Five laps with Tony George
By BRANT JAMES
Published April 1, 2005
The Indy Racing League's controversial president talks about going street racing through St. Petersburg, the league's first 10 years, and his proudest accomplishment.
How involved has the IRL been in getting ready for the St. Petersburg Grand Prix?
I think, first of all, we're very pleased with the Andretti Green promotions group and effort and way they've gone about it. It's very professional, very organized, dedicated. We've tried to support that every step of the way. I think we probably sat down and set down a list of guidelines to help them get started and I think they, through their experience, have presented us with a list of things they are wanting to do and trying to do to make this a great event.
We're working very closely with them to accomplish that. For our first effort, I think these guys have done an outstanding job and I think you'll see it come (this week). Those who come to the event, my expectations are they will be pleasantly surprised at what a great event and great opportunity it is.
What does the IRL need to see to say on April 4 that the event was a success?
I believe if we have a good race, we'll be able to say that, because from what I understand, the awareness is high, cooperation and organizational efforts of the community getting behind this is exceptional. I think the hospitality sales have been exceptional. Hopefully, it will be chamber of commerce-type weather. Everyone comes out, has a great time, sees a great race - those are all things I think would be important in being able to look back on it and say "This was a successful week." If any one of those things lacks, it doesn't mean it still won't be successful.
But all indications are it's heading toward an event being very successful. Now, I know there was a (CART) race there a couple years ago I only watched on television, and my impressions watching that race at the time was it was a great facility. It showcased temporary street racing in a great light. It was a great setting. If anything, I hope we can come off as having presented an event equal to or better than that. I think it would be considered successful if we do that.
Did you question whether the IRL would make it to 10 seasons in those tough early years?
I don't think I ever felt that way. I think there are a lot of people that assumed I felt that way, but I never felt that way. Yeah, there have been challenges but after the first couple of years when it became obvious that the dedication of the people working in the IRL was going to make us successful and the dedication and the commitment that my family has shown, it has reinforced to me the probability for success eventually, if we just kept working at it.
Is it possible to compete against NASCAR right now?
Well, it's tough, but it's not totally impossible. As long as we're seeing signs of positive growth and attendance - and light attendance and viewership and sponsorship, which we have been experiencing may not be as great as some of our critics would like to see us at - but we're continuing to grow, and it's been despite NASCAR's tremendous popularity now.
What has been your greatest decision or accomplishment as IRL president and Indianapolis Motor Speedway president?
I am very proud of the people I have been associated with. When I look back to how this sport has evolved, and particularly the aspect of safety to the competitors and being responsive to things. I look back at the SAFER barrier (soft walls) and a lot of things that have been done to improve the survivability of accidents and it transcends IndyCar racing and has helped other forms of the sport in general.
I look back, and I think a lot of those things may have not happened or may not be in existence if not for the Indy Racing League being born. I remember having conversations with people 10 or 15 years ago about soft walls or doing something to contain the debris fields and those kinds of things. No one ever would commit of themselves, or their resources, or their time to go out and do it. Really, the league is very proud to say it took a leadership role in the area of safety - implemented a lot of things that were out there but took the initiative to implement. I think being a part of a new organization that has proved to be responsive, particularly in the area of safety, is the most proud accomplishment.