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George fair game, or unfair target

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway CEO and IRL founder has stayed calm amid a 10-year maelstrom of controversy.

By BRANT JAMES
Published April 1, 2005


There is no end to Tony George's ability to conjure contrast. Or opinion.

The Indy Racing League's founder and CEO had made it clear on this afternoon at Homestead-Miami Speedway he doesn't really want to talk about the latest lightning rod atop his wavy-haired head. Yet he wears a slick blue team shirt bearing the logo of his new Vision Racing team, which he fields for his stepson, Ed Carpenter.

George, the grandson of Tony Hulman Jr., who bought Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker in 1945 and restored its pre-World War II glory, considers much of the criticism he has absorbed for breaking North American open wheel racing into two pieces to be fair. He just wants to make decisions that are good for his family and company and avoid the fray.

But lying across the dash of his motorcoach for all passersby to see is a photocopied caricature proclaiming, "Whether you agree with his attitudes and motives, Tony George is in the driver's seat of open wheel racing in the United States."

Now that's provocative.

"I keep doing what I believe is the right thing," he said, "and more often than not I believe my moral and ethical and personal values are correct and all I can do is what I believe is the right thing. If others have a problem with that, then it's their problem, not mine."

* * *

He was born Anton Hulman George on Dec. 30, 1959, to retired driver and IMS vice president Elmer George and Mari Hulman George, heiress to the Hulman & Co. grocery, media and racing empire. Now the lanky godson of four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt is either a forward-thinking entrepreneur who secured his family's hold on the Indianapolis 500 and spawned a racing league that has reached its 10th anniversary, or an overmatched trust fund baby whose bold grabs for respect and power have been bankrolled - as Champ Car co-owner and self-described friend Paul Gentilozzi said - by "continuing to spend the Hulman family trust money."

Oh, and many say he destroyed open wheel racing in the United States.

The Indy Racing League, critics say, has failed in its promise to promote American racing or contain costs, and, according to legendary driver Mario Andretti, ruined the Indy 500. George's decision to bring NASCAR to IMS has proved a bigger financial success than the Indy 500 in recent years, but is still reviled by open wheel purists who see it as equivalent to a tractor pull at Churchill Downs.

"I don't care what theory, what philosophy was behind the thought," Andretti said of forming the IRL. "It put a chink in that armor. It violated something so sacred in our sport."

But there are those who acknowledge George's initiative, or at least recognize piling on when they see it. Roger Penske, an IRL team owner who raced in CART before the split, said George receives too much negative publicity.

"I think Tony gets a lot of criticism no matter what he does," Penske said. "He seems to be at the butt end of a gun."

Brian France can empathize. The grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France took over as CEO in 2004, replacing his father, Bill Jr., who took stock car racing to unimagined heights of popularity.

"The expectations are high," he said of running a very public family business. "There is a lot at stake. ... I know I have some job security, but at the end of the day, unlike anybody else, I have to answer for what I've done."

George gets a lot of that back home in Indiana. His family has been to the Hoosier State what the Kennedys have been to Massachusetts: builders, benefactors, fodder for gossip.

Details concerning the shooting death of George's father by horse trainer Guy Trolinger on Indy 500 day in 1976 (Trolinger was not indicted) and George's drug use, as detailed in a 1989 divorce proceeding, are repeated as if breaking news. He's critiqued in the media and lampooned by what he calls "CART fanatics." An essay on deepthrottle.com once asked in a headline, "Are George Bush and Tony George Twins Separated At Birth?"

That George's demeanor appears to flit between relaxed and vapid only adds - fairly or not - to his critics' anger over what they think he is doing to their sport.

"Tony George is an extremely bright guy who, for the most part, shuns the limelight," said NASCAR vice president of communications Jim Hunter.

But after 15 years "in the drivers seat of open wheel racing in the United States," George said he is used to the flak. That doesn't mean he likes or accepts it.

"I guess it's something I realize comes with the territory," said George, easing into the kitchen nook of his coach, occasionally gazing through a window as Infiniti Pro Series cars zoom over the track. "It's not that I don't care, but it's not something I let consume me or bother me.

"But I understand to a certain extent that I'm a public figure - at least I'm told I'm fair game. I don't always believe that. I believe there are times when people cross the line."

George became Indianapolis Motor Speedway president at age 30 and immediately tried to expand the voice of promoters and tracks, and control costs in CART, then North America's open-wheel sanctioning body. After his proposal to reorganize CART's power structure was rebuffed by a majority of the board of directors in 1991, he announced plans to bring NASCAR to IMS. And after resigning his non-voting seat on the CART board in 1994, he announced plans for what would become the IRL. This year he became a team owner, much to the amusement of those who recall his plan in 1991 to move power away from car owners and toward IMS.

"It's kind of nice to be involved in a privately owned family business where you can make entrepreneurial decisions and take some risks you might not otherwise be afforded in another job," said George, who gave up the title of IMS president in 2004 and now track CEO. "Frankly, I'm not sure and I'm sure others might agree, I might not be able to hold another position in another company."

That was the general mood after NASCAR used IMS's legendary yard of bricks as a launching pad to increased national exposure and credibility. But the Brickyard 400 also proved to be an attendance success and a financial boost for the speedway and city of Indianapolis.

"There's part of me that I would like to take (critics) to task, but it's often the case my critics are people with a journalistic slant or background or fanatics of Champ Car in particular," he said. "The others, again, I don't know that they feel passionate about some of the comments they make or the statements they make, but I do believe that some of the journalists, critics and Champ Car fans genuinely believe what the say, write, do. Some of it bothers me, some of it doesn't. More often than not I don't pay attention to it anymore. It's something I learned over time, it's best to ignore most of it and go with your gut and heart."

His gut thought in creating the IRL was simply wrong, Andretti said.

"I can excuse Tony from being disgruntled with the political side of the sport as it was," said Andretti, a former CART board member, "but what I cannot excuse is the strategy, to me, to fix it was wrong. You have to fix the problem. The product was working.

"What he did by trying to come up with a new series, I think, it created so much uncertainty, it created forced loyalties, it forced everyone to make choices and the biggest travesty of it all was it diminished the value of Indianapolis 500 as an event. No one can dispute that.

"And it all happened almost simultaneously. It gives NASCAR the Brickyard, which is fine, I think that was great, but at the same time it diminished the value of the Indianapolis 500 by having the new series. That's why I felt to fix this thing, he should have tried to fix the politics of it. Buy out the owners, do whatever, it probably would have cost him 1/50th of what he spent since."

* * *

Fingering through a bowl of snack mix, then shaking in his hand the peanuts he has culled, George pauses for a long moment. He knows his company and his sport will look much different in 10 or 15 years than they do now, that he might not be in a position of power then. But he's confident he will have a hand in shaping it.

"I've always been brought up around an environment where you reap what you sow and sometimes things work and sometimes they don't," he said. "But fortunately, our family has been involved in a lot of different things in the last 150 years and at one time or another, they've all been successful ventures for us."

Like it or not.