Tony George’s Free Fall

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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.

George Phillips

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19 Responses to “Tony George’s Free Fall”

  1. imjustsayingisall Says:

    Great writing George….
    I am certainly no fan of TG, but as you say, no one at this point wants to see this, nor does it bode well for the league as it struggles under an ever larger load of brick to move forward. It is unfortunate that frequently when the worm finally does turns, it is at the worst possible moment. But since none of us can do anything to prevent ego driven gloms like TG from destroying themselves, can you say schadenfreude….?

  2. Drayton Sawyer Says:

    It’s not gloating to admit that Tony George’s electric kool aid Indy car test was an epic failure, it just was and there is nothing a level headed person like you or a die hard CART zealot like me can do about it. We can learn to live with the condition that the sport we all love is in, but I think it’s time CART zealots, IRL zealots and level headed fans start thinking about some sort of future. There is no CART, Tony George is gone and the IRL isn’t anything it was supposed to be, so now what? I hope this Delta Wing Indycar is a duzy, because going with a neo Dallara that races like the current Dallara will not be a step forward. I don’t care what it looks like it just needs to fast, it needs to reward the driver and it has to put on bitchin’ races.

  3. Does anyone know why Izod decided Not to sponsor Vision Racing?
    It seems as if Izod should have stepped up and at least made an effort..all this nonsence about putting RHR in a team that “could win” etc. makes one wonder if that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. Blaming Ms. George is the height of immaturity (the public at large saying “she took away Tony’s toys etc.)when it is her American $$$; her responsibility to manage. What is happening at the Speedway is happening all across this country and really Indy-car racing is not what it used to be. I was a fan of Vision racing, RHR, and the new Izod culture because it is (was) so much better for our kids than the Honda “Dream” culture and the “I-am Indy” machine that screamed so loudly as our American Dreams were all being destroyed. How many car dealerships have been dissolved during the past 18 months? The George family probably lost the most…because they had the most to loose. So, my question is this, Tony had brought RHR into his Vision Racing Team and then he couldn’t manage to get up the sponsorship for Vision…why didn’t Izod put up some $$$ for their star RHR to stay in Vision Racing. It looks like Izod really screwed T.G. and kicked him when he was down. I myself am very disapointed because Vision Racing was also owned by Patric Dempsey.

    TG and his family will get through this storm and TG will come out knowing who his friends are and honestly, he knows better than anyone what he gave and what he lost…

    (Spyker cars bought SAAB this week); I was thinking when Roger Penske walked away from Saturn it was because he is a smart man….too much risk. Risk is a part of business and T.G. gave way too much American Auto Luv to Honda.

    The vultures on the sideline is the inflection that is heard by many of us who were expecting something much more from Izod. They are advertising a pretty picture of a new and “preppy” sport that came from Vision racing. Izod doesn’t look so preppy now and I wonder if Tony George resented the lack of support from Izod because it was his new beginning, after all. Izod is spending plenty of $$$ and other people are now getting rich from the fall out. Very sad American story indeed but in time TG will reappear and he will know exactly what happened to his Vision.

    • IZOD did not screw TG. It’s business 101. Izod is in this to make a return on their investment in the series and RHR as their poster boy. Izod is forking over the money so they want RHR in a position to actually win. Never going to happen with Vision. A family of Astronauts and MIT grads should know how business works.

    • Yeah… IZOD execs are such suckers :roll: One back of the pack VISION car or brand the WHOLE freakin’ series & have the IZOD name on EVERY CAR ON THE GRID :!: :!: Ah… decisions, decisions, decisions.

  4. Whoopee!!!! I get to follow MARS and yet another unfocused diatribe. How wonderful.

    Sarcasm aside-sorry, I can be like that sometimes-this is not something I am gloating or happy about. While I was a long-time CART loyalist who hated Tony George for starting what I considered to be a vastly inferior league-fair or not-the fact is that is irrelevant right now. The bigger issue is that there are a number of people, including Ed Carpenter, who are out of work today because of the work stoppage at Vision Racing. That is not something to gloat about, regardless of which side of the fence you stood/stand on.

    I for one don’t wish George any financial or other harm. What happened, happened. The past is over. Now I have moved on, and I hope for the best for one of the sports that I love.

    Excellent post as always, George. And I agree, was all of what happened worth it? No, it wasn’t.

  5. Like most wars, this one started in a struggle for power followed by a really unfortunate failure to compromise. Like most wars, this one essentially bankrupted both sides and destroyed what it claimed to defend. Nobody ever really won, one side just survived longer. And now the embittered veterans sit on the bench by the courthouse and discuss the heroics of yesteryear.

    I do blame TG–but the CART owners share that blame. It’s sad (to me anyway) because a whole bunch of passion for the sport–and a man who put his money where his mouth was–has left it. And I don’t see anyone on the horizon to take his place.

  6. I am beginning to get in focus, BTW, and am wondering where the loyalty was in this business…Izod had to fork the $$$ over to the team that would make “them” win? Izod was promoting a “New” Culture of Speed and responsibility…was that before the bait and switch routine? What are they going to advertise now? Danica in her underwear? (It better be Izod brand).
    Vision Racing was my focus after my daughter was killed in a brand new Honda Civic… SInce I happen to like Patric Dempsey …I have watched the Indy-car races since 2005. This is still America where you can have a favorite team, isn’t it?
    Danica and Jr. are really just so fantastic at auto “racing”…and there have been just sooo many wins over there at AA…Really family friendly culture for an apparel company to “win.”
    Who loves the neighbors who buy the house next door for half- the -price they paid? Business 101?
    Target CG and Penske have their eggs in more than 1 basket so if they decide to stay with “Delta Wing” good for them but Tg Mom probably watched Roger Penske walk away dfrom Saturn (which would have been an ideal venue to manufacture a new chasis)
    The series now looks like Izod going afyer Apex-Brazil for the olympic apparel line ( Polo Ralph Lauren is their competitor) and really don’t think they give a rats-ass about American Open Wheel racing.
    Maybe Hugh Hefner will want to but the series next. who knows! He is the expert on everything these days in America!

  7. Sorry for your loss TG and Vision Racing Team family but it isn’t over yet and the Clabber-girl brand is still American and Hautte!

  8. I think Redd said it best. Everybody lost in this war. IMS, CART, the drivers, the sponsors, and most of all, the fans.

    It’s all water under the bridge at this point, and arguing about who is to blame isn’t very productive. People need to move on, and focus on re-building the sport in the future.

  9. The where-abouts of the “executive retreat” might be another episode for CSI Miami.

    Visio Racing probably gave a crappy Christmas Party for the Izod executives…bet they are much happier now!

    • F.A.R.T.S Says:

      First you snitch the sponsor…then you kick him to the curb…
      after you partake of the best years .

      “”There are a lot of positive things to look forward to. It’s much brighter today than it was two years ago when we still had two series. What happened, happened. Now it’s time to move on.”

      Even after all these years, fans of the sport and people involved in open-wheel racing draw a line in the sand when it comes to George.

      Andretti sees him as the villain. Barnes sees him as a hero.
      ESPN

  10. How come I can’t shake this feeling that the guy who runs the Defender of the IRL blog cast the 9 votes for Tony being a “great man” :idea: :) :) :)

    Those who read all the Indy blogs might know what I mean….

    • I think you’re definitely right about one thing George – as passionate as Tony George may be and as much as he believes in open-wheel racing, he is a dreadful business man.

      He started the IRL, but what the series needed and missed was someone who could take the series and turn it into a viable product. Tony may be a great “ideas man”, but many great ideas people struggle to turn their vision into a working reality – this really needed someone to step in with him to create a specific path for the IRL.
      Unfortunately the series has much of the series bumbling along from one problem to the next; however all is not over – the road to recovery may well be beginning.

  11. Well written George, but you are still too kind to Tony George. The guy grew up a spoiled rich kid in a dysfunctional family. He is the type of snotty kid who will make you pay for any indiscretion whether real or imagined. The final point is that he is a quitter. He quit CART and now, after getting the IRL fans buy into his “Vision” and support the series for the past 13 years, he quits. No excuse for it. By the way, I am of the strong belief that it would be fine to sell the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Mari doesn’t have a clue and maybe someone with the wherewithal to give the race back its prestige would be welcomed. How about investing in the Purse for one thing and open it up to anyone who brings a car that meets specs. Winner gets $5 Million.

  12. I’ll disagree on one point: I can think of people who acted out their convictions and an honest belief that what they were doing was right, but their goals and their actions were execrable nonetheless. Ultimately, I prefer people who accomplish good things from bad motives over those who do the opposite.

    I don’t know TG personally and I wish him no personal ill-will. But I’m glad the era is over. A lot of people who think otherwise appear (from what I read) to prefer The Devil You Know over the unknown.

  13. bickelmom Says:

    It is funny, but being a relative new-comer to following IndyCar, I was really mostly unaware of all this stuff and, so, I really liked TG. All I ever saw was the 500 and the IMS itself and I could tell how much the man wanted it to succeed (that is the following his heart thing George mentioned). I was in high school when the split happened and all I understood was that people were suddenly trashing the 500 and so I took TG’s side immediately. I didn’t know where it was all coming from, but I couldn’t understand why someone would call the 500 “just another race”. So, from a purely innocent background, I’m very sorry to see TG go. Good businessman or not, I loved that someone fiercely protected my favorite race and racetrack. He also gave a lot back to our community in Speedway, and I don’t know that someone with no emotional connection to our town will be as kind.

    So, I see now what all the fuss was about (thanks again to George’s great summing up of history), but my emotional self will miss TG’s emotional self. : )

  14. Well, IndyCar now has a new CEO with a very qualified business pedigree in sports entertainment. Now, maybe he can grow the sport and put Nashville back on the schedule. :)

  15. Dear Sir, I want to thank you for your insightful post. What has happened to T.G. is an amazing story. Even more so, what is amazing is the fact that he did this to himself. I (as many) believe that T.G. was encouraged by the FIA to follow the path that became the IRL. Max Mosley is on record as saying that he wanted the American indy car series to be ” The worlds premier racing ON OVALS.” F1/ FIA were alarmed by; Emmerson Fittapaldi’s exploits as an indycar driver, and far more by Nigel Mansell’s defection to the US series. This put indy style racing in direct conflict with f1, and was the impetus for the formulation of an ovals only series in the us. the intention of the FIA was always to devalue the north american open wheel series and maintain the primacy of f1 as the worlds premiere open wheel series. Mission accomplished.

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