Features - Interview
MARCH 1, 1999
Formula 1 and The Brickyard: Tony George
BY JOE SAWARD
He isn't in the Forbes Magazine list of the top 400 richest Americans, but he probably should be...
In motor racing circles he is known as the president and chief executive officer of the Indianapolis Motor
Speedway - The Brickyard - and the man who is planning to take Formula 1 back to the United States.
That doesn't mean he's popular. In 1996, much to the annoyance of racing fans across the United States, he launched the Indy Racing League in competition with CART. It plunged American single-seater racing into a civil war which continues to this day.
"I wanted to see Indy Car racing in America develop along a certain path," he explains. "I'm not xenophobic. I enjoy the international flavor that the Indianapolis 500 has always enjoyed but I wanted to see the opportunity develop for our young drivers growing up in the oval discipline. I've always been a big believer in keeping the Indianapolis Motor Speedway attainable. I don't think that the fact that CART
chose to pursue their business opportunities and we chose to pursue ours in Indy Car racing had any bearing on our decision to have a Grand Prix. Actually I wanted to have a Grand Prix even before I even tried to build a close relationship with CART."
George knows that in a battle of attrition he may one day beat CART into submission. He has the trump card. Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"It's the racing capital of the world," he says. "It is synonymous with racing. If you mention Indianapolis, no matter what country it is, people know about Indianapolis. If they cannot speak English they make the sound of a race car. Vroom! Vroom! Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a great brand."
But even George reckons that it will be a big challenge to establish Formula 1 in the United States.
"Grand Prix racing is not totally foreign to the American market," he says, "but it has not had much of an opportunity lately to be successful. It was very successful at the old days in Watkins Glen but since then F1 has been hopping around to different venues - all of them temporary. We feel that the thing to do to re-establish F1 in the United States is to bring it to Indianapolis and we'll do everything in our power to work with Formula 1 to do it."
So what does he reckon is the key to success?
"Success depends on a number of things but I feel that ultimately having a truly American effort involved will be helpful: an American driver, American sponsors; possibly even an American team. The date is also important. It wouldn't serve either of us to try and run it at the time of year that wouldn't have a good chance of being successful. I tend to think an autumn race would be ideal from a weather standpoint and from a timing standpoint so that we have ample spacing between our events. It would be impossible to do a proper job in late June. Mr Ecclestone is aware of my desire to have an autumn date."
What about an American driver? Is there anyone out there who could win in Formula 1?
"Given the right opportunities I know of a couple of guys who could win," says George. "Not only be competitive but win. It takes the right mental attitude, the right physical attitude and the proper support. It would be good for us to have an American driver but I don't know if we will get one for the race in 2000. You never know: things change in a hurry."
Would he like to name names?
"No," he smiles. "I won't do that."
What does George think that F1 can learn from America? There is a long pause.
"I think... I think that F1 can learn what it takes to be successful in America," he says. "Whether or not we are able to implement that is yet to be seen but I think it is important that we try to work together to establish a Grand Prix in the world's biggest economy. I think that is in all our best interests.
"There is a lot of excitement going on about this event but only time will tell. Until we actually get a date and put tickets on sale, we won't know what the response is. But it seems to be high and the corporate response has been good as well. We hope that the crowd will be at the same level of our other two events. The way the road circuit is laid out it doesn't really lend itself to taking in all of the permanent seating capacity of the facility, but the majority of the people will have a great view of a lot of racing action. Two hundred thousand people is certainly achievable.
"If, at some point, we decide that we want to lengthen the circuit by another half a mile or so, we can probably take in the entire seating of the facility and that would put us in the neighborhood of 300,000."
But are there really that many Americans interested in Formula 1 racing?
"I know that the American racing fans like a lot of close competition and passing," admits George. "Maybe as F1 becomes more competitive with more manufacturers coming in, then maybe the racing will tighten up a little bit. We wanted our circuit to have more passing opportunities and unfortunately it looks like we are only going to have two at the present and possibly a third."
It sounds like a big risk, particularly when George is investing tens of millions of dollars of his own money in the work to build a circuit.
"We are not government subsidized or subsidized by the city or the state," he says. "This is all private investment and we are all well aware of the level of commitment that is required to even host this event. Even with that we feel that it has a very strong chance of being successful. If we didn't, we would not be doing it. It won't be as profitable for us as either of our other two events, but it has a very good chance of being a successful event for us and being profitable. It fits with our vision of being international leaders in motor sport entertainment. For years I was asked the question why do we just have the one event a year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. When you look at that facility it's sometimes mind boggling to think that it was sitting dormant for 11 months of the year.
"Formula 1 is expensive, but it is really not that far out of line with the other events when you consider what we pay to put on the race and pay out in prize money. If we are able to get in 200,000 to 300,000 people, it will be a successful event. We will make the numbers work.
"If the event is not successful I think that F1 will probably risk losing the American market altogether. So it is in everyone's best interests to try to work to make this event a success."
What about the anti-George movement in America?
"There are a few people who developed a certain attitude about anything that happens at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that won't come," admits George, "but those numbers aren't great. We still enjoy race day crowds and practice crowds of several hundred thousand people. There are a few zealots out there who are very pro-CART that won't possibly be there, but I don't expect that to impede our ability to have a successful event."
If the race is a success, would George envisage becoming involved in promoting and running other Grands Prix in the United States of America?
"We are a growing company," he smiles, "but we are still very small. We have about as much as we can handle at the moment. I'm not yet 40 - so we will see what the future holds..."
SIDEBAR: The Hulman-George Family
In 1848 Herman Hulman established a grocery business in Terre Haute, Indiana - a town 75 miles to the west of Indianapolis. Over the years he became fascinated in trying to produce a more effective baking powder and in 1879 began to produce commercial products. The Rumford brand was followed by others and in 1899 the company produced Clabber which was followed in 1923 by Clabber Girl. By that time the business was being run by Herman's son Tony and in 1931 he handed over the business to Tony Jr, a Yale-educated youngster who was a great athlete in college and who brought a new energy to the Hulman & Company business. He took the moderately successful Clabber Girl brand and turned it into a household name, using an army of salesman. The idea was a huge success and in the years that followed money began rolling in and Hulman bought more and more businesses.
Clabber Girl, incidentally, is still a very successful product and uses motorsport sponsorship as part of its promotional campaign, including a car in the NASCAR Busch series and others in midget racing.
By the mid 1940s Tony Hulman Jr owned both Terre Haute newspapers; the local TV and radio stations, the gas company and the town's biggest hotel.
He gave land and helped to fund the airport - Hulman Field.
In 1945 he was approached by triple Indianapolis 500 winner Wilbur Shaw and asked if he would like to buy the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which then belonged to "Captain Eddie" Rickenbacker, the former fighter ace.
Shaw was worried that the Speedway might be sold off to real estate developers and Hulman, believing that the Speedway was part of Indiana folklore, and agreed to save it. He paid Rickenbacker $700,000 for the facility. It was a mess. Rickenbacker had closed it down after the race in 1941 and when the war ended was too busy trying to build up his aviation company - Eastern Airlines - to have any time for the track. Grass was growing a foot high between the famous bricks.
Hulman appointed Shaw as President of the Speedway and appointed some of his Terre Haute colleagues to keep an eye on what was happening. One was Joe Cloutier, who had started with Hulman & Co as a cashier in 1926.
The track was cleaned up and in May 1946 hosted the first post-war Indianapolis 500. In the years that followed the speedway was constantly upgraded. Shaw died in an air crash in 1954 and so Hulman took over the active running of the track. At the same time he continued to build his empire in Terre Haute, becoming president of Coca Cola Indiana and other companies.
He also embarked on a remarkable series of charitable works in Terre Haute. He donated land for a park and for the city's golf course - Hulman Links. In 1971 he donated $11m to the local college, which became The Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. This was followed by another large donation to Indiana State University - based in Terre Haute - for the construction of a sports facility - The Hulman Center.
Tony Hulman Jr died in 1977 and his empire passed into the hands of his daughter Mari Hulman George. The Speedway was run by Cloutier until his death in 1990 and then Tony Hulman George - Tony Hulman Jr's grandson - took over at the age of 30.
A former racing driver, George had been a Vice-President of the Speedway since 1988. He was keen to develop the business and began talking running an F1 race at Indianapolis as early as 1992. He has continued his grandfather's policy of modernizing the facilities and the Speedway Golf Course was upgraded to championship-level and now hosts a round of the Senior PGA Tour.
In 1994 George broke with tradition and added a second race to the Indianapolis calendar. The Brickyard 400 NASCAR race was a huge success and last year he added a third race, a round of the International Race of Champions.
After failing to get CART bosses to change the Indycar series to include more American drivers, George decided to set up his own championship and in 1996 launched the Indy Racing League. The series was launched at the Walt Disney World Speedway in Florida, which George also owns.
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation has also taken steps to be at the forefront of the boom in interest in motor racing in the United States. It has recently formed a partnership with the International Speedway Corporation, which is controlled by Bill France - the owner of NASCAR. This is known as The Motorsports Alliance, which is building a 1.5-mile oval in Joliet, Indiana, just outside Chicane and is in discussion with Donald Trump to build a similar facility near New York. The Motorsport Alliance - which controls 15 racing facilities in the United States - is also believed to have plans to expand oval racing internationally.
Sidebar: America's most famous Grand Prix Car
The Indianapolis Hall of Fame Museum, in the south-eastern corner of the Speedway, is a fabulous collection of racing machinery. The collection includes the first Indianapolis 500 winner, the Marmom Wasp which was driven to victory by Ray Harroun. In among the collection is one car of particular importance in the history of Grand Prix racing. In 1921 the Augie and Fred Duesenberg decided to take a team to the French Grand Prix at Le Mans. Driver Jimmy Murphy won, becoming the first American to win a Grand Prix event. He would remain the only US winner of a Grand Prix until 1960 when Phil Hill scored his first victory at Monza. After the Le Mans win the famous White Duesenberg was shipped back to the United States, fitted with a Miller engine, and driven to victory by Murphy in the 1922 Indianapolis 500.<\#026>