hulman forming the United States Auto Club (USAC) in 1956. This gave Tony Hulman and the Speedway unquestioned power in the sport of Championship (open-wheel) racing, which was the top form of racing in those days. Throughout the seventies, it was perceived by the car owners that their sport had outgrown USAC and that they could run open-wheel racing much better than USAC. This ultimately led to the formation of CART, which was structured to be run by the owners with a commissioner in place, supposedly like the structure of the NFL.
The trouble was, the CART commissioner never had the power of an NFL commissioner. If CART’s commissioner ever had an idea that was contrary to what the owners wanted, they were quickly shown the door.
Added to that “inmates running the asylum” scenario was the fact that CART was racing on fewer and fewer ovals and becoming a haven for foreign drivers – many of whom were considered rejects from Formula One.
USAC still sanctioned the Indianapolis 500, which led to some complications along the way. At times there were slight differences in the rules concerning turbo boost, etc. The first few years, CART did not award points for racing in the Indianapolis 500. It was awkward for CART’s chief steward and other officials to take a back seat for a month, while USAC trotted its officials out for one month a year.
The Indianapolis 500 had virtually no say-so in the sport that it was the centerpiece for. This was hard to swallow for Tony Hulman’s descendents, who had grown up seeing their family in total command of a sport that they now had no control over.
Finally in 1994, after yet another squabble with CART’s board – Tony Hulman’s grandson had had enough. Tony George leveraged the power of his Speedway and built a series around it. He gambled that the allure of his Speedway could outlast any stronghold that CART had on the racing public.
He turned out to be right, but at what price? In the process, the Indianapolis 500 was immediately transformed from hosting the greatest racers in the world to becoming a gathering of scabs, has-beens and wannabees. Sure the crowds showed up, but it wasn’t the same. The series raced at many former CART venues, but saw crowds that were less than a third of what CART drew.
In the end, many great drivers saw their Indy 500 careers shortened or never realized. I would have given anything to see Greg Moore or Alex Zanardi race in the 500. Sadly, it never happened. CART eventually fell by the wayside and the image of the Indianapolis 500 had been tarnished – perhaps irreparably. It has quickly fallen off of the mainstream radar and is now reduced to being the focal point of what has become a niche sport.
All of this because Tony George couldn’t accept the fact that his family had lost their grasp of the sport they once completely controlled. This is why the man is absolutely hated by so many.
So this little history lesson brings us up to yesterday. Eight months ago, Tony George had seemingly accomplished everything he wanted. He had outlasted CART/Champ Car and won the prolonged split. He was the great and powerful Oz as he sat atop the throne of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League. On top of that, he owned his own racing team, which two years earlier had three full-time drivers and also had previously branched out into Indy Lights as well as sports car racing.
Then the first bombshell hit. Immediately after the 2009 Indy 500, Tony George was told by the board, which was comprised of his mother and his sisters along with a few outsiders, that he must relinquish control of his Vision Racing team, the IRL or the Speedway. Essentially, the other family members had grown tired of his endless spending of the family’s money on those three projects.
A couple of weeks later, George stunned them by resigning his duties as CEO of the Speedway and the IRL. He remained a board member and devoted all of his time and energy to running Vision Racing. Last week, George announced his resignation from the IMS board. Then yesterday, the final shoe dropped when Tony George announced that Vision Racing was suspending operations due to lack of sponsorship.
So what happened? How does someone’s life turn upside down so quickly? I don’t have the answer and I’m not sure anyone outside of the Hulman-George family does either. Like everyone, I can speculate but it would be only pure conjecture. But that won’t stop me from spewing my own theory like everyone else is doing today.
Although Tony George appears to be a very complicated and complex man, I think the explanation for his complete fall from grace is rather simple. I think it all boils down to the fact that Tony George is not a very good businessman. I’m sure he attempts to follow sound business philosophy, but he has violated the number one rule in business many times – make business decisions with your head, not your heart.
His heart led him to form the IRL. The emotions of trying to regain the family glory led him to start this thing that he couldn’t stop. Even when the protracted war seemed it would never end and things were at a stalemate, Tony’s pride would never allow him to admit that it was a bad idea and it wouldn’t work. He made bad business decisions with the Speedway, with the IRL and even with Vision Racing. The racing team was started strictly to give his stepson a full-time ride after he lost his ride with Eddie Cheever. His poor business acumen has prevented him from landing a sponsor for the team and now it has been shuttered. It seemed that he let his emotions dictate his every move.
Tony’s free-fall has been bad timing for the league. In a time when there seems to be some good positive momentum, this has been a black eye for the IRL. While watching a basketball game on ESPN2 last night, the crawler at the bottom kept saying “IRL founder Tony George suspends operations of his Vision race team due to lack of sponsors”. No matter what your opinion of his situation – this is not the kind of publicity the league needs. The fact that the founder of the entire league can’t land a sponsor makes other potential sponsors a little wary.
So here we are in 2010. There has been so much unnecessary damage done to open-wheel racing and Tony George has nowhere to go today. Was it all worth it? Although I’m not gloating, my answer would be a resounding – No.