An Olive Branch Or Power Play?

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When Anton Hulman, Jr. bought the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the fall of 1945 at the urging of Wilbur Shaw, he did it with the sole intent and purpose of saving the cherished landmark from the wrecking ball. It seemed the real estate at the intersection of 16th and Georgetown was certain to be converted to a housing development.

When Shaw did a tire test for Firestone during World War II, he was shocked at the dilapidated condition of the track where he had won three 500’s just a few years earlier. Lacking the funds himself, Shaw sought the help of a broker, Homer Cochran, who put him in touch with Hulman. When Shaw and Hulman met with track owner Eddie Rickenbacker in the fall of 1945, Hulman agreed to buy the ailing property, in order to restore an Indiana treasure.

As the years passed and the race became bigger and bigger, it became obvious that Tony Human had not only saved the track, but had enhanced it into becoming a worldwide event. When AAA stopped sanctioning the races that included the Indianapolis 500 after the 1955 season, Hulman founded the United States Auto Club (USAC). The shy and retiring Hulman was beloved throughout the state of Indiana and throughout the worldwide racing community. When he passed away in the fall of 1977, he left many legacies to his name – probably none greater however, than being the man that saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from extinction.

As we fast-forward to the early 1990’s, we find Tony Hulman’s grandson and namesake, Anton Hulman George, sitting as president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Barely a year after Mr. Hulman’s death, CART was formed as an alternative to USAC. After an ugly court battle prior to the 1979 Indy 500, CART pretty much ran its own races and formed its own rules and car designs. USAC still sanctioned the Indianapolis 500, but had totally lost its footing as a governing body in open-wheel racing.

Out of frustration with his lack of control and the direction of CART, Tony George announced his intentions of forming a rival league during the weekend of CART’s race at Phoenix in 1994. Less than two seasons later, the Indy Racing League ran its first event – a two hundred mile race at Walt Disney World, the day before the Super Bowl in 1996.

Without rehashing the sordid events of the split that we are all so painfully aware of; suffice it to say that open-wheel racing suffered. Little by little, the lure of racing at the Indianapolis 500 won out over the more established league. Through a bankruptcy hearing, CART morphed into Champ Car and eventually open-wheel racing was unified before the 2008 season under the IRL banner.

After many grueling years, Tony George had won. He had regained his family’s total control of open-wheel racing – but at what price? In the process, confusion among fans coincided with a surge in the popularity of NASCAR. Fans dwindled. To create leverage against CART, George brought other events to his facility that had formerly hosted only one race per year. First he brought a NASCAR race to the track in 1994. Many renovations had to take place in order to accommodate the bigger and heavier stock cars. Then in 2000, Formula One brought its traveling circus to the Speedway. Millions of dollars from the Hulman-George family checkbook were used to construct an infield road course, a new towering Pagoda, F1 style garages as well as the new Pit-Road Terrace suites. Add that to the untold millions from the family fortune that George had spent in propping up the IRL

Apparently, the other members of the Hulman-George family had had enough. Immediately following the 2009 Indianapolis 500, Tony George was ousted from the board of IMS Corp, which was mostly comprised of George, his mother Mari Hulman George and his three sisters. Stripped of his power at IMS, George chose to also step down as CEO of the Indy Racing League at the end of June 2009.

Having been very critical of Tony George since the early days of the IRL, I found myself in the unusual position of feeling sorry for him. Although I felt that his motive of forming the rival league was more out of a quest for power and control, instead of what he thought was for the good of racing, I always felt he was a good steward of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He spent his own (and his family’s) money on updating the facility into the showplace that it is today. His ousting for the sake of preserving the family fortune came at a time when there was finally peace in the open-wheel world for the first time in a decade and a half. Suddenly the IRL was without its founder, leader and financial supporter. Questions about its future swirled.

Josie George, one of Tony’s sisters, found a man to be the next leader of the Indy Racing League. He had turned Professional Bull Riding from a punch line into a profitable and hot sporting commodity. Tomorrow marks the one-year anniversary of Randy Bernard’s hiring away from the PBR.

To say that Mr. Bernard has worked wonders in the past year is a gross understatement. One year ago, he came to this series having never seen an IndyCar race. Since that time, he has demonstrated the type of forward thinking that was desperately needed for the previous fifteen years in open-wheel racing. He spearheaded the much-needed new chassis by forming the ICONIC committee.

He pulled off the unthinkable by luring Chevrolet and Lotus to join Honda as a provider of engines for the series. He has taken the bold, if not controversial, step of introducing new rules to try and improve the on-track product. Randy Bernard has shown us time and time again that he knows what he is doing in marketing an entertainment product. But in my opinion, his biggest accomplishment is that he is doing what Tony George never did – he intently listens to the fans.

Now, in some strange twist, Tony George has been reinstated to the board of Hulman & Co, along with three of his cronies. At first, I was naïve enough to think that this was a nice olive branch being offered by his mother and sisters. Giving him a voice in the running of the family business was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? Although I read where a lot of fans were complaining, I never gave it much thought.

When Robin Miller wrote an article last week explaining the intricacies of the board of Hulman & Co and how it oversees IMS Corp, along with the still-existing friction and family dynamics between Tony and some of his sisters, and how this could be the ultimate power-play – the bright future of the newly re-named INDYCAR and the recent plethora of positive news, took on a dim hue.

When I read the article, I could feel my face turning red. I immediately posted on my Twitter account (@Oilpressureblog) that I thought fans had the right to be very afraid. Many of my fellow IndyCar bloggers responded and cautioned me that Robin Miller should be taken with a grain of salt and that this was just pure speculation on Miller’s part.

At first, I calmed down. Then I listened to Curt Cavin on Trackside Thursday night. I consider Curt to be a strong voice of reason. He said nothing to calm my fears that Robin Miller was right. In fact, he argued with Kevin Lee on-air that this could very well be more about Tony George’s ego than anything. He correctly pointed out that people, who are used to having power and money, think differently than the rest of us and it is difficult to assume that they apply the same line of logic to situations than you and I do.

Tony George gave birth to what is now known as INDYCAR. He created it, nurtured it, spent a fortune on it – only to see an outsider named Randy Bernard come in, change it up and receive high praise for it. Currently, the fate of INDYCAR is completely out of Tony George’s hands. There are deep philosophical differences between Tony George and Randy Bernard. If Tony George is able to somehow squeeze his way back onto the board of IMS Corp, he will be in a position to tell Randy Bernard what to do. I think Robin Miller is right in his assumption that if that scenario came to pass – Randy Bernard would be on the first flight out of Indianapolis.

In all the years I have followed this sport, Randy Bernard is the best thing to happen to it. Although Tony George was so quick to proclaim himself a visionary, his successor is the true visionary. While Tony Hulman was loved and revered throughout Indiana and the racing community, Tony George has been vilified and is still trying to carve out his own legacy. He is not getting any younger and it’s hard to create a legacy sitting on the sidelines, when you once were one of the most powerful men in racing. If this does evolve into a power play that Tony George ultimately wins to put him back into the game – we will all suffer the consequences.

George Phillips

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14 Responses to “An Olive Branch Or Power Play?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    Unfortunately I think that Miller is absolutely right… TG in the rear view mirror is the best scenario for the IRL…. His re-emergence can spell nothing but bad news for the league….

  2. The Lapper Says:

    Look out!

  3. I agree about Cavin being less than reassuring. I expected him to say it was “no big deal” and when he didn’t… that worried me. Everyone knows Miller’s not going to like TG, but Cavin’s pretty moderate.

  4. Unlike a lot of people, I’m not a TG hater. I supported his original concept of the IRL. I think his passion for racing and good stewardship of IMS is obvious and sincere. And I don’t begrudge him wanting a postion back in the family business. I would even go so far as to say I wouldn’t care if he had a voice in the future of the Indycar series.

    But. If TG makes a move that leads to Randy Bernard departure, I’m afraid that just might end my interest in the series.

    • Bent Wickerbill Says:

      It is not a matter of hate, it is a matter of historical, American open wheel fact…. TG’s sales pitch at the outset of the IRL may have sounded pretty, but it’s ultimate purpose was a power grab. A power grab that nearly destroyed American open wheel racing. I believe that TG indeed has a passion for racing, he just shouldn’t be any where near the drivers seat….

  5. Hopfully Bernard will at least be around for the 2012 season so we can all enjoy it. I figured he was doing too well anyway and some other company, in sports or not, would grab him up.

  6. I can only hope, in the midst of all the buzz about this, that perhaps TG himself might “hear” how dreadfully concerned fans of the now-revived series are. And that this, in turn, might heighten his awareness of how poorly viewed the series was during his reign…both during the war with CART/CCWS, and after the merger.
    Unlike many who’ve written before about Tony “winning” that war, it really was a situation where two fighters had so bloodied each other and were both so punchdrunk and staggering that for the first time since prior to the split, the powers in charge finally saw the only hope of survival for this form of racing was in reunifying. Even that looked grim, a “too-little, too-late” stench hanging over it as the series (under TG’s leadership) was still floating the whole thing on the Hulman family’s nickel.
    I’ll give TG credit for being able/willing to hold out an olive branch to the CCWS teams when they got together again. But that still didn’t equate to having the marketing and promotional savvy to raise the series back up to the level it was prior to the split. It just put it all in the control of the one who’d shown clearly that he did NOT have the ability to run what once was the top-tier of racing in the U.S. He’d had 13 years of running the series prior to the merger without developing it (with the trump card of the 500) into what it was supposed to have become from the outset. One may argue that CART/CCWS was leaching that potential growth from the IRL, but the facts are that even when the biggest teams defected from CART to IRL (only because of the sponsor attention to the Speedway) the series still didn’t show a growth in popularity as CART had from 1980-1995. That was primarily due to a poorly run series with poor managment ideas for promotion/marketing.
    As George said in this post, it’s Randy B. who’s given the series (and us) a glimmer of hope that the future can be good for the series. Supposedly that’s what TG wanted all along. If he can’t recognize that the positives for the future all began because of changes made since he lost his control, and he has a ‘vision’ about how great he can make it if he gets back in there, then it truly is a very gloomy situation. I agree with pretty much everything redd said (as I typically do), but the part about TG having a voice in the future of the series scares the hell outta me. If it were just “a” voice, maybe. But he’s shown before that he wants to have/be “the” voice…and his posse coming along with him doesn’t bode well for him being just one of the Board.

    • Mike, I just meant a voice in the way that the sisters have a voice, no more than that. I think it would be unrealistic to expect TG to be completely hands-off. Maybe the first thing he could do to help the situation is to “voice” his firm support of Randy Bernard as CEO of Indycar.

      • You’re right about the voice/vote,redd. I’m hopeful that he will have that clear a view of what’s made the series begin to take off again. Regarding realistic, yeah, that’s true, and I never expected that it would be otherwise. Were it his voice alone among the board of Mom and the sisters, it would be fine. It’s the three cronies he’s brought along that really troubles me, because as you know that mkaes eight, with a likely minimum of four going the same direction every time. All they need to do is persuade one of the other family members to vote the same way, and you have a TG led majority. In light of what Miller reported about the attempt to purchase the series last year, it seems that Tony still has a lot on his mind about who should be at the helm of the ship.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    What really baffles me about TG’s return to Hulman & Co. is how the rest of (or enough of) the Hulman-George clan apparently does not see how badly this can reflect the series.
    Even if TG ventures no farther than the H&C board, he’s back in the picture in the minds of fans, of team owners, of manufacturers and sponsors… What effect will this have on Randy Bernard’s leverage with these parties? That certainly remains to be seen, but I think even the best-case scenario is not a positive one.

    The particularly sad thing about this is that, while I don’t believe it’s imminent or even extremely likely, if the scenario outlined in Miller’s column comes true it won’t surprise most of us die-hard open wheel fans one bit.

  8. Let’s all stop and think for a minute. CART..ie Pat Patrick & Roger Penske ultimately started this sh*% after Mr.Hulman’s death. Now they are the forgotten ones, yet glorified upon their return. Yet we are not sure if they grew balls or not, they surely did not have them while Mr. Hulman lived.After many years,TG acted to protect the family “Jewel”. We all would respond in the same way. Robin Miller, while he does place the sport in the public eye, vilifies everyone who does not agree with him. This is a wait and see period. TG is no dummy, but I cannot speak whether this is a “power play” or not. Time will tell, just like the balls that eventually grew on Patrick & Penske later in life.

  9. People can say what they want about Robin Miller, but he seems to always be on top of the situation. I think he is right and, if so, I can’t take another screw-up and hearing that “33 is just a number.” TG took us to a spec series and the fans left. As for protecting Indy, I never did buy that. It is the Indianapolis 500 and if the drivers and teams were to strike then someone else will pull into Gasoline Alley and enter. It is, after all, The Indianapolis 500 and that race is what AOW is all about. It starts and ends there.

  10. SkipinSC Says:

    I suspect that a lot of this is needless worry. As I posted to Defender’s blog, Tony Geroge has only one useful purpose in the whole equation and that is as the head of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    In all things having to do with the operation of the physical plant at 16th and Georgetown, he has shown his grandfather’s brilliance in continuing to upgrade the facility to kleep up with the times. Several friends noted to me that last year, (with TG out of the picture) some of the maintenance had slipped a bit.

    My guess is that Josie George noticed this and realized that her brother DOES know how to take care of IMS and that money spent toward that end is money WISELY spent.

    I don’t want to go into a rehash of all that has already happened; that would serve NO purpose at all. But, the one thing NO ONE can say is that Tony George has done anything that has hurt the Speeddway in terms of the physical plant. That remains the one area where TG has fulfilled his grandfather’s legacy.

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