A verbose retrospective of the Tony George era

Posted by Iannucci | 1/26/2010 | , , | 7 comments »
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If there's one thing this week has taught me it is this: the time it takes between "initial thoughts on subject" and "clicking the POST button" is directly proportionate to the actual length of the post. And as someone who has spent a week thinking about this post here, I humbly and sincerely apologize for it's length. And with that...

It's been a week since Tony George effectively divorced himself from any responsibilities of the Hulman family's business of racing, resigning from any and all positions of authority. The list of positions he no longer occupies includes board memberships at The Speedway, the IRL, IMS Productions, their parent company, and most surprisingly the panel that oversees quality control of tenderloin sandwiches. Mari Hulman George expressed shock and dismay thusly.

"As members of his family, we are sorry to see Tony leave," said Mrs. George. "We are grateful for his service to our company as a board member and of course for formerly serving as CEO and president of our companies. I speak for our whole family in wishing him well."
I suspect that last line was actually written by Tony's sisters and in the original draft read "...wish he falls in a well", but I can't confirm that.

Perhaps he grew weary of being told "no" after years of being in charge of the whole she-bang. Perhaps he threw a tantrum at no longer getting his way. Perhaps he just threw a virtual middle finger at his family and like Pontius Pilate decided to wash his hands of all responsibility for what may come of open-wheel racing in America. I won't pretend to know which of these is true because the news came while Mr George was out of the country, more than likely NOT partying with Max Mosely.

While most everyone who has followed the Indy Racing League since it's inception would agree this brings to close one of the more, uh, eventful eras of Indycar racing, most everyone will also disagree on what exactly was the meaning of that era. Take for example our good buddy John Oreovicz, who started his latest feature for ESPN.com with this:

No matter how true the statement actually is, Tony George will go down in history as the man who effectively destroyed Indy-car racing.
Ouch! OK, I don't think I'm telling tales out of school here but I don't think it's going to be any surprise that (a) a guy like Oreo feels this way and (b) folks like your humble host is going to disagree.

First though, instead of slamming Oreo like a word butcher might be inclined to do it's more purposeful to understand that there are a lot of people who feel the way Oreo does. In fact, many of them are major writers (pick anyone not named "Curt Cavin") and they have and will continue to lay many if not all of the ills of racing on the shoulders of Tony George, offering him up repeatedly as some sacrifice to the gods of racing in the hopes that one day Greg Moore would be resurrected to save us all from this purgatory.

To many of them and amany of you Tony George caused the split, Tony George ruined racing, Tony George made the cars ugly, made them sound bad, dictated everyone race on "death trap" ovals, caused the Andrettis and Unsers get old and retire, and is likely responsible for the whole Brittney Spears head-shaving incident a few years ago. Everything wrong with the world that can't be explained is Tony George's fault.

And that's all well and good for those who look at 1994 and then 2010 and note that the man who carried the most responsibility for running Indycar racing during that period was Tony George. But as many of us know the world just isn't that simple, and this isn't a case of a guy waking up one day with a plan to TEAR IT ALL DOWN, MAN.

Now before you tune out let me quickly note I'm not going to rehash the whole power grabbing escapades among USAC and CART and the engine manufacturers and track owners that was going on before 1994. That's been documented ad nauseum and it's obvious now that at some point somebody was going to be in charge and a whole bunch of bitter somebody's were not. And if there's one thing I know it's that just because one guy named Tony got his way doesn't mean that it was either the best or the worst possible outcome.

That's not giving him a pass; it's suggesting we judge his era by what the man did and said, and not by what someone else thinks could have been. And while historians appear decidedly against him, history itself appears to already have vindicated him to a certain degree.

On a primary point, George justified the formation of the IRL because he felt it was in the best interest of The Speedway and The 500, two entities he was entrusted to protect regardless of whatever conflict existed in racing. That was his job, what his family entrusted him to do, because they know and AJ Foyt knows and any number of race fans – Hoosiers or otherwise – know that if the Indianapolis 500 is diminished in value then all of American open-wheel racing is essentially of little or no value. It is, and always was, all about Indy.

And to this end George was absolutely correct. To a fault, in fact. Without any affiliation to the Indy 500 the holdings of the CART series declined to the point bankruptcy twice. But this was a double-edged sword since “the split” also affected The 500 negatively, which reduced the anticipated value of the IRL. Yes, everybody lost to some degree, but the point here is THE REASON for the split was Mr George’s view that de-emphasizing the Indy 500 had already begun.

Was it a case of cutting off his nose to spite his face? Well, obviously some people think so. And some do not. I just ask that you try to argue amongst yourselves with some civility.

On a secondary point, George was also vindicated for that which he was initially reviled. Recall that when he formed the IRL much was made that he thought racing in America needed more ovals, more American drivers, and lower costs. Lo and behold the most popular series here in the States employs (shock!) a series of almost exclusively American drivers on ovals in cars that cost less. I’m not advocating the abolishment of road courses or xenophobia here, just noting what Mr Market seems to have said on the issue. (Note: I realize it costs WAY more to be competitive thought an entire season in N----R, but it’s my understanding that it would probably cost less to participate in any given race. It certainly was that way in the late 90s when stock car racing rose to such prominence.)

Bear in mind that I personally have never met Tony George, although I almost did a couple of times. Once at a pre-race IRL Ministry service he sat at arm’s length across the aisle from me, although that wasn’t exactly the time or place to strike up a conversation about motorsports. Another time at a race he was standing alone by a trailer and I thought of going over to say something, but then a friend called out and re-directed my attention. I note this because, as you can see from this site's name, I've been a fan of his series based on the merit of the product and not because he and I have ever hung out together at Union Jack.

So all I have to go on are all of the various reports, all too few interviews, and unlimited opinions published throughout the last two decades, and with that here’s my own conclusion about this era. As bad as it is, Indycar racing exists today as a result of the procedural and financial efforts of Tony George. If nothing else those efforts – no matter what you think of the result – show not only a concern for Indycar racing, but a willingness to act in what he felt was for the best, regardless of the consequences.

I don't agree with everything George has done, and I would bet based on the dramatic change of course the series has taken in the last few years that even he wouldn't agree with everything he's done, but his commitment to what he thought was best for the most famous speedway in the world and The Greatest Spectacle in Racing, as much as his successes and failures, defines his legacy. Not as a protagonist or an antagonist, but as a racing enthusiast with a whole lotta "hand". But that's just me.

And if after all of that you don’t like what I have to say then at least check out Tony John’s level-headed take. Yes, that’s former My Name is IRL guest contributor Tony Johns now at his own SBNation site, and yes that also means the traitor is BANNED FOR LIFE from ever contributing here. And by life I mean the life of "Pop Off Valve", which I hope in all sincerity enjoys a long and prosperous run. I mean it. He's that good, and as you can see I'm not a hater.

7 comments

  1. Martin // January 27, 2010 10:03 PM  

    I don't have any argument about TG's love and commitment to the 500, or love and commitment to open wheel racing. He will, however, at best have a mixed legacy.

    I think you make two debatable points at the outset. First, that CART was seeking to diminish the 500 before the advent of the IRL. I think it was more that the rest of the series was also becoming much more exciting and popular. We all loved the triple crown of 500s, remember, even though there was no question that Indy was primary. Then there were the exciting races at Laguna Seca, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Road America. Not to mention Phoenix, New Hampshire, and half a dozen others. CART was on a serious roll. Those were all better than Trenton and the dirt tracks.

    Second, I think that the rules that meant that the 500 would not consist of the 33 fastest qualifiers really diminished the 500. For me at least, it sent the message that they weren't fully "racers," ya know? How could that not diminish it? Had the initial US500 at Michigan not been such an uncharacteristic fiasco (and TG didn't have anything to do with that), IMS and the 500 could have been in much more serious jeopardy than TG had earlier feared.

    The initiatives the IRL took in safety are particularly powerful reminders how positive TG's effects on racing have been. Add to that the capital improvements at the Speedway. The NASCAR 400? Can't remember a particularly thrilling race (though I held my breath for 20 laps as Rusty Wallace tried to chase down Bobby LaBonte, but he really didn't get close), but it served to finance the IRL, which is what, I suspect, it was designed to do.

    He's also got the most feisty of teams, as Kentucky showed.

    My best to TG, but I have to say I think things could have been much better.

    Martin
    So I give him a B minus.

  2. Allen Wedge // January 27, 2010 10:23 PM  

    Before the possible Comment outrage party arrives; I just wanted to say Bravo for this very well positioned and thought out post

  3. Inspector // January 27, 2010 10:31 PM  

    Jeff, thank you.

  4. Scott // January 28, 2010 7:55 AM  

    For all the right and wrong that took place, two things were always in Tonys control. He singlehandedly controlled when the split would start and when it ended.

    He could have waited another year or two to launch the 25/8 rule. The 500 was in no danger. Especially since they initially ran with similar equipment.

    He also could have capitulated much earlier in merger talks. Look what it cost the family to make it happen in the end. That merger could have been made to happen when AGR and ganassi jumped ship. Unfortunately he was still pounding nails into the sports coffin

  5. manik56 // January 28, 2010 7:21 PM  

    After all George did, all the money spent, all the people he alienated, all the controversy, we have a an Indycar series that was exactly like CART was in the early 90s dominated by non Americans (which doesn't matter to me) and with a majority or the tracks non-ovals (which I prefer). The only difference is no one in the country cares now. CART in the early part of the 90s was awesome. The IRL would be better served to be run by NASCAR. Tony George ruined IndyCar.

  6. oilpressure // January 29, 2010 8:53 AM  

    Well done, Jeff. You call this long??

    In all seriousness, you point out the good things that TG did along with the damage that he caused. Unfortunately - in the long run,the damage may undo the good. Plus, he has made enough enemies with fans that he will not be remembered for the good he did.

  7. tripleleagueracing // January 29, 2010 1:46 PM  

    I don't think that Tony George did Indycar racing any good. IMS, that's another story. There, he did a lot of good.

    But Indycar racing? I don't see a single way it's better now than before. The only possible improvement is the newer ovals, such as Chicagoland, Kentucky, and Iowa. But these have come at the expense of traditional venues such as Phoniex and MIS.

    And CART 1995 at least had good Road Courses. Instead we've got Infenion and Barber.

    CART is also guilty, and I agree with Robin Miller, they should have been nicer with Tony George, and when the split happened they should have just ran the full IRL scheduale(all 4 races) and destroyed TG's series. Instead, they prolonged the war, and wouldn't admit defeat until they'd gone bankrupt, TWICE, and both series had faded into obscurity.

    Overall, I agree with Orveck's article, although I don't think "millions of people" await a Tony George appology.