Recently, the racing world was indeed caught off guard when legendary motor sports journalist Robin Miller of SpeedTV.com broke what is arguably the biggest story of his distinguished career.
When Miller reported on May 27 that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Board Of Directors had voted to remove CEO Anton H. George (A.k.a. Tony George), it sent shock waves that were felt throughout the Indy Racing Series, as well as the entire racing industry.
Since replacing the late Joseph Cloutier in 1989, George has led an aggressive campaign to change not only the look of the Speedway, but the culture it had represented for so long as well.
From reconfiguring pit lane to building a new pagoda and media center, George spared no expense in enhancing IMS and further cementing it as the greatest racing facility in the world.
He would go on to partner with the Late Bill France Sr. of NASCAR to bring a stock car event to IMS in 1994, marking the end of the exclusive presence on Indy Cars at the famed oval. The event was a success and became a cash cow for IMS, capitalizing on the increasing popularity of stock car racing, while creating a new tradition to be known as the Brickyard 400. Local fan favorite Jeff Gordon won the inaugural event and the race today remains both popular and successful.
But in 1996 he turned the open wheel fraternity on its collective ear by announcing the formation of the Indy Racing League which he insisted would provide a cost effective alternative for teams competing in the sport and would feature an all oval schedule.
He also declared open season on the Indy 500 by guaranteeing 25 of the 33 starting positions to be occupied by teams from his new series, and in essence locking out teams from Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART), the established series that just happened to have all the marquee names in the sport.
CART teams then boycotted the 1996 Indy 500 and staged their own race at Michigan Speedway which at the time was owned by Roger Penske, who was clearly the most powerful and successful team owner in the sport.
For the next four years both series would struggle mightily until 2000, when Chip Ganassi, one of the CART heavyweights, would return to Indy and win the 500 with Juan Pablo Montoya at the wheel. Team Penske would follow with wins the next three years at Indy to further solidify the dominance of CART teams and completely erode the strangle hold George had attempted to place on the event with his rival series.
In 2000, George would bring a world stage to IMS by securing a coveted date on the Formula One schedule, and with three major events annually, he had what no one else could fathom.
Things could not have looked brighter, especially when open wheel unification occurred in 2008 leaving him in charge.
But the aforementioned changes at IMS came at a heavy price. The enhancements to the facility for the Formula One event reached a reported 71 million dollars, and the total amount spent in the last 13 years is rumored to be right at 600 million dollars. Much of that sum is attributed to the costly fees associated with forming and operating the Indy Racing League, which has been unprofitable since its inception.
According to Miller’s report, the IMS Board of Directors which is comprised of George, his mother and three sisters, as well as long time family friend and attorney Jack Synder, voted George out as the CEO of the IMS Corporation over concerns that he was spending money too freely, and as a result, raising concerns in regards to the continual financial viability of the Hulman empire.
George will continue on as the President of the Indy Car Series, which is experiencing problems with attendance and television ratings. But the bigger question here is what does this really mean to the future of the coveted Indy 500?
Is it possible that as a result of challenging economic times that the Indy Racing Series could fold, leaving the storied Indy 500 as the only event to survive? Would this provide the final nail in the coffin for an already struggling sport?
I for one think the Hulman George family owes us nothing more moving forward, as unlike the Pacers and the Colts, they have never asked the tax payers for a dime and we must not lose sight of that.
Despite that, I will offer the following just the same.
Reach in to the deep pool of retired legendary drivers and secure their presence on the IMS Board, which in turn will provide a perspective that is currently lacking. Names like Mario Andretti and Rick Mears come to mind, as they have seen the evolution of the sport and they know what it takes to be successful.
The IMS Corporation lacks an element that can only be provided by a racer. I am not suggesting turning over the entire operation to them, but simply enlisting their vast experience to broaden the mind set in the boardroom.
The Hulman George family is wise to be cautious with the purse strings moving forward in these turbulent economic times, but the smartest move I feel they could make would be incorporating some new blood in to the boardroom, and hopefully it will be the type that knows how to maintain the business of racing wisely, both on the track and off of it.
As racing fans, we owe the them a great deal of gratitude for maintaining the greatest racing facility in the world. They have been great stewards of the track, but is it time to allow those with an equally greater vision, one derived from being a racer, to be welcomed in to the corporate fold and help preserve what we racing purists care for so deeply, the ritual that can only be experienced in Indianapolis in the month of May.
Danny Bridges, an admitted open wheel racing junkie, can be reached at (317) 578-1780 or Bridgeshd@aol.com.