Like most American kids that grew up in the 80's I watched the Indy 500 every year and became interested in motorsports thanks to that race, but I didn't really get hooked until I started watching Formula 1 racing in the late 90's. My favorite era were those years with the great Mika Hakkinen/Michael Schumacher battles. (I was a Mika Hakkinen fan) So my fondness for Formula 1 waned once Mika retired and Schumacher started winning everything, even at the expense of his teammate Rubens Barrichello. My interest in F1 has only been lukewarm since.

Then I turned to Champ Car racing here in the US for my motorsports fix. However that was quickly extinguished once Champ Car and Indy Car merged and we were stuck with Tony George and his many foibles. (It was entertaining to watch the Hulman/George drama I'll admit.) My interest has been less than lukewarm with Indy Car lately, even without Tony George at the helm.

Over time however, the excitement I once had for motorsports has slowly gone. Maybe it has to do with my age, I don't know. But I think I will pour my efforts into my Trooper and my interests in the outdoors to add excitement to my life.

Thanks for checking out my blog, I hope you enjoy it. I will still post racing news when I find something interesting or noteworthy.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

George family feud may affect IndyCar

(by Terry Blount 5-29-09)

Tony George, the man who for better or worse holds all the cards in Indy car racing, finds himself and his Indy Racing League at a crossroads.

A family dispute over who's in charge and how to run things could put the IRL in jeopardy.

George's control over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his power base and money stream, could end.

If so, his detractors will say George finally got his comeuppance. They see him as the man who caused a 12-year Indy car feud that led to two separate leagues until last year's unification.

Others disagree, saying George did what needed to be done at the time to return Indy car racing to its roots.

Whichever side you fall on, one thing is certain: This family power struggle is a dangerous situation for the IndyCar Series, the IRL's top level.

Contrary to a published report Wednesday, George wasn't voted out as CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Not yet.

But as one speedway official told me, "It's fair to say a change is coming. We just don't know what that is exactly."

The IMS board of directors met Tuesday to discuss a possible realignment of power within the family. Mari Hulman George, Tony's mother, is the chairman. Joining Tony on the board are his three sisters, Kathy, Nancy and Josie. Family attorney Jack Synder is the sixth board member.

Sources say the likely scenario is for Mari to retire and Tony to become the chairman later this year. It sounds good and saves face, but his control over the speedway would end.

On May 2, the Indianapolis Business Journal quoted George as saying the IRL needed to make a profit by 2013 to stay in business. George said last week the quote was taken out of context.

With the latest development, four more seasons might be stretching it if the league shows no signs of increased revenue.

A title sponsor, which could bring in $10 million a year, would help. But that alone isn't enough.

One IRL team owner said it's all a family disagreement.

"I love Tony," he said. "But I also love the entire family. I care about all of them, and I don't want to get in the middle of it."

The sisters want Tony to take his toy (the IRL) and do whatever he wants with it, but leave the speedway out of it.

Therein lies the problem. The IRL never has made money. Not even close.

At times over the years, Tony's siblings didn't like it, but they begrudgingly supported their brother. That support is ending. They don't want the family fortune squandered on a racing league that isn't financially viable.

Seems reasonable, but is it? The cash cow for IMS is the Indy 500. If the IRL fails, can the 500 succeed with no series to promote it?

And will all this force the family to consider selling the speedway? What is it worth?

The old Brickyard, which seats 257,000 people, isn't going to fade into a dusty relic. One Speedway Motorsports Inc. official said, "The bidding would start at $1.5 billion."

The players at that level are few. Even International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by NASCAR's France family, wouldn't likely make that financial commitment in this economy.

The hard numbers are difficult to attain, but conservative estimates have IMS earning between $80 million and $100 million a year in profit off the Indy 500 and the Allstate 400 NASCAR race.

Sources say the MotoGP motorcycle event, which made its IMS debut last year, makes a marginal profit, but it's insignificant. And it doesn't make up for the millions IMS lost on the Formula One race it lost in 2008.

Since the start of the IRL in 1996, George has used profits from the speedway to keep the league afloat. He backed teams and drivers during the long feud with CART/Champ Car, a bitter split that severely damaged the popularity of open-wheel racing in the United States.

Reports on expenditures vary widely, but George probably spent as much as $500 million over the last decade to prop up the IRL. Some of that money also was spent on renovations at IMS to bring the F1 race to the Brickyard.

The hallelujah moment came last year when the Champ Car World Series folded and the leagues united. The healing process had begun. The IRL also has some rising stars to market in Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal.

The biggest asset is Danica Patrick. But will she stay if NASCAR comes calling with a pot of cash? The league's hope for financial stability could rest on her decision.

For the moment, things look bright. Helio Castroneves earned a storybook victory last weekend in the Indy 500, five weeks after acquittal on tax-evasion charges.

All roads point toward better days ahead. Maybe that's why George's sisters decided to take a stand.

Tony finally had what he wanted all along -- one series on the upswing with marketable drivers. From the sisters' point of view, it was the right time to ask their brother to go it alone, so to speak, with the IRL.

Revenues for all the family assets, including the Clabber Girl Baking Powder company, are down in a struggling economy. Propping up the IRL may no longer be an option.

If things don't improve, George could try to sell the IRL, but who would buy it? Roger Penske, maybe? And what would it take to make it work?

"Leadership all around," said one track promoter who didn't want to be identified. "Professionals -- full-time, proven sales people and marketing people. True PR pros; broadcasting experts; and most of all, a single, solitary leader.

"These people have to come from auto racing or pro sports at least -- big-name people that you would recognize. Right now they are all amateurs."

The IRL could resort to racing on an event-by-event basis, depending on which promoters are willing to pay enough up front to make money for the competitors.

It seems to work in F1, but that series has enormous international TV revenue, something the IRL doesn't have. And this mercenary theme doomed Champ Car, which lost more than $90 million in 2007 before folding.

Some track promoters feel the IRL hasn't done enough to support other races because George felt it would detract from the Indy 500. If so, it's flawed logic. One great event can't keep a league viable.

So this is make-or-break time for the IRL. And it's up to Tony George, the man who always believed it was the right thing to do.

Now he has to prove it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Despite rumors, don't look for IMS leadership to change anytime soon

(by Tim Tuttle 5-28-09)

According to a report Wednesday, Tony Georgewas bounced out of his job as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's CEO. By midday, George had denied it in interviews with the Indianapolis media. IMS followed with a statement several hours later that further detailed the subjects and objectives discussed in the IMS board of directors meeting on Tuesday.

"There was a general discussion about the challenges and opportunities facing all of our companies and where most of our energies need to be spent," IMS chairman of the board, and Tony's mother, Mari Hulman George said. "All of our properties are doing well, given the challenges of the current economy. The Indy Racing League represents our greatest growth opportunity and therefore deserves the most attention at this point."

Added Tony George: "Contrary to published reports, I continue to serve as CEO of IMS ... no changes in leadership or responsibility have been made. We don't normally comment on board deliberations concerning our family business. However, the widespread, inaccurate reports and rumors caused my mother and me to conclude that it was necessary to set the record straight."

George has been the head of IMS since January, 1990, when he was voted in as president by the board. The family-owned speedway faced a crisis of leadership following the death of Joe Cloutier in late 1989.

Cloutier had been Tony Hulman's longtime aide and IMS treasurer and became president following Hulman's death in 1977. Cloutier had been like part of the family. Now, the board of directors -- comprised of Mary Fendrich Hulman, Tony's widow, Mari Hulman George, Tony's daughter and only child, Tony George, his sisters Josie and Nancy and attorney Jack Snyder -- had to decide whether to keep the top job in the family or bring someone in from outside.

Tony George, then 29, was the only candidate from the family to take over primary management responsibilities. Mari, Josie and Nancy had never shown any interest in running the famous race track.

"In the minds of most, I probably wasn't the logical successor at the time," George told me in 2004 for a story in Road & Track. "By my own admission, I probably hadn't attained, or at least didn't feel comfortable that I had attained, as much knowledge or experience or competence going into the business in a leadership role. There was thought of someone possibly being brought in from the outside.

"At some point, consideration was given to me. I had some reservations, but I didn't want to take myself out of consideration. In the end, it was decided it would be best to try to keep leadership of the company inside the family. With some reluctance and trepidation, they decided to give me a shot. I was a bit honored by that, but at the same time, a bit overwhelmed."

George has become a decisive and aggressive leader over the last 19 years. The IMS board has supported his decisions to bring in NASCAR Sprint Cup, Formula One and MotoGP, build a road course, invest heavily in infrastructure and fund the IRL.

The IMS board is largely the same as in 1990, except for Mary Fendrich Hulman, who died in 1998. The only addition has been Katherine George-Conforti, Tony George's sister. Snyder is the only non-family member on it. None of the other Board members are active in the management of the speedway.

The Hulman-George family is intensely private about its business affairs. Parent company Hulman and Company, the maker of Clabber Girl Baking Powder that has 65 percent of the U.S. market, is privately held, along with IMS and many other substantial investments in real estate, energy and banking. Mary Fendrich Hulman's fortune was listed at $140 million by Forbes in 1985 and put her on the famous list of the 400 richest Americans. Forbes hasn't tried to list any of the family members in years, probably because it is impossible to find out what they own.

Given the family history, it seems unlikely they would put an outsider in the top job at IMS. Who from the family is ready for such responsibility? George's son, Tony Jr., Josie's sons Kyle and Jarrod Krisiloff and Nancy's daughter Jesika have jobs with either IMS or IRL, but they are all many years away from being ready to assume management roles.

The board has asked George to prioritize his attention in the IRL, the financial weak link in the family business, and to develop a plan for future leadership, which probably means grooming the next generation for specific jobs at IMS, IRL and Hulman and Company. George is CEO of all the Hulman-George companies. George moved away from the day-to-day decision making at IMS when he named Joie Chitwood president in December, 2004. Chitwood, in much the same manner as Cloutier with Tony Hulman, has gained the family's trust and confidence and it leaves George with more time to focus on the IRL. George seems likely to continue as IMS CEO until some family member is ready to replace him.

Don't count on that happening anytime soon.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Indianapolis 500 losing speed as TV draw

(by Michael Hiestand, USA TODAY 5-27-09)

You have to wonder: What's left, theoretically, that could resurrect the Indianapolis 500's drawing power?
The merger of what had been two competing Indy-style circuits, ending a split that had supposedly hampered the sport for years, came last year. Danica Patrick was supposed to bring star power if she could also be a contender on the track — and she finished third in Sunday's race.

But ABC's coverage drew just 3.9% of U.S. TV households. That's down 13% from last year, down 40% from coverage four years ago — and the lowest rating since the 500 got live start-to-finish TV coverage in 1986.

And if the recession kept some viewers off the roads this Memorial Day weekend, it didn't mean they wanted to watch cars on TV.

Fox's NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 drew a 3.5 overnight rating — translating to 3.5% of households in 56 urban TV markets — which is off 20% from last year. But the rating not dropping off even more suggests the loyalty of NASCAR fans: After being rained out in Sunday primetime, the race was forced into a noon start Monday — then rained out 223 laps into what was scheduled to be a 400-lap race.

Indy CEO Tony George denies ouster

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Tony George is still in charge of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, despite reports that he had been voted out.

"Contrary to published reports, I continue to serve as CEO of IMS,'' George said Wednesday in a statement.

A report posted on its Web site Wednesday said the board of directors had removed George from his position during a meeting Tuesday night. ran a similar report.

"Our board of directors met yesterday, and we did discuss how to best confront challenges and exploit opportunities facing our businesses,'' George said in the statement. "This is nothing new and is something that we continually do as a board. But no changes in leadership or responsibility have been made.

George, who is also CEO of the IRL and an IndyCar team owner, has led the family-owned speedway for the past 20 years. During that time, he started the Indy Racing League and brought NASCAR, Formula One and Grand Prix motorcycles to the 100-year-old, tradition-bound Indiana track.

According to the statement, board members asked George to devise a plan that would allow him to focus on the business that requires the most attention. reported George was ousted as CEO because his three sisters, all members of the board, were concerned about the money he had spent to keep the IRL afloat and to make major changes to the speedway.

"This place wakes up every morning and eats money,'' George told local TV reporters during an appearance at the speedway. "We spend a lot of money keeping it in the condition we do. Certainly the Indy Racing League has in the past required a lot of capital to keep it going when there was two competing series - and a lot of money was spent last year trying to unify. We got that done and everybody's hoping to catch a tail wind and then the economy's in our face. We're just dealing with that.''

Tony George Ousted from IMS

(by Robin Miller 5-27-09)

The controversial, ground-breaking, tumultuous 20-year reign of Tony George at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is over. has learned George was voted out of power in a Tuesday night board meeting in Indianapolis.

Tony George is now expected to focus more heavily on his role within the IndyCar Series and with his IndyCar Series team, Vision Racing. (LAT) » More Photos

A source close to the situation confirmed that the 49-year-old grandson of Tony Hulman would no longer be CEO of the Speedway after a vote of the IMS board of directors which includes mother Mari, sisters Josie, Nancy and Kathy, attorney Jack Snyder and George.

Calls to Snyder and Fred Nation, IMS vice president of communications, were not returned and George did not respond to an email.

George, who started the Indy Racing League in 1996, will continue as CEO of the IndyCar series and is expected to take more of a hands-on role after Tuesday's developments at the Speedway.

It had been rumored for several years that his sisters were concerned with the amount of money George had spent on keeping the IRL afloat and changing the look of the Speedway.

It's estimated that between paying purses, supplying cars, engines and parts for other teams, hiring high powered public relations firms and starting his own IRL team, plus remaking Indy to accomodate Formula One, the IRL founder has spent more than $600 million during the past 13 years.

And his siblings were reportedly concerned about running out of money.

The Speedway currently has two Challenger airplanes for sale, sold the helicopter used by George's family and has cut some 60 people from its IMS and IRL staffs during the past six months.

George's ouster comes a couple weeks after his wife, Laura, was removed from her job as staff advisor at the Speedway.

Since starting his own IRL team, Vision Racing, in 2005, George has stepped away from the day-to-day responsibilities of the IRL and turned them over to Terry Angstadt, president of the commercial division, and Brian Barnhart, the president of competition and racing operations.

He helped orchestrate the unification of open wheel racing with Champ Car's Kevin Kalkhoven in 2008 but since then has mostly concentrated on trying to improve Vision Racing for stepson Ed Carpenter and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

It's assumed Jeff Belskus, the IMS chief financial officer, and Curt Brighton, general counsel for the Speedway, will run the show until a replacement is hired. One name making the rounds has been Humpy Wheeler, the longtime promoter at Charlotte who was at last Sunday's Indy 500 for the first time since 1970.

The heirs to Tony's throne are Kyle and Jarrod Krisiloff (sons of Josie), Jesika Gunter (daughter of Nancy), Olivia Conforti (daughter of Kathy), Tony Jr. and Lauren (son and daughter of Tony and Laura George). None are on the board as yet but Jarrod Krisiloff currently works in IMS Productions and has spent the past four years learning the ropes of other departments while brother Kyle pursued a driving career in Atlantics and NASCAR before retiring to go to work for the Speedway late last year.

Tony Jr. works with Roger Bailey in the Indy Lights program and Jesse recently began working at IMS.

After being named IMS president in January of 1990, George attempted to purchase CART in 1991 but was rejected and angered by the overall attitude of the car owners. He vowed on the flight home to remedy that situation some day.

His first major break from tradition came in 1994, when he staged the inaugural Brickyard 400 and gave NASCAR a foothold in open wheel country. It also gave IMS a three-day cash cow as the stock car crowd embraced the concept with sold out grandstands.

George. who felt unappreciated by the CART owners who seldom sought his opinion, dropped a bombshell in '94 when he announced he was starting his own series. In 1996, the Indy Racing League debuted in Orlando using old CART cars and engines.

But he created a firestorm by reserving 25 of the 33 starting spots for the Indianapolis 500 for the Top 25 in IRL points after Orlando and Phoenix. CART opted to stage its own 500-mile race at Michigan on the same day and the costly open wheel war escalated.

With CART's big stars and teams absent for the next several years, the month of May suffered and has never recovered in terms of practice and qualifying crowds but the race remains the largest single day event in North America.

George then decided to bring Formula One to Indianapolis and, after spending an estimated $70 million to construct a road course, pit suites and a new Pagoda, the United States Grand Prix debuted in September of 2000 to a packed house. But attendance gradually dissipated and, following a debacle in '06 when only six cars took the green flag because of tire issues, Tony pulled the plug on F1 after 2007.

Because Bernie Ecclestone controlled television, the title sponsor and demanded a multi-million dollar fee from IMS each year, F1 was a financial disaster. It was replaced in 2008 with the MOTO GP motorcycles which, despite a fierce rainstorm, drew a decent crowd and turned a profit.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Helio wins third Indy 500; Danica finishes third

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Pumping his fist as he took the checkered flag and breaking down in tears when he was done, Helio Castroneves capped a perfect month of May with the biggest win of all Sunday at the Indianapolis 500.

Castroneves became the ninth driver to win the historic race three times, and his timing couldn't have been better. Just 5 1/2 weeks ago, he was acquitted of most charges at a federal tax evasion trial, and the remaining count was thrown out on Friday.

Instead of going to prison for as long as six years, Castroneves pulled his red-and-white machine into Victory Lane at the Brickyard. No wonder he was sobbing when team owner Roger Penske leaned in to give him a hug.

"Thanks for giving my life back," the 34-year-old Brazilian told his boss, who earned his record 15th win at Indy.

Castroneves completed a clean sweep of every Indy prize, also claiming the pole position and winning the pit-stop competition. Throw in the federal government's decision to drop the last of the tax charges just minutes before he went out for the final practice, and "this is the best month of May ever," said Castroneves, now only one win away from joining the most elite group of all: four-time Indy winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Castroneves pulled away over the final laps to beat Dan Wheldon and Danica Patrick, who eclipsed her historic fourth-place finish as a rookie in 2005 by crossing the strip of bricks in third.

Patrick, however, was never really a factor.

This day belonged to Castroneves, who pumped his fist all the way down the final straightaway.

"I want to climb the fence," said the driver known as "Spiderman," referring to his signature celebration.

Then he did just that, climbing out of his car after the victory lap and scaling the fence along the main grandstand with his pit crew. Someone tossed him a green-and-yellow Brazilian flag.

The victory was clearly popular with the quarter of a million fans who turned out on a sweltering late spring day and were on their feet, cheering and waving these caps as Castroneves sped around the 2.5-mile oval for the final time.

"You guys kept me strong," Castroneves told the crowd. "You guys are the best. I'm honored to have fans like you.

"Let's celebrate now!"

Crashes took out some of the biggest names in the field, including Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal. The most frightening wreck occurred on lap 173, when Brazilians Vitor Meira and Raphael Matos got together going into the first turn.

Meira's car veered head-on into the padded outside wall. He was removed from the car, put on a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital complaining of severe lower-back pain.

The lengthy caution period ensured that everyone had enough fuel to get to the finish. When the race restarted with 17 laps to go, Castroneves got a great jump on Wheldon and Patrick and pulled away to win by nearly 2 seconds, more than two football fields.

"I had a really good car," Patrick said. "Oh well, what are you going to do?"

Added Wheldon, "At the end, I just didn't have enough for Helio."

It was clear from the start that Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing had the strongest cars. Castroneves led 66 laps and teammate Ryan Briscoe ran out front for 11. On the Ganassi side, defending 500 champion Scott Dixon set the pace for a race-best 73 laps, while his teammate Dario Franchitti, who won in 2007 and returned to Indy this year after a disappointing foray into stock cars, led the other 50.

Dixon's powerful car lost its edge near the end of the more than three-hour race and he slipped back to sixth, failing to become the first driver since Castroneves in 2001-02 to win back-to-back 500s. Franchitti had a problem in the pits late in the race and couldn't make up the lost ground, settling for seventh.

Two drivers who don't even have full-time rides in the IndyCar series crossed the line behind Patrick. Townsend Bell was fourth, while Will Power - who filled in while Castroneves was on trial - finished fifth in a third Team Penske car.

It may have been a perfect month for Castroneves, but it wasn't a perfect race. He had problems with his radio all day, and there were gearbox issues when he came into the pits. But he knew what to do on the track.

"Once I got in front, it was never look back," Castroneves said.

Rounding out the top 10 were Ed Carpenter in eighth, Paul Tracy and Hideki Mutoh. Tracy was racing at Indy for the first time since the disputed 2002 event, when a late caution froze the field just as he was going past Castroneves. The outspoken Canadian is still convinced he won that race — his appeal was turned down — but there was no doubt about this one.

It was Castroneves all the way.

The race had barely started when Mario Moraes drifted to the outside and made contact with Andretti, sending both cars into the wall going into the second turn.

The Andretti curse remains in force at Indy. Marco said there was nothing he could do when the 20-year-old Moraes pinched him into the wall.

"The kid doesn't get it, and he never will," said Andretti, only 22 himself. "He's just clueless out there."

Neither driver was hurt, and Andretti even got back on the track for 56 laps to finish 30th in the 33-car field.

Rahal, son of 1986 Indy winner Bobby Rahal, crashed on the 56th lap in virtually the same spot where he slammed into the wall a year earlier. He started fourth and was running fifth when his car went high coming out of the fourth turn and slammed the barrier. He was not injured.

"I got mid-corner and the car just went straight. It was the same exact thing as last year," the 20-year-old Rahal said. "I felt I was being patient. I thought I wasn't going to have any problem, and all of a sudden it just went."

Kanaan was running third when something snapped in his No. 11 car, sending it straight into the wall at about 190 mph. The helpless machine slid through the third turn and slammed into the SAFER barrier again before finally coming to a stop.

The popular Kanaan wasn't seriously hurt, but he sure was aching after the big hit.

"I went on quite a ride," he said after getting checked at the infield media center. "I knew it was going to be a big one."

It was another painful Indy moment for the hard-luck Brazilian, who had led the race a record seven straight years — but is still seeking his first 500 win.

"Me and this place," Kanaan said with a sigh.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Tony George gives the IRL a deadline

Remark to group reveals deadline for Indy Racing League

(by Anthony Schoettle 5-2-09)

Indy Racing League founder Tony George dropped a bombshell in December when he told an industry group that he would shut down the open-wheel series if it didn’t break into the black soon.

When pressed about the possibility of being profitable by 2013, George responded, “It has to be, or or there won’t be a 2013. We expect a return on that investment.”

The remark before the Sports Business Journal Motorsports Marketing Forum in New York was scarcely reported outside racing circles and received virtually no attention from Indianapolis media.

Now racing analysts wonder what would happen to the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway if the IRL were to collapse.

“It’’s difficult to envision the Indianapolis 500 without a supporting series,” said Tim Frost, president of Frost Motorsports, a Chicago-based business consultancy. “I’m not sure any of us know what would happen if Tony George pulled the plug on the Indy Racing League. I can tell you, it wouldn’t be good.”

Most analysts are optimistic George will hit the goal and see the series thrive. Even Frost rates the IRL’s chances of reaching profitability within four years at around 70 percent—a figure other analysts agree is reasonable.

It’s been an uphill battle. Analysts estimate George has poured more than $250 million into the series in its 13 seasons. When asked in the New York forum if the league had turned a profit, George responded, “Not yet.”

IRL lieutenants are preparing for an all-out sales and marketing assault during one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. The marketers are counting on last year’s unification with rival open-wheel series CART, and a three-year centennial celebration surrounding the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Indianapolis 500 that starts this year, to rev the engine.

One thing is certain: Results of the campaign will profoundly affect open-wheel racing worldwide, not to mention in Indiana.

“We’re talking about tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic impact,” said Tom Weisenbach, Indiana Motorsports Association executive director. “We find new racing-related companies in Indiana every day.”

Post-IRL options

If the IRL doesn’t turn a profit in the next four years and George keeps his word, the Speedway would face interesting options. George, who is also IMS chairman, could maintain the Indianapolis 500 as a stand-alone open-wheel event, or make it part of an open-wheel series that starts in the wake of IRL’s death. Both options seem unlikely.

The other option would be to join Formula One. As strange as the idea might sound, the Indianapolis 500 was a fixture on the F1 calendar from 1950-60, though most of the drivers who raced here didn’t compete in many other F1 races.

“If the IRL went away, they wouldn’t have tumbleweeds blowing down the front stretch,” Frost said. “It’s just too much of a valued fixed asset to let sit during May.”

The Allstate 400 at the Brickyard NASCAR race and the MotoGP motorcycle race are thought to bring in a combined $35 million to $50 million in revenue, but motorsports analysts said those races don’t hold a candle to the revenue generated by the Indianapolis 500.

The Speedway doesn’t release the number, but ticket sales are just the tip of the iceberg. Whatever the number, it’s augmented by hospitality, merchandise and concession sales during almost the entire month of May, Frost said.

Progress and skepticism

While the IRL has gained some traction in the last year, skepticism abounds about its future.

“I’m not sure I’d bet they’ll be in the black within four years,” said Dennis McAlpine, a motorsports financial analyst based in New York.

However, Terry Angstadt, president of IRL’s Commercial Division, pointed out that the series has signed five major sponsors this year: Apex Brasil, Izod, Hot Wheels, Orbitz and The National Guard. The Apex, Izod and Hot Wheels deals now constitute three of the series’ five biggest sponsors, Angstadt said, along with Honda and Firestone.

Angstadt said there’s a 70-percent chance the league could sign a title sponsor for 2010. IRL officials hope for a deal worth at least $10 million a year.

Zak Brown, whose locally based motorsports marketing firm, Just Marketing International, has been hired by the league to hunt for title sponsors, said, “I think that deal could be enough to put the league at or very near profitability.”

While the current economic swoon has dramatically slowed the search for a title sponsor, Brown feels confident one will be signed well in advance of George’s ultimatum date.

“I’ll quit the sport if we don’t have a title sponsor by 2013,” said Brown, whose company represents several of the biggest sponsors in NASCAR and F1. “This series has too much going for it.”

Brown counts the drivers and their personalities, on-track competitiveness, racing venues and the Indianapolis 500 chief among the assets that will sustain the IRL.

Sponsorship growth isn’t the only thing pointing toward increased IRL revenue, Angstadt said. New races are another potential revenue source. He said venues in Houston; Cleveland; Birmingham, Ala.; Brazil and China are showing strong interest in the series.

Can Indy 500 save IRL?

Doug Boles, formerly a part owner of an IRL team, thinks the IRL is heading in the right direction, unlike its former rival, CART.

A bitter dispute with CART over the governance and direction of open-wheel racing led to the creation of the IRL in 1996. It didn’t take long for CART to suffer the consequences. The series, which was headquartered in Indianapolis and had roughly the same number of races the IRL does now, racked up as much as $143.3 million in annual expenses and made a profit only once in its last eight seasons.

CART hemorrhaged as the series bought TV time for its races, promoted its own races and subsidized teams. By 2003, losses had shot to a whopping $93.6 million.

“The Indy Racing League doesn’t pay to promote races, and has never had to buy TV time,” Boles said. “Tony George has made the decision to financially support some teams, but that is way down from years past.”

In contrast to CART’s TV deal, ESPN/ ABC paid the IRL $10 million annually for the right to air its races, motorsports business experts said. The IRL forged a new 10-year TV pact following last season, with Versus airing 12 races and ABC/ESPN carrying five races, including the Indianapolis 500. That contract is valued at slightly less than the previous deal, but far ahead of where CART was in its last few years.

Boles, who was director of motorsports development under former Mayor Steve Goldsmith, thinks the Indianapolis 500 will drive the IRL to profitability.

“In a bad year, the Indianapolis 500 brings in 50 percent more hospitality revenue than the Brickyard 400,” Boles said. “In a good year, it brings in two and a half times as much. That’s how big an event the Indianapolis 500 is.”

Boles thinks Indianapolis 500 revenue alone could offset the IRL’s expenses.

“You can make a pretty stout argument that it makes sense for Tony to lose money on the IRL,” Boles said. “With the IRL in place, Tony can go to bed at night knowing he’s going to have a product at the Speedway he controls, with no fiascos like you saw at the [2005] F1 race. It’s a loss leader to attract people to the store.”

Frost isn’t as sure.

He estimates the IRL’s annual expenses at $50 million to $70 million, not including the Indianapolis 500. “That’s a different animal altogether,” he said.

“It brings in a great deal of money, but it also carries significant operational expenses,” Frost said. Still, he said, $15 million to $25 million in profit from the month of May isn’t unreasonable.

One thing is certain. The Indianapolis 500 remains at the center of the debate about open-wheel racing. Most analysts agree the event remains the foundation on which the future of the sport rests.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Indiana in May is a special place

(by Ed Hinton 5-1-09)

Back home again in Indiana

The 93rd Indianapolis 500 is imminent, and Indianapolis Motor Speedway turns 100 this summer. But the renown and reverence for the race and the place have been built on memorable moments.

The towering ones are well documented, but there are some behind-the-scenes vignettes that I treasure, some associated with the milestones, some simply wonderful or sad.

And it seems that I can see

A.J. Foyt stomping into the interview room on the occasion of becoming the first four-time Indy winner, snatching up a microphone and bellowing, "Gaahhddamn! We did it!"

Then, childlike, the raging bull of Indy bowed his head and said: "I ought not take the Lord's name in vain. He's been awful good to me today."

That was in 1977.

The gleaming candlelight, still shining bright

The ever stone-faced Big Al Unser -- called "Dry Ice" within the family, "so cool he burns" -- breaking down and sobbing with joy, not over any of his four 500 wins, but his son's first one.

After Little Al Unser won by half a car length, Big Al choked out the words, his voice breaking almost rhythmically: "To love something as much as I love racing, and to win at this place and then to have your son come along and win here [tremendous break in his voice here] is the greatest feeling there is."

That was 1992.

As the Unsers rejoiced, two Andrettis, Mario and his younger son, Jeff, lay hospitalized with serious injuries.

At their bedsides was Michael, who'd been dominating the race, hurtling toward an enormous paradox of triumph and disaster for the family … until a little pump belt broke.

That was Indy in those days: if it wasn't one monumental story, it was another -- in this case, two.

Through the sycamores for me

The amazing calm of team owner Barry Green on the radio to his driver, the fearless Quebecois Jacques Villeneuve, after they'd been put down two laps with an unjust penalty.

Green, in his Australian accent, pronounced Jacques as "Jack."

In the cockpit, Villeneuve was seething.

"Soldier on, Jack. Soldier on, mate," Green would say as Villeneuve flew back toward the front, unlapping once …

"Soldier on, Jack. Soldier on, mate."

Unlapping twice …

Villeneuve won from two laps down. He went off to Formula One and never returned.

That was in 1995, the 79th 500, which some call the last really great one, before the CART-IRL split of '96.

The new-mown hay sends all its fragrance

The glare I got from a rookie over at John Menard's racing shop the Saturday morning before the 80th 500, when I asked how he was holding up under the circumstances.

The rookie had qualified second, but would now start on the pole, moving over to replace his teammate, Scott Brayton, who'd been killed during practice after the field was set.

The kid was the poster boy for the Indy Racing League in the just-exploding civil war between the IRL and CART. The IRL promised to bring heartland American youths to Indy, rather than importing drivers with big money backing from Europe and Latin America.

So all the pressure of all of American open-wheel racing was on the shoulders of this sprint car driver who grew up only 50 miles away, in Columbus, Ind.

All this, and his veteran teammate was suddenly dead.

The kid turned and glared and said: "I'm a racer. I can't worry about things like that."

His name? Tony Stewart.

That was in 1996.

From the fields I used to roam

Mario Andretti, sitting in the paddock, looking me dead in the eye after I'd asked if his grandson, Marco Andretti, 19, a rookie, could actually win this race.

"You're damn right," he said. And it became a refrain as he repeated it. "You're damn right. … You're damn right. … You're damn right. …"

And then he added, "But you gotta beat Penske." Above all else, to win this race, "You've. Got. To. Beat. Penske."

Roger Penske's drivers had won this race 13 times.

On race day, Marco flew into the final lap leading, dueling with Team Penske's Sam Hornish Jr., and the crowd's roar and the moment were more electrifying than any since the terrible split of '96 … more thunderous even than when Danica Patrick had become the first woman to lead the 500, late in the race of 2005.

This was the moment the grand old race could heal completely from the wounds of the Indy car civil war.

A rookie, 19, and most of all an Andretti hurtling out of the family's notoriously bad luck at the Brickyard, could restore the 500 to headlines around the world.

When, on the last lap, Marco blocked Hornish off Turn 2 and forced him to lose momentum, Mario's words flashed through my mind: "You're damn right."

Then Hornish, calling on an astounding reserve of horsepower nobody -- except the team -- knew he had, closed again.

"But you gotta beat Penske."

In a red-and-white blur at the checkered flag, Hornish -- a nice guy but without the global charisma of the Andrettis -- beat Marco by a nose and snuffed the worldwide story.

This was in 2006.

When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash

The courtly figure of Jean-Marie Belestre, then head of the FIA, then the most anti-Indy car mogul in the world, standing on the pit road, half an hour before the start, invited as a peace-making gesture.

Belestre earlier that year had told me there would be "war," his word, on Indy car racing due to CART's designs on running in Australia, South America and even Europe. This was flagrant intrusion onto Formula One turf by what Belestre dismissed as "a domestic series."

This was in 1991, the 75th 500, and Belestre stood clearly mesmerized, gazing out at nearly 300,000 seats, every one of them occupied. Some domestic series.

"What do you think?" I asked him.

"What can I say?" he replied. "This is the greatest race in the world."

Then I long again for my Indiana home.