Monday, June 20, 2011

Exclusive: Tony George, Former IndyCar CEO, Speaks Out

(by Holly Cain aolnews.com 5-4-10)

In his first in-depth interview since his June 30, 2009 dismissal as CEO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and his subsequent resignations from the Hulman & Co. board of directors and as CEO of the Indy Racing League he founded, Tony George tells FanHouse how he's spent the past few months and how he is adjusting to his new roles in business, racing and family.

INDIANAPOLIS -- When Tony George resigned from the Indy Racing League in January, it came at a time, he says, when "there was still too much to do that I wanted to see through."

The former leader of American open wheel racing tells FanHouse of how difficult it was to give up the leadership of the IRL, the organization that he started. He calls accusations that he brought financial hardship to the IRL "wildly inaccurate," and says he "spent a lot less that it would have taken" to buy a professional sports team.

He talks of his love for IndyCar racing and tells of how he caught a pre-dawn commercial flight to
St. Petersburg, Fla., just after returning from a business trip in China, in an effort to catch the race
there in person.

In this first of two parts, George explains what he thinks is "the best thing that's happened for
Danica" this season and also predicts a 2010 breakout star. And the answers may surprise you.

George officially resigned from the IRL on his 50th birthday, Dec. 30, and when he returns to The
Speedway for the May 30 Indianapolis 500, his only responsibility, for the first time in his life,
will be that of team owner.

Through weeks of phone calls, a sit-down interview at George's Indianapolis-based Vision Racing
team headquarters, and pages of thoughtful written replies to questions, George discusses a wide
range of topics with senior writer Holly Cain.

One of the most significant -- and controversial -- figures in American motorsports during the
past 20 years, George is now eager to set the racing record straight in a lengthy and comprehensive interview that will be presented in two parts Tuesday and Wednesday:

Holly Cain: Did you ever, ever expect that you would not be an integral part of the series you formed? Or the Speedway?

Tony George: In a word, no.

But having said that, I did expect I would reduce my role with both and work on transitioning members of the family into leadership positions. In fact, in March of 2009, (March 17, 18, and 19 to be exact), I organized an initial meeting with an executive leadership consultant that I had worked with previously, to begin working with my son and nephew, both of whom were working in the business.

I have said it before; I would be less than honest if I didn't admit to thinking of winding down the day-to-day workload after realizing unification, but not that soon and not that way. There was still too much to do that I wanted to see through.

HC: What tops that list of things you feel are unfinished business?

TG: I clearly had in mind to see the (Indianapolis Motor Speedway's) Centennial through and all that went with it.

HC: How difficult has it been to turn over "your baby" -- the IRL -- to someone else to run? Could you explain your decision?

TG: It has been very difficult; my decision to not accept the offer to remain as CEO of the league was based on a number of things. Chief among them my belief that Terry (Angstadt, president, IRL commercial division) had done a very good job the last couple of years, at a time when everyone seemed to have an opinion as to what kind of person was needed as CEO to make the IRL successful. He was capable and deserving of assuming the responsibility. In my opinion, he has provided quality leadership as we turned the corner and had us headed in the right direction.

HC: Have you been paying close attention to the IRL season? Your thoughts?

TG: I have been paying close attention from afar, which has been somewhat bittersweet. I have officially fallen from the ranks of those who have attended every IRL race since 1996. ... less than a handful remain.

I missed (season-opener) Brazil and Barber (Motorsports Park in Alabama) but was able to take in St. Pete when it was postponed. I had just returned home Sunday night about 10 p.m. from a trip to China and decided to catch a 5:20 a.m. flight to Tampa in hopes of getting there in time for the 10 a.m. start.

Airport delays caused me to arrive well into the race, but it was good to be back at the track.

It has certainly been an interesting start to the season with Will Power getting off to such a strong start. Having said that, it promises to be a very competitive season, I just wish Vision could have been a part of it from the commencement in Sao Paulo.

With some driver-team seat swaps and new players in both ranks, it is nice to see new faces in new places. This will be a breakout year for someone (I predict Marco Andretti).

So far this year, the best thing that has happened to Danica has been she picked up the best motor coach driver in the business, who became available after being let go by IMS at the end of the 2009 season.

Likewise, the Firestone Indy Lights Series has seen some interesting shake up. It is another good field of drivers this year. Although fewer in numbers, it should be very competitive. We (Vision Racing) miss being involved in this series too. I feel like we put forth a great effort last year which not only gave us our first win as an organization but it was a source of pride that helped us all pull together. I am glad to see the ladder program get implemented this season too. It should be a tremendous benefit to the future development of the League.

IZOD coming on board as the title sponsor of the ICS has been wonderful as it has really helped create more team sponsorship and a sense that the series represents a place of opportunity.

I know they will use their position of influence and space to advance the interest of the entire series and not just the interest of one team or one driver; however, securing the long-term future of Ryan Hunter-Reay is important. Allen Sirkin and Mike Kelly have led from the top and that makes all the difference in the world.

HC: What are some of your proudest accomplishments during your 20-year tenure with the Speedway and in founding the Indy Racing League in 1994?

TG: I'm proud of our leadership in investments in the safety of the sport. I am proud of the Hulman Family's commitment to community and philanthropy.

Obviously, once the decision was made to expand our racing events at the Speedway, being a part of bringing world-class events like the Brickyard 400, MotoGP and F1 USGP to fruition; but with that said, the IRL for sure. It has so much potential and it truly is who we are, we can influence its direction; build it as a brand leveraging both the IMS and the 500 for which it exists.

Much has been speculated, wildly inaccurate, about how much was spent to build the IRL. I am proud that we have spent a lot less than it would have taken to buy a professional sports team in the NFL, MLB, NBA or even the NHL -- and we own the whole league.

The IRL is a fantastic asset both financially and strategically. I'm proud of that.

HC: Do you have any regrets?

TG: With the benefit of hindsight, there are things anyone would do differently given the chance, but regrets? Not so much.

Staying more involved with the day-to-day at the Speedway is something I definitely should have done. Off-loading that responsibility was a mistake.

As an organization, we should have addressed the need to restructure sooner; we had gotten fat and complacent. Some saw the need and potential benefit of trying to streamline some of the functions within the enterprise, while others saw it as a threat. In the end, much of it has now occurred but it was forced.

If I have any regret, it would be that we lost some very good, loyal people who could have had a positive impact on the organization going forward, but they left as a result of the uncertainty or the handling of the restructuring as it occurred.

One other thing that I have regretted is about the timing of my dismissal; that it occurred right in the middle of the season, just as we had the momentum of the Speedway's "Centennial Era" celebration. It took the bright light that should have shone on our company's history, the participation and valuable investments by our sponsorship community, and cast a dismal shadow over it.

HC: Who have you heard from within the industry in the months since you formally resigned? Who has reached out and what have they said.?

TG: I have heard from many people within the industry, within the city, the state, the globe, you name it. I don't feel that it would be appropriate to name people, but they have reached out by letter, e-mail, phone call, voice mail; they stop me on the street, in airports, at church.

I have been genuinely humbled and grateful for the sincere interest and love from so many people.

Most (people) genuinely can't believe it, don't understand it; then there are those that do believe it and do understand it. Everyone wants to know what I will be doing next; will I keep the team, will I stay in racing or will I stay in the city, the state?

HC: How have you been spending your time since, most recently, resigning your position in the Indy Racing League?

TG: The next day (resigning from the IRL), New Year's Eve, Laura and I boarded Amtrak for a New Year's trip to Montana. It was our first trip on a train together and we had a great time even though it was 25 below zero for most of the trip. After a few days out there we drove our Suburban home trying to out-run the first snow storm of the New Year that was headed from the Pacific Northwest toward Indiana. So that first week of being disconnected was quite an adventure.

Shortly after that we went on a planned ski trip to Austria with Kevin (Kalkhoven) and Kim for what turned out to be one of the most relaxing and enjoyable trips I can remember. I really appreciated spending time with someone I have enjoyed getting to know as a by-product of unification.

Since January I have continued to do quite a bit of traveling and most of it has been related to Vision Racing or future business development opportunities. Beyond the ski trip, not much of the travel has been for personal pleasure. I continue to seek an opportunity to restart our racing operation as soon as possible and that remains a priority and area of focus, in addition to other business interests.

--------------------

(by Holly Cain aolnews.com 5-5-10)

INDIANAPOLIS -- In part two of FanHouse's exclusive interview, Tony George discusses the state of the Indy Racing League and why he's not a big proponent of the new championship format.

He discusses the possibility of working in the family business again, the upcoming Indy 500 and whether his great gamble 16 years ago to form a second major American open-wheel series was all worth it in the end.

Holly Cain: What is the direction you'd like to see the IRL take in the future to be a successful racing organization? And did you have any input on hiring (new CEO) Randy Bernard?

Tony George: I will answer the second part of the question first. No, I did not. I had already resigned my position effective the end of the year.

I will tell you that Randy came highly recommended by the "Horse Whisperer" Chris Cox, a friend of my sister Josie and my mother. Randy was also known to a fellow rancher in the Wyoming valley Josie lives in. She has said she was looking for a racing outsider and she found one.

Now to answer the first part of the question; I do have thoughts on the direction I would like to see things go. I don't think it is appropriate for me to comment on that. I will say that, so far, not much has happened since my departure that has changed the current positive trajectory of the League. Most everything that has come together was already in the works, in large part due to (President of IRL Commercial Division) Terry's (Angstadt) leadership and efforts.

Over time, I am sure I will form opinions and express them on the future direction of this or that; and like everyone there will be those opinions that are shared or rejected by those in a position of influence.

Rest assured of one thing, there will always be important, political and emotionally charged issues to deal with and not everyone will always agree.

HC: What's your opinion on the new IZOD IndyCar Series championship format, which will now crown champions in both oval and road course disciplines in addition to an overall champion?

TG: I am not sure I understand the need for it; I know the concept was raised by others in the past, but I didn't think then and I don't believe now that we should bifurcate the series, or create sub‐champions to grow.

In my opinion, once we realized unification, what we needed were a couple of seasons to settle in and demonstrate leadership. That is what we committed to doing post unification.

HC: Generally speaking, how is your relationship with your family after such a difficult situation?

TG: Assuming you are referring to the relationship with my mother and sisters, generally I would have to admit that our conversations have been somewhat strained by our business disagreements; how could it not be?

As I said before, I truly love my family and nothing can change that, but we have a very different view of the future and approach to doing business.

HC: Is there any chance that you would resume a position either with the IRL or with The Speedway or another of your family's companies?

TG: I would absolutely love the opportunity to be involved again, but at this point that seems highly unlikely.

I am so excited and focused on the opportunities that Laura (his wife) and I have before us -- and realistically all these good things will keep us very busy for years to come. I have a renewed energy and vigor from this new chance to focus on my personal and immediate family's opportunities instead of dealing the challenges of leading a family enterprise.

Any family enterprise, with the size and breadth of holdings like our extended family, especially by the fourth or fifth generation, likely foments internal grasping and deceit that can come from a lifetime of deep-seated resentment and anger that only a family can inflict on each other.

This is so common in large family enterprises it is almost a cliche. This can be painful and damaging not only on the current generation, but also on spouses and children of the next generation. The bottom line is that I truly love my mom and sisters, but I am truly grateful and relieved to now get the opportunity to explore other ways to live the most productive years of my business life and attend to the needs of my own wife and children. [Ed. note: Tony and his mother, Mari Hulman George, pictured at right]

What Laura and I are trying to teach our children is that families need to realize that their most valuable assets are the ones that don't include financial holdings -- like relationships, shared values, shared history and experience, and a tradition of generosity with shared purpose and accomplishment that can impact our community with a lasting legacy.

HC: What does the future hold for you in the immediate and long-term? Will you go into business outside of racing?

TG: Some of the things I am exploring are automotive-related and to an extent will leverage racing. I mentioned SONAX earlier. SONAX is a car appearance product company -- like wax and other products to protect and detail a car. It is a very high-end, high-quality product and enjoys a huge market share and phenomenal consumer loyalty in Europe. It is distributed in 94 countries and I have secured the rights to distribute these products in the United States and the potential is enormous.

There are other opportunities that are too early in the development stages to elaborate on. Suffice it so say, I have seen many things come forth as a result of the relationships that I have built through the years and a few that have accelerated because I now have the time to focus on them.

HC: What are your hopes for Vision Racing and where does the team stand? Obviously some positive things are coming up in May (partnering for the Indy 500 with Panther Racing) and from what (Panther Racing owner) John Barnes indicated, possibly beyond that.

TG: Well, I mentioned trying to create options for Vision, let me tell you it has been quite a roller coaster ride since learning that Menards would not be back with us as our primary sponsor for the 2010 season. Starting over from scratch has proven difficult, but I just keep working at it.

Partnering with Panther for the 500 will allow the team to stay in the game to an extent, but we will have to see if that leads to anything else for 2010. For the most part, my focus has to be on creating that sustainability for the future, so realistically that would be 2011 and beyond.

There are some interesting challenges in trying to anticipate which direction to go. I have been a two-, three- and four-car team at times so I have accumulated a lot of stuff. I have been paring down recently, selling redundant assets to others.

If I am successful putting together a program for a multi-car team, then we can expand again easy enough with the proper funding in place. On the other hand, if we joint venture or shut down, I will have simplified greatly and it will make the transition easier. With the potential of new equipment as early as 2012, I don't want to have more obsolete stuff sitting around to figure out what to do with.

Recently we have had good spring garage sales both at home and work, that have provided a real sense of cleansing. Hopefully the clear direction will soon present itself and in the meantime, I look forward to the month of May and the Indianapolis 500.

HC: Your feelings about being at the Speedway for the first time in two decades not affiliated with the league or the speedway management, but as team owner?

TG: It will be different for sure, but I can't say exactly what my feelings are; I think I will have a better sense for my feelings after having experienced it.

I am not exactly going into the event viewing myself as even a car owner so much as just having an involvement. It might be splitting hairs, but if (Vision Racing driver) Ed (Carpenter) wins the race, it won't be recorded in the annals that Vision was the winning entrant.

If Ed wins the race or has another reasonably good result, I will enjoy great satisfaction for having had an involvement.

HC: Reflecting back in general, are there any misconceptions you'd like to set straight?

TG: Misconceptions are only a concern to those that hold them.

HC: Given all that you know now -- all that you have been through -- was it all worth it to form the Indy Racing League? And why?

TG: That is a very broad, open question and the only thing I can do is reiterate what I said earlier, but perhaps say it another way.

There is great value in the Indy Racing League; it exists to support the institutions of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 Mile race; and I am proud of its contributions to the sport.

No comments: