George makes good soap opera

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:01 AM ET

Tony George stormed on to the auto-racing scene in a whirlwind of controversy nearly two decades ago. Tuesday he left the same way -- reputedly gassed by his own family.

The official announcement says George resigned from the board of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the family business, Hulman&Co. This comes eight months after he was ousted by his family as president and CEO of IMS and then declined to step in as president of the Indy Racing League, the series he started in 1996.

That's the dry corporate version of events. The more interesting angle is how his mother and sisters, in a squabble over how the family spends its money, gave him the push. Not that George himself is unfamiliar with throwing his elbows around. "There are a lot of hurt feelings on both sides," Jeff Belskus, who assumed George's duties as Speedway CEO, told Speedtv.com columnist Robin Miller.

The 50-year-old grandson of IMS saviour Anton Hulman redrew the face of open-wheel racing, and some would argue, not for the best. The Hulman/George family, with tales of larceny and lace, always has operated like an afternoon soap opera. George spent hundreds of millions of the family fortune starting and sustaining IRL. But in the past year his mother and chairman of the Speedway board, Mari Hulman George, and his sisters Nancy, Josie and Kathi, grew increasingly agitated over spending at IMS.

Tuesday was the equivalent of the day they shot J.R. on Dallas. Figuratively. George's only remaining tie to auto racing is the ownership of Vision Racing, an IndyCar team. Even that put him at odds with the family. The racing team reportedly was the centre of a squabble when board members recently rejected George's proposal to continue funding the team's second car, driven by Ryan Hunter-Reay.

With George losing the support of his mother and sisters, he had lost the board and control. It reads like a script out of an All My Children episode which shouldn't be surprising because love and loathing has followed George since he formed the IRL out of a desire to return to an all-oval series featuring American drivers, with the Indy 500 as the crown jewel.

But instead of becoming a building block in open-wheel racing, he became the most polarizing force in auto racing in his generation when he banned anyone from the Indy 500 who didn't compete on his IRL circuit.

The subsequent "civil war" between the CART and IRL factions resulted in plunging ratings and revenues. Indy car racing lost fans, sponsors, manufacturers, teams and drivers, with many switching allegiance to NASCAR.

Attendance at the Speedway declined and both CART and its successor Champ Car died. George's dream of a world class, all-American oval series was flawed from the start.

It was a little like the NHL saying it wants to be the best hockey league in the world; then announcing only nice Canadian boys from Kingston can play in it.

Until clothing company IZOD signed on last year, the IRL hadn't had a title sponsor since 2002 and with the economic downturn George's family grew nervous.

George's departure may be seen as cause to celebrate by former CART fans who still hold memories of the golden era of Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan and place the onus of the sport's decline squarely on his shoulders.

But the celebration may be short-lived. While George's actions were misguided, even disastrous, he was willing to spend millions promoting the sport.

Belskus has terminated more than 40 employees, rumours persist of more cutbacks at the Brickyard or turning it into a multi-use facility.

George's resignation signals the end of an fractious era in IndyCar racing but the worrisome questions and an uncertain future remain.

BILL.LANKHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA


Videos

Photos