(by Robin Miller 7-2-09)
If Tony George had a good support system 19 years ago instead of butt kissers, guys with grudges and people with agendas, he might still be in charge at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
If he had apprenticed under Joe Cloutier and learned the ropes of daily business and the tenuous formula of the Indianapolis 500, the month of May might still be booming.
If he had been seriously embraced by CART and made to feel his opinion mattered, open wheel racing might never have been divided and conquered by NASCAR.
If he chose to be keeper of castle instead of king, his legacy might be on-going and preserved in glowing tributes instead of ravaged by controversy and finished off by a family feud.
Despite all of the positive things he did like bringing NASCAR, Formula One and MOTO GP to town and financing the safer wall, he will also be remembered as the man who murdered May and did irreparable damage to Indy-car racing.
That’s not opinion, its fact.
But, looking back, the grandson of Tony Hulman was totally unprepared to run the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” or preside over any kind of a series. He had no experience working with budgets, schedules or people.
His godfather, the late Dave Cassidy, always tried to get Mari Hulman George to send her son to one of their television stations for a couple of years to learn management skills, the value of a dollar and to interact with a staff. The least they should have done was make TG birddog Cloutier, who was Mr. Hulman’s savvy right-hand man for 50 years.
When Mari gave TG the keys to 16th & Georgetown in 1990, he had zero business acumen and a checkbook with seven figures: a dangerous combination.
TG’s attempt to purchase CART in 1991 at Houston was, by his own admission, very unprofessional and ill-prepared as his $1 million offer was rejected by the owners in less than civil tones.
That meeting was the genesis of the Indy Racing League and CART wasn’t clever enough to consider George’s age, inexperience and clout. He had Indy-car racing’s crown jewel and all they needed to do was ask his opinions on rules, car changes, etc., put their arms around him and make him part of the club. Sure, he did have a spot on the CART board for a while but nobody really cared to hear what he thought, according to a couple owners back then.
This was a critical time for young George and he needed some wise advisors. Instead, he supposedly listened to USAC officials and a former IMS boss who all loathed CART and Bill France Jr., who understood that CART was matching stock cars almost stride-for-stride in sponsorship, visibility and popularity.
I believe George thought France, NASCAR and ISC were his allies until a few years ago when he realized they had no interest in seeing his IRL succeed.
Anyway, at that time CART had Nigel Mansell, 28 full-time, sponsored cars, record attendance and good TV ratings in 1993-94-95. It was the worst possible time for George to start another series. He needed somebody with common sense to reason with him that the Indy 500 was the second toughest ticket in sports (behind the Masters) to get and CART may have been run by the greedy and pompous, but it was succeeding on all levels.
He needed somebody to remind him of Cloutier’s quote from the early ‘80s when the IMS boss said: “I don’t know why Indy became such a phenomenon but I do know it’s a fragile formula that we don’t want to mess with.”
Instead, when Tony announced 25 of the 33 spots for 1996 Indy 500 would be reserved for IRL point leaders and suddenly we had Racin’ Gardner and Bronco Brad Murphy competing instead of Michael Andretti, Al Unser Jr. and Emerson Fittipaldi, May took a credibility hit that it’s never recovered from.
Instead of following that tried and true tradition of just counting the money in May, George began spending it on purses, races, teams, promoting and marketing. He spent millions without consequence because he really didn’t value it and it came to him so easily.
His three sisters, also members of the IMS board, were reportedly vehemently all against funding another open wheel series and mother Mari was the only one who could check his power and shut down the revolution but she declined.
TG used the façade the IRL was for American drivers and manufacturers (and it was for a couple years) and to preserve the traditions of IMS when, in reality, it was only for control.
Despite some great finishes, the American public refused to embrace the IRL and it was listing badly earlier this decade when Roger Penske, Toyota and Honda came to its rescue. When the rest of the CART stalwarts like Ganassi, Rahal and Andretti-Green followed suit, the IRL suddenly had new life.
But only because it morphed into everything TG supposedly hated: street races, road courses, engine leases and inflated budgets.
A.J. Foyt called it CART Lite.
Still, by 2008 Champ Car had thrown in the towel and there was one series again for the first time since 1995. George had brokered peace and won the war but, incredibly, didn’t want to be king after all. He said he was happy running his Vision Racing team and had plenty of capable people to take care of IRL/IMS.
Of course a reflection of the 12-year war will show that it was expensive, destructive and needless. Indy-car racing is almost irrelevant in North America because of it and Indy has become a dull, lifeless spec series that’s going to slag along with the same boring equipment for at least two more years, providing it can hang on that long.
George isn’t the only one to blame for its demise but he is the one who pushed the red button.
So what happens now? TG’s sisters, who you certainly can’t blame for being angered and concerned at the estimated $700 million that’s been thrown at the IRL, F1 and the track, finally got the checkbook away from Tony and voted him out. There’s a bean counter in charge now and you can bet some changes are in the offing but Mari’s press release Tuesday stated the family would continue to support the IRL and open wheel racing. It didn’t say for how long or for how much but at least there’s a commitment for the immediate future.
A lot of people are convinced Mari is going to sell the Speedway but she’s always maintained it’s for her grandchildren and not for sale. Those grandkids, Jarrod Krisiloff, Kyle Krisiloff and Tony George Jr. are all working for the IRL right now while Lauren George, Olivia Conforti and Jesika Gunter all figure to be part of the process soon.
The Speedway appears to be in good shape. The Indy crowd was up last May, MOTO GP should be a winner with decent weather and the Brickyard may be half full but should still turn a profit. Indy almost ran itself for 60 years and Tony wasn’t hands on for the last few years anyway.
He didn’t have much input in the day-do-day business of the IRL either but it’s still his baby. He started it, nourished it and now it needs a complete overhaul of its financial pyramid because it’s a consistently big loser.
For now, Indy and IndyCar are still joined at the hip and the open wheel community is breathing a little easier after seeing Mari’s confirmation. It still needs leadership and Tony Cotman is the perfect guy to make the rules and streamline the budgets, yet his input doesn’t seem to be wanted.
As for George, he’s gone from one of the most powerful men in motorsports to the owner of a mid-pack, one-car team in IndyCar. There’s no denying he loves IMS and wanted to make it the pinnacle of all auto racing, which it is. But he wasn’t equipped to lead, he didn’t really have a plan, his passion was misplaced and his endless spending on an inferior product finally did him in.
Tony is not a bad person he just got some bad advice and made some bad decisions that May forever define his legacy.