Exclusive: Tony George, Former IndyCar CEO, Speaks Out
INDIANAPOLIS -- When Tony George resigned from the Indy Racing League in January, it came at a time, he says, when "there was still too much to do that I wanted to see through."
The former leader of American open wheel racing tells FanHouse of how difficult it was to give up the leadership of the IRL, the organization that he started. He calls accusations that he brought financial hardship to the IRL "wildly inaccurate," and says he "spent a lot less that it would have taken" to buy a professional sports team.
He talks of his love for IndyCar racing and tells of how he caught a pre-dawn commercial flight to
St. Petersburg, Fla., just after returning from a business trip in China, in an effort to catch the race
there in person.
In this first of two parts, George explains what he thinks is "the best thing that's happened for
Danica" this season and also predicts a 2010 breakout star. And the answers may surprise you.
George officially resigned from the IRL on his 50th birthday, Dec. 30, and when he returns to The
Speedway for the May 30 Indianapolis 500, his only responsibility, for the first time in his life,
will be that of team owner.
Through weeks of phone calls, a sit-down interview at George's Indianapolis-based Vision Racing
team headquarters, and pages of thoughtful written replies to questions, George discusses a wide
range of topics with senior writer Holly Cain.
One of the most significant -- and controversial -- figures in American motorsports during the
past 20 years, George is now eager to set the racing record straight in a lengthy and comprehensive interview that will be presented in two parts Tuesday and Wednesday:
Holly Cain: Did you ever, ever expect that you would not be an integral part of the series you formed? Or the Speedway?
Tony George: In a word, no.
But having said that, I did expect I would reduce my role with both and work on transitioning members of the family into leadership positions. In fact, in March of 2009, (March 17, 18, and 19 to be exact), I organized an initial meeting with an executive leadership consultant that I had worked with previously, to begin working with my son and nephew, both of whom were working in the business.
I have said it before; I would be less than honest if I didn't admit to thinking of winding down the day-to-day workload after realizing unification, but not that soon and not that way. There was still too much to do that I wanted to see through.
HC: What tops that list of things you feel are unfinished business?
TG: I clearly had in mind to see the (Indianapolis Motor Speedway's) Centennial through and all that went with it.
HC: How difficult has it been to turn over "your baby" -- the IRL -- to someone else to run? Could you explain your decision?
TG: It has been very difficult; my decision to not accept the offer to remain as CEO of the league was based on a number of things. Chief among them my belief that Terry (Angstadt, president, IRL commercial division) had done a very good job the last couple of years, at a time when everyone seemed to have an opinion as to what kind of person was needed as CEO to make the IRL successful. He was capable and deserving of assuming the responsibility. In my opinion, he has provided quality leadership as we turned the corner and had us headed in the right direction.
HC: Have you been paying close attention to the IRL season? Your thoughts?
TG: I have been paying close attention from afar, which has been somewhat bittersweet. I have officially fallen from the ranks of those who have attended every IRL race since 1996. ... less than a handful remain.
I missed (season-opener) Brazil and Barber (Motorsports Park in Alabama) but was able to take in St. Pete when it was postponed. I had just returned home Sunday night about 10 p.m. from a trip to China and decided to catch a 5:20 a.m. flight to Tampa in hopes of getting there in time for the 10 a.m. start.
Airport delays caused me to arrive well into the race, but it was good to be back at the track.
It has certainly been an interesting start to the season with Will Power getting off to such a strong start. Having said that, it promises to be a very competitive season, I just wish Vision could have been a part of it from the commencement in Sao Paulo.
With some driver-team seat swaps and new players in both ranks, it is nice to see new faces in new places. This will be a breakout year for someone (I predict Marco Andretti).
So far this year, the best thing that has happened to Danica has been she picked up the best motor coach driver in the business, who became available after being let go by IMS at the end of the 2009 season.
Likewise, the Firestone Indy Lights Series has seen some interesting shake up. It is another good field of drivers this year. Although fewer in numbers, it should be very competitive. We (Vision Racing) miss being involved in this series too. I feel like we put forth a great effort last year which not only gave us our first win as an organization but it was a source of pride that helped us all pull together. I am glad to see the ladder program get implemented this season too. It should be a tremendous benefit to the future development of the League.
IZOD coming on board as the title sponsor of the ICS has been wonderful as it has really helped create more team sponsorship and a sense that the series represents a place of opportunity.
I know they will use their position of influence and space to advance the interest of the entire series and not just the interest of one team or one driver; however, securing the long-term future of Ryan Hunter-Reay is important. Allen Sirkin and Mike Kelly have led from the top and that makes all the difference in the world.
HC: What are some of your proudest accomplishments during your 20-year tenure with the Speedway and in founding the Indy Racing League in 1994?
TG: I'm proud of our leadership in investments in the safety of the sport. I am proud of the Hulman Family's commitment to community and philanthropy.
Obviously, once the decision was made to expand our racing events at the Speedway, being a part of bringing world-class events like the Brickyard 400, MotoGP and F1 USGP to fruition; but with that said, the IRL for sure. It has so much potential and it truly is who we are, we can influence its direction; build it as a brand leveraging both the IMS and the 500 for which it exists.
Much has been speculated, wildly inaccurate, about how much was spent to build the IRL. I am proud that we have spent a lot less than it would have taken to buy a professional sports team in the NFL, MLB, NBA or even the NHL -- and we own the whole league.
The IRL is a fantastic asset both financially and strategically. I'm proud of that.
HC: Do you have any regrets?
TG: With the benefit of hindsight, there are things anyone would do differently given the chance, but regrets? Not so much.
Staying more involved with the day-to-day at the Speedway is something I definitely should have done. Off-loading that responsibility was a mistake.
As an organization, we should have addressed the need to restructure sooner; we had gotten fat and complacent. Some saw the need and potential benefit of trying to streamline some of the functions within the enterprise, while others saw it as a threat. In the end, much of it has now occurred but it was forced.
If I have any regret, it would be that we lost some very good, loyal people who could have had a positive impact on the organization going forward, but they left as a result of the uncertainty or the handling of the restructuring as it occurred.
One other thing that I have regretted is about the timing of my dismissal; that it occurred right in the middle of the season, just as we had the momentum of the Speedway's "Centennial Era" celebration. It took the bright light that should have shone on our company's history, the participation and valuable investments by our sponsorship community, and cast a dismal shadow over it.
HC: Who have you heard from within the industry in the months since you formally resigned? Who has reached out and what have they said.?
TG: I have heard from many people within the industry, within the city, the state, the globe, you name it. I don't feel that it would be appropriate to name people, but they have reached out by letter, e-mail, phone call, voice mail; they stop me on the street, in airports, at church.
I have been genuinely humbled and grateful for the sincere interest and love from so many people.
Most (people) genuinely can't believe it, don't understand it; then there are those that do believe it and do understand it. Everyone wants to know what I will be doing next; will I keep the team, will I stay in racing or will I stay in the city, the state?
HC: How have you been spending your time since, most recently, resigning your position in the Indy Racing League?
TG: The next day (resigning from the IRL), New Year's Eve, Laura and I boarded Amtrak for a New Year's trip to Montana. It was our first trip on a train together and we had a great time even though it was 25 below zero for most of the trip. After a few days out there we drove our Suburban home trying to out-run the first snow storm of the New Year that was headed from the Pacific Northwest toward Indiana. So that first week of being disconnected was quite an adventure.
Shortly after that we went on a planned ski trip to Austria with Kevin (Kalkhoven) and Kim for what turned out to be one of the most relaxing and enjoyable trips I can remember. I really appreciated spending time with someone I have enjoyed getting to know as a by-product of unification.
Since January I have continued to do quite a bit of traveling and most of it has been related to Vision Racing or future business development opportunities. Beyond the ski trip, not much of the travel has been for personal pleasure. I continue to seek an opportunity to restart our racing operation as soon as possible and that remains a priority and area of focus, in addition to other business interests.
Wednesday at FanHouse: George reveals his plans for the immediate and long-term future and whether that may one day include a position at the Speedway or with the IRL again. He shares how he expects to feel returning to the Indy 500 later this month and answers the question: Was it all worth it?