IndyCar Series and Benner/Sports and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Motorsports and Auto Racing and Sports Business

BENNER: Time for some perspective on Tony George's legacy

July 13, 2009

Reports of a Hulman-George family feud proved dead-on accurate when matriarch Mari Hulman-George issued a statement June 30 confirming the ouster of her son, Tony, as CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the family business empire. Shortly thereafter, Tony George also resigned as CEO of the Indy Racing League.

Since the split between Championship Auto Racing Teams and the IRL—which George hoped would evolve into a predominantly American, all-oval-track series—George has been condemned for single-handedly bringing second-class status to open-wheel racing while diminishing the status of the month of May and the Indy 500.

A year ago, there was sincere hope that the reunification of open wheel under the IndyCar Series banner would finally be a platform on which to rebuild the sport. But as the economy tanked, the other George siblings no longer accepted Tony’s diversion of the family fortune to underwrite the series in general and his Vision racing team in particular.

Thus, a palace coup.

No one can deny that the CART-IRL split did irreparable damage to open-wheel racing, especially as it coincided with NASCAR’s rise to prominence. I am not among those who believe that open-wheel surrendered American motorsports dominance as much as NASCAR capitalized on a changing culture to seize it.

NASCAR reflects the dumbing down of the motorsports audience. As I have written in this space before, it represents both inferior technology and an inferior form of racing (although, with regard to the latter and with increasingly rare exceptions, both the stock cars and open-wheel series have become repetitive and tedious).

NASCAR also became the (almost) all-American series, (almost) all-oval track series, appealing to a fiercely loyal audience that in turn was fiercely loyal to the sponsors’ products.

I digress, but merely to bring perspective to the blame heaped upon George for open-wheel’s diminishing popularity.

Of course, George abetted NASCAR’s rise—to the benefit of both the city and the Hulman-George family coffers—by revamping the Speedway to accommodate the Brickyard 400 in 1994.

At the same time, George set out to bring a more wholesome atmosphere to his crown jewel, the Indianapolis 500. First, bleachers, and then the road course, replaced the infamous Snakepit and lessened the anything-goes drunkfest. He built family viewing mounds along the backstretch and came up with more family-oriented activities.

He made the sport less dangerous throughout America by spearheading the creation and installation of the SAFER barriers.

Then, in 2000, he took a gigantic leap, again at considerable benefit to the city but this time at considerable cost. The revamping of the Speedway for Formula One, with a reported price tag of $50 million, left the facility as the undisputed Auto Racing Capital of the World, even though it did require making a deal with the devil, also known as F-1 czar Bernie Ecclestone.

It deserves to be noted that, with no infusion of public funds, Tony George created an economic engine that roared more loudly than 33 Indy cars, 42 stock cars or 20-some F-1 cars. It resonated to the sound of $700-million-plus being infused into central Indiana, the equivalent of three-plus Super Bowls.

And when F-1 bailed—for the time being, anyway—George & Co. was there to find a terrific replacement in Moto GP. Guaranteed, the motorcycle event will do nothing but grow and prosper.

So, for modernizing the Speedway into the undisputed finest racing facility in the world and for adding two events that generate hundreds of millions of dollars locally, we castigate the man? Sorry. I refuse to be part of that crowd.

Besides, Tony George’s legacy is still being written. Yes, there are real concerns about the future of motorsports, open wheel in particular. The IRL certainly needs the Indy 500 more than vice versa, but the health of both is essential.

Let’s hope the Hulman-George siblings and their progeny will safeguard the sacred grounds of the Speedway. Much is at stake, as much for Indianapolis as for the Hulman-George family. It’s not a stretch to say that, if the Speedway sneezes, we’ll all catch a cold.

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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