Remembering Anton Hulman, Jr.
First, a quick note – Pam Jenkins, the wife of Bob Jenkins, lost her long battle with cancer last evening. She and Bob had been married for forty-four years. Please join the IndyCar community in keeping our thoughts and prayers with the Jenkins family in the coming days. – GP
As the entire IndyCar community wrings their hands wondering which direction the latest Tony George saga will take, we should all take a moment to pause and remember his grandfather, Tony Hulman, who passed away thirty-five years ago tomorrow – October 27, 1977.
Anton Hulman, Jr. was born into a wealthy and successful family. When he was born on February 11, 1901; Hulman & Company had already been in existence for over fifty years. Anton, Jr, (Tony) was the son of Anton Human, Sr. and the grandnephew of Francis Hulman, the company’s founder. Hulman & Company started as a wholesale grocery business in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1850. By the early 1900’s the company had many businesses; one of which was Clabber Baking Powder (renamed Clabber Girl in 1923) – which had been derived from a formula developed by Tony’s grandfather, Herman Hulman, in 1879. Upon graduation from what is essentially known now as Yale University in 1924, young Tony returned to Terre Haute to enter the family business.
This was no birthright or entitlement. Tony Hulman was informed he would have to earn his way into the inner-workings of Hulman & Company. Clabber Girl had been a successful product for the company. In fact, it was their top product, but the company was struggling after World War I. Anton Hulman, Sr. charged Tony with taking their top product and making it bigger. It was quite a risk – banking on a twenty-three year-old to reverse the fortunes of a slumping company with their top product. Tony developed a ten-year plan and sent his salesmen on a nationwide blitz to get every homemaker possible to try their product. Tony’s efforts paid off. Clabber Girl became the No.1 selling baking powder in the United States.
Tony had proven himself. He brought a new way of thinking to the family company that had gone stale. By 1931, at the age of thirty – Tony Hulman had complete control of the entire company turned over to him by his father. During that time, Tony met and married Mary Fendrich – heiress to an Evansville, Indiana cigar company. She also had immense family wealth. The combination of the two family fortunes created an Indiana dynasty.
Tony Hulman had turned out to be an excellent businessman. He brought his family-owned business out of the doldrums and into a highly profitable entity. He grew the company by investing into other businesses. He continued this strategy through World War II, making Hulman & Company a well-diversified corporation.
Then came the fall of 1945. One of Tony Hulman’s business acquaintances by the name of Homer Cochran, approached Mr. Hulman about meeting someone to discuss the possibility of purchasing the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from current owner Eddie Rickenbacker. Three-time race winner Wilbur Shaw was retired from racing by that time and was working for Firestone. In the fall of 1944, Shaw had gone to the Speedway to do a test for Firestone and was shocked at what greeted him. In the three years since Shaw crashed while leading the final race before the track was shut down for the war, the Speedway had become a dilapidated shell of its former self. The site where he had achieved the greatest triumphs of his life, had been reduced to a shambles, overtaken with weeds. Structures were in disrepair and the entire facility appeared certain to be headed for the wrecking ball.
Shaw tried his best to put together a group of local investors to save the Speedway, but to no avail. He kept coming up short. Rickenbacker was more focused on his new venture, Eastern Airlines, and didn’t seem to care about the fate of the Speedway. He just wanted to eventually sell the property and be done with it. Shaw sensed he was running out of time. By this time, the war was over and Shaw was intent on seeing the race reinstated the next May, but things looked bleak.
Shaw had made contact with Homer Cochran to help with his quest. Cochran got Shaw and Mr. Hulman together along with several officials of Hulman & Company – one of which would be Joe Cloutier, who would later serve as Speedway President in the 1980’s. The very vibrant Shaw found Tony Hulman to be almost painfully shy, yet at the same time – bubbling with enthusiasm at the thought of purchasing the track. As it turned out, Hulman had attended the 1914 race with his father and had very lasting memories of the track. His Hoosier pride swelled as he thought of turning the track back into something that Indiana could be proud of. Against the wishes of his wife, Tony Hulman agreed to pursue the purchase of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A meeting was set with Rickenbacker at the Indianapolis Athletic Club on November 14, 1945. After an afternoon of negotiations, Tony Hulman bought the Speedway for a reported sum of between $700.000 and $750,000 – depending on who you talk to. Shaw was named Speedway President.
Hulman enjoyed anonymity and was more than willing for the much more vocal Shaw to be the front man. Shaw worked tirelessly to get the track ready in just six months. Hulman later admitted he wasn’t sure it could be pulled off. But the pair hurriedly added a new grandstand and quickly put a new face on the old facility. Hulman still was afraid that no one would be there on race morning. To his surprise, the place was packed and Hulman got caught in the massive traffic jam outside the track and almost missed the start of his first race as track owner.
Every year, there were improvements to the Speedway. Hulman had vowed to put all profits from the race directly back into upgrades for the facility. Tony Hulman was very content to stay in the background as a quiet and retiring track owner, while Shaw was out front, speaking to everyone and making things happen. The two vastly different men complimented each other. The duo managed to do the unthinkable and make the Indianapolis 500 bigger than it had ever been. It seemed like a match made in heaven.
Then tragedy struck. Wilbur Shaw went down in a plane crash on October 30, 1954 – the night before his fifty-second birthday. The loss of Shaw cannot be overstated – not only for his on-track achievements, but for the role he had in the operation of the Speedway up until his death. For the ill-fated 1955 race that saw the fatal injuries to two-time defending 500 champion Bill Vukovich – the shy and unassuming Tony Hulman was found in front of the hoard of microphones in the uncomfortable role of delivering Shaw’s famous command “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines” Oddly enough, it was a role that Hulman would come to cherish. To this day, it has always been a member of the Hulman family to give the initial command to start engines at each race.
By the end of that season in 1955, Hulman was faced with another dilemma. Due to the stunning Vukovich accident coupled with the tragedy that summer at Le Mans, sanctioning body Triple-A decided it was time they got out of sanctioning motor racing. It was bad publicity. It was at that point that Tony Hulman stepped up and founded the United States Auto Club (USAC) to sanction not only the Indianapolis 500, but the entire season for midgets, sprints and champ cars.
The Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway were growing in stature and size – beyond anyone’s belief. The 1960’s absolutely exploded with technical innovations and speed. Media coverage increased dramatically. New grandstands were built as profits kept being put back into the track. All the while, Tony Hulman stayed in the background. But each May, it was getting harder and harder for him to stay in the shadows. People were beginning to recognize him and wanted to thank him for all he had done. Not only had he saved the Speedway from extinction, but he had turned it into a showplace. All Hoosiers were proud of it – just as he had hoped when he bought it in 1945.
By the time the seventies rolled around, speeds were soaring faster and higher than ever. There were major changes to the track, following the disastrous 1973 race. Meanwhile, Mr. Hulman was beginning to show his age. But he was still active and still looked forward to each May. He developed close relationships with many drivers, but probably none closer than his relationship with AJ Foyt. When Foyt won his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 1977, he asked Mr. Hulman to join him on the back of the pace car as they rode in celebration around the track immediately following the race.
Sadly, it was the last time most of us would see Mr. Hulman. He passed away that fall, on October 27, 1977.
I grew up watching and hearing Tony Hulman give the command to start engines. Even as a young kid, I was taught what Mr. Hulman meant to the Speedway. People loved Tony Hulman. Even when he was alive, I can recall people referring to him in reverent tones. He was that well thought of. When he died, it left a void in racing that has yet to be filled.
In a way, it’s sad that on a weekend when we should be taking a moment to pay tribute to the life of a great man – most of our energy is being spent vilifying his grandson. Both men did what they thought was right to preserve racing in the US. Both men took entirely different paths. Mr. Hulman’s legacy has already been written and is considered beyond reproach. How history treats his grandson has yet to be fully determined.
Anton Hulman, Jr. is considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was a very special man.