KATTERJOHN: Things at Speedway seemed to be going so well

Keywords Commentary / Opinion

Happy Birthday, Tony George.

The year started out just fine. George and his family had a big bash at the convention center to kick off a three-year centennial
celebration for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Then, this year’s Indy 500 produced an exciting battle, with fan favorite Helio Castroneves winning
his third race and white-hot Danica Patrick making her best showing ever here.

At last, the 500 and the Indy Racing League
appeared to be on the threshold of regaining the glory days of old, when Indy drivers were household
names.

Then all hell broke
loose.

The media reported
that Tony George had been ousted, and his family’s differences were aired like so much dirty laundry. The
drama inspired comparisons to television schlock like "Dallas" and "Dynasty."

Never one who looked at home in public to begin
with, the poor guy looked tired and positively shell shocked in his interviews with the media as he tried
to set the record straight. I felt bad for him.

George has been CEO of the Speedway since 1990 and has had the formidable challenge of filling the
shoes of his grandfather, the legendary auto-racing impresario Tony Hulman–the man who put the Speedway
on the map.

My first race
was 1958. Looking back over the years, I think George has done a yeoman’s job. He’s made a few mistakes, but
what CEO hasn’t, especially one who’s trying to bring change to long-standing traditions?

Tony George’s legacy will be that he tried and succeeded in maximizing a family asset that was
clearly underutilized.

You can’t race in the winter, but he sure has made the most of the summer months. Since taking over, he’s successfully brought
NASCAR and MotoGP to the track, introducing new kinds of racing and legions of new fans to the Speedway and the city of Indianapolis.

He tried to do the same with Formula One, but
was confronted with the impossible task of doing business with tyrannical F1 czar Bernie Ecclestone,
who knows only one way to do business–his way.

Look at how the physical plant of the Speedway has been transformed in the nearly two decades since
George got behind the wheel. What a makeover. The place has been thoroughly modernized, and is cleaner
and more customer-friendly than ever before.

Under George’s direction, the family has sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into the business,
and it shows. And done it all without asking for any government assistance.

Then, after pouring even more money last year into the effort that finally seems to have united
open-wheel racing, the economy took a nose dive, torpedoing the Hulmans’ businesses as much or more than
anybody else’s.

The family
and its business empire–particularly in motorsports–appear to be at a major crossroads, fraught with challenges.

With its biggest bankable star, Danica Patrick,
exploring options with NASCAR and with the IRL still without a title sponsor–just to name two–the Hulmans
have their work cut out for them on the racing end.

They would be well-served to put a modern business structure in place with sufficient expertise
to lead them into the future. The management plan they are working on now is a good start.

Business experts have always said that closely
held family businesses present a unique set of challenges. With the Hulmans, it’s no different. I can’t
imagine running a company whose board comprised my mother, my three sisters and only one outsider.

Maybe George is spread too thin, as CEO of all
the family’s companies. Maybe the family should recruit a few business-savvy outsiders to their board
for some new perspective.

Whatever the issues, I’m confident the family will get them resolved one way or another, and the Speedway will remain one
of the city’s crown jewels. And, everybody in this city should sure hope that’s the outcome.

_____

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ. To comment on this column, send e-mail to [email protected]

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