Becoming king might not have been entirely Tony George’s idea. But everything that happened in the kingdom since that day was. He will take the blame. Or the credit.
The 36-year-old boss of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway caused the angry split in the auto racing world that has resulted in one more 500-mile race being run Memorial Day weekend than most Americans ever wanted. Or will care about in the future.
But in an interview with The Associated Press on the eve of the 80th running of the greatest spectacle in racing, George was as unrepentant as ever. The status quo, he insisted, needed shattering.
“The fact that it’s the premier automobile race in the world makes it difficult to make changes because there’s a lot of attention on us at all times. It’s like living in a fish bowl,” he said. “So we have to be very careful, mindful of the tradition and what it means.
“But we’ve got to be mindful of the future, too. If we’re going to have a centennial, we’ve got to be making some decisions now that will allow us to get there. And,” he added, “to be strong when we arrive.”
George has moved forward relentlessly these past few weeks like the prow of a ship, cleaving criticism, leaving doubt in his wake. Taking advantage of a lull in the schedule, he paused long enough to unfold his long, lean frame across the couch of an office along Gasoline Alley. He was dressed casually - windbreaker, jeans and sneakers - and spoke in the unhurried manner of somebody used to being in charge. He ran a hand through tousled brown hair occasionally and spun a ring of keys to work off nervous energy.
George has been called a visionary, a dilettante, shrewd, power hungry, generous, spoiled, adventurous, ruthless, overbearing and just plain overmatched. And at one time or another, over the course of a life that sometimes seems lifted straight out of a daytime soap opera, he might have been any or all those things.
But what he is now, more than anything, is dead serious about tightening his hold over one of the most powerful franchises in sports. The Super Bowl, the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, the Masters - only a handful of events rival the Indianapolis 500 for prestige or profitability. And none faces a direct competitor - the fledgling U.S. 500 - and so unsettled a future.
George turned the world of Indy-car racing upside down last November by announcing that 25 of the 33 starting spots for this Indy 500 would be reserved for participants of the Indianapolis Racing League - a venture he formed and helped bankroll to rival the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit.
CART boasts some of racing’s most famous owners - Roger Penske, the teaming of Carl Haas-Paul Newman - as well as almost all the best-known Indy-car drivers - Al Unser Jr., Emerson Fittipaldi and Michael Andretti. And they responded to George’s dictate late last year by starting up the race that will be run and televised today from Penske-owned Michigan International Speedway.
For most of the previous two decades, all 33 spots at Indy were filled by CART members, an arrangement that appeared as comfortable for both sides as it was lucrative. But behind the scenes, a confrontation had been brewing since 1989, when George ascended to the top of the family business and became CEO and president of the speedway.
He kept trying to insinuate himself into CART’s decision-making apparatus. The closest he came was being made a non-voting member. Frustrated, he resigned that position two years ago.
“I’d been through four CEOs and three restructurings and I saw it was impossible for them to conduct their affairs in a manner that gave me any confidence that their way was best.
“I just decided that for us, over the long term, we needed to be involved with a series,” George said, “but that it wasn’t necessarily their series. What we needed to look at was creating one and building it around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500. There was nothing more to the IRL than that.”
On the one hand, George has brought unquestioned stability to the speedway’s future. He added the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race to its exclusive calendar two years ago, and commissioned architect Pete Dye to redesign the golf course on the grounds, securing a spot on the Senior PGA Tour schedule in the bargain.
On the other hand, by committing some portion of those profits to running his own racing league (some estimates run as high as $100 million), critics say he is threatening the ruin not just of his family’s fortune, but of the speedway and the Indy 500 as well.
If that is so, it hasn’t kept George awake at night.
“So far,” George said, “there hasn’t been a scary part. I accept the criticism. I know it’s going to come. It has already. All I can try and do is make the business as successful as I can so my critics will realize one day I did this for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
“And as far as spending money,” he added, “I consider it an investment in the future that will pay dividends down the road.”
He contends his bold moves were necessary because CART was planning to de-emphasize oval racing in general, and the speedway’s status at the center of that universe in particular. He also argues that opportunities for young American drivers to reach the pinnacle of Indy were being sold off in the bargain.
CART responds by characterizing his campaign to popularize oval racing as a smoke screen and the start-up of the IRL as nothing more lofty than a power grab, a betrayal of the caretaker’s role George inherited as the only male descendant of Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr. The move has earned George some enemies and made some friends back away.
“I think he’s paranoid,” said Michael Andretti, the son of Indy 500 winner Mario, and a contemporary of George’s, though not a good friend. “Or maybe it was his ego. I’m not sure. But one of those things drove him to do it.”
Al Unser Jr., who is a lifelong pal, is more charitable. “We’re good friends, we continue to be so… . There’s some opinions I have. There’s some opinions Tony has.
“Basically,” Unser said, “we don’t get into it when we talk to each other.”
The people on both side of the dispute, however, are united in their reverence of Tony Hulman. The scion of a wealthy Terre Haute family, Hulman holds a place in the lore of both auto racing and Indiana for having bought the speedway at the end of World War II and restoring it to its former greatness.
He spent $750,000 of the family’s grocery-business fortune to buy the dilapidated, weed-strewn venue - closed for four years during the war - then endeared himself to several generations of drivers and fans by often reaching into his own pocket to look after the best interests of both. The line of succession appeared guaranteed when Tony Hulman’s daughter, Mari, married an aspiring race car driver named Elmer George.
But the transition wasn’t a smooth one. In the early 1960s, Hulman began the informal process of preparing his only grandson to take over some day by bringing young Tony George along to watch races all over the country. What Hulman could not have foreseen was the family strife that would lead to Elmer George being shot and killed in 1976 by Guy Trollinger, a horse trainer who resided on the family’s Terre Haute estate and whom Mari George would describe years later as her boyfriend. Nor could he have known that Tony George would spend much of the early part of his own adulthood getting out of a rough marriage and carrying on like a spoiled rich kid.
“He had a lot of learning to do about a lot of things,” said racer A.J. Foyt, who was befriended by Tony Hulman early in his career and became George’s godfather.
“Because of who he was and where he came from, people were always trying to take advantage. I could see where he was headed into trouble sometimes, and I’d be trying to tell him, but I suppose he had to see it for himself. I think part of that happened when he ran cars in the Indy Lights (racing series) for me.
“He would do things for people and then they’d turn around and use him, or pull some stuff on him and then he’d come back to me, all disappointed, and say, ‘Hey, this or that happened.’
“Then,” Foyt said, “I’d just kind of smile and say, ‘You’re finally learning.’ “
One thing George already had learned from those early trips to the races with his grandfather was a love for the sport that would manifest itself in his own brief career, as well as his kids’ forays into quarter-midget and go-kart racing. And like his grandfather, he has finally learned how to move easily in those circles.
What wasn’t clear then, however, and what remains uncertain now, is whether George has inherited Hulman’s moxie and his seat-of-the-pants feel for running the family business.
“I don’t know if I was ready when I took over,” he said. “I think I was.
“I’m sure a lot of people had questions, and there’s probably still a few who question whether I’m ready now.”
For the first time in the interview, George fell silent. If he harbors doubts, they remain well hidden.
“It would have been nice to have my father and my grandfather around for a few more years,” George said, almost wistful. “But that wasn’t the case.”