Friday, October 30, 2020

The Hulman-George family left a lasting legacy at IMS

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he Board of Directors of Hulman & Company announced today that it has entered into an agreement to be acquired by Penske Corporation.

Indianapolis Star

One can only wonder what the 2020 Indianapolis 500 would look like without Roger Penske zooming around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 900-plus acres on a golf cart, his watchful eyes alert..

But imagine if race car driver Wilbur Shaw and investment broker Homer Cochran hadn’t persuaded Tony Hulman to sit down and discuss a business proposition in the fall 1945. IMS might now be an upper-middle class neighborhood, homes set strewn around a meandering creek with views of a manicured golf course. Or maybe, as former Indianapolis Star sports editor Bob Collins once wrote, “Had there been no Tony Hulman, there would still be auto racing in some form. But it would be at least six or seven grades lower in class.”

Maybe, without Tony Hulman, CART’s 1990’s vision of turning the Indy 500 into “just one of 16 races,” as current IMS president Doug Boles remembers, would have come to fruition. Maybe today, it’s on the same level as NASCAR’s Memorial Day tradition: the Coca-Cola 600 – a premier event, but not a two-week extravaganza that’s equal parts party, pomp and circumstance, and high-level competition.

Maybe in an alternate reality, Hulman’s son, Tony George, instead of ushering in the likes of NASCAR, F1 and motorcycles, would have fixated on the sanctity that racing at IMS happens only in May. Maybe a splintered landscape of American open-wheel racing never heals. Maybe holding the Greatest Spectacle in Racing with miles of empty grandstands in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic is the final death knell.

Lucky for us, Hulman never left anything to chance – in life, and in death.

“Tony Hulman was rather like Howard Hughes,” said IMS historian Donald Davidson of the legendary business magnate, pilot, engineer, film enthusiast and philanthropist. “He could see into the future – he had a vision. As terrible a place as this was back then, he could see through all that and see what it might become. All his friends were saying, ‘Tony, it’s too late.’”

Famously, even Hulman’s mother, Grace Smith Hulman, told her 44-year-old son that fall: “Tear it down and start all over.”

But, as Davidson tells it, “He just stood there with this grin on his face.”

‘This fella in Terre Haute’

Only Hulman could have see this present-day, pristine palace, with infield grass cropped like Augusta National’s meticulous greens, emerging from a jungle of weeds where locals would pull down fences to hunt rabbits in 1945.

In rotting wooden grandstands, Hulman saw brand-new ones, coming shortly after his $750,000 purchase – equal to just under $11 million today.

“Someone once described it as an abandoned Army barracks,” Davidson said. “All boarded up, weeds sprouting, paint peeling and faded.”

Hulman would add a new Pagoda, instill the idea of a pit lane and eventually pave over all but one 36-inch-wide swath of bricks near the start-finish line, forever preserving that portion of The Brickyard’s birth, while ushering it into the future.

At its inception, the Indy 500 was an international affair. Billed as the 1911 International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race in its debut, it pulled in three French winners and an Italian Briton and an Italian American in its first decade, with winning cars made by Mercedes and Peugeot, followed by Maserati.

In its first few decades, the Indy 500 was a special conglomeration of a warm, family-style picnic for Indiana families held during an Olympic-level competition.

“They didn’t get a PR firm and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to be nice,’” Davidson said. “They just always ran the place in a very charming fashion.”

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Which it was why it was so shocking for Shaw to come across the grounds in late-1944 to find an outdoorsman’s paradise after the U.S. Army had outgrown it as an aviation repair hub during World War I.

In the town of Speedway for a scheduled synthetic rubber tire test on the 2.5-mile oval track for Firestone, the company executive soon arranged a meeting with then-facility owner Eddie Rickenbacker. Shaw, initially invigorated to use the fortune he’d amassed as the race’s second three-time winner, along with funds from  20-some minor investors he’d hoped to court, instead happened upon Cochran.

“Cochran told him, ‘I’ve got this fella in Terre Haute you ought to meet with,’ ” Davidson said after Shaw had spent months searching for investors. “If not for Cochran, this might not all have happened.”

One of the greatest sportsmen of all-time

For years after that, Hulman could walk the sidewalks of downtown Indianapolis in near-anonymity. The new track owner was surprised to be caught in traffic race day morning in 1946, stunned that so many thousands of race fans wanted to visit the Racing Capital of the World so soon after the end of the War and with IMS still a shell of what he knew it could become.

“They were thinking, ‘We haven’t run in five years, and people still want to come?’” Davidson said. “And the answer, of course, was a resounding, ‘Yes!’”

Hulman was aware how much the race meant to locals – having attended his first 500 in 1914 at age 13 – but that re-invigoration matched his own excitement on getting to work on his Mona Lisa. Out of the spotlight for much of the next decade, Hulman, the track’s owner and chairman, served as its visionary while Shaw, as its president, steered the ship.

Having inherited, then built upon, a family fortune amassed through the Hulmans’ business empire, Hulman & Co., the track’s new owner wasn’t looking for a money-maker. Quite the opposite. He was looking for the perfect project for his creative fancy. T.E. “Pop” Myers, a 40-plus year IMS employee till his death in 1954, said in 1951 that Hulman had yet to take a single dividend during his ownership.

“Tony said, ‘I don’t expect to make a profit out of this. I’m not looking to lose money or make money’,” Davidson said. “’And after the race, if I have profit, I’ll put it back into renovating the place.’”

The 1946 Indy 500 boasted the largest purse in the race’s history ($115,100), all while Hulman transformed IMS’s sprawling acres from jungle to gem. We marvel at the stark improvements Penske pulled off in the midst of a pandemic after announcing his purchase in November 2019, but the makeover Hulman, Shaw and company pulled off between November 1945 and May 1946 goes down in track lore.

“All the investment and infrastructure he pulled off in late-winter and early-spring in order to have that one (race) in 1946 was a pretty herculean effort, on the backside of World War II,” Boles said. “The facility was just so completely run down, but he was so committed to it.”

“In a way, he was Midas,” Penske Entertainment Corp. president and CEO Mark Miles added.

But Hulman would have to take on a more front-facing role in late 1955 and beyond, after Shaw perished in a plane crash in October 1954.

For 1955, a bashful Hulman took over belting out the drivers’ command to signal the start of the race, a symbol of how much the track owner set the stage for how fans experience the minutes that lead up to the green flag even today.

The pace car, the milk, the 11 rows of three, the Borg-Warner trophy and the four-lap qualifying runs were already staples of the race, but Hulman’s tenure started the pre-race invocation, the playing of “Taps” and the singing of “Back Home Again,” – all of which tug at the emotional heartstrings of fans.

“The cadence that leads up to the command, the start of the engines and all the stuff that makes the race so special – that was Tony Hulman,” Boles said. “The speedway is here today because of Tony Hulman, but also, so much of what we celebrate on race morning, even nowadays, is because of the things Tony Hulman put together that made this race so much more than a 500-mile automobile race.”

Hulman mastered in the flashy side of things, too. He also ushered in the race’s celebrity aura, welcoming Jimmy Stewart, Bob Hope and Walter Cronkite to great fanfare. He wrote to government officials, from mayors around Indianas to United States presidents, just to make sure they knew the race was going on – and that they always had an invitation.

Actor Clark Gable quietly attended Hulman’s second race in 1947, only to return to make the film “To Please a Lady.” The movie reached an 11-year-old boy living with his family in a refugee camp in Italy, where the movie was titled simply “Indianapolis.”

“That captured my imagination. I’d never heard of that word,” the grownup boy told IndyStar nearly 70 years later. “Later on, it was all over the papers when (Bill Vukovich) won one of his two Indy 500s. Oh my gosh, it was such a big headline. I was looking at some of the sportscars of the day that had a max speed of 200 kph, and that was his average speed in the race. At that point, I was gravitated to it.”

That boy? Mario Andretti.

Hulman recognized the importance of appreciating all those who flocked to IMS during the month of May – young and old; famous name, common fan and up-and-coming team owners, too. From A.J. Foyt of the 1960s all the way to Roger Penskes.

“I remember the first time we would have met, it would have been ’69, our first time at Indy,” Penske said. “A young team from the outside, no sprint cars or USAC background, and he kidded us. We were the ‘college guys with the brushed haircuts and polished wheels’, but Tony came right up to me right at the beginning and offered whatever he could do to support us.

“He became a very good friend.”

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But maybe no one was closer to Hulman than Super Tex. Fittingly, Foyt became the race’s first four-time winner in the historic 1977 contest. Though Hulman would often hop in the front seat of the pace car as it whisked the winner around the oval for his  victory lap, the track’s owner couldn’t help but hop on back of the Oldsmobile Delta 88, Foyt’s right arm around his friend’s back.

“When I first went to Indy, I never thought I’d have a chance to meet Mr. Hulman – much less become friends with him,” Foyt told IndyStar. “We became great friends, and I really respected him.

“Being the first four-time winner of the 500 meant a lot to me, but having him ride around with me on my victory lap meant the world to me.”

Added Davidson: “Foyt was almost like a son to Tony Hulman. You could see Tony was so excited (after the 1977 race). I remember looking down from the broadcast vantage point, and I remember almost being a bit concerned because Tony was just so animated. I was concerned he might get overcome and faint.”

That May afternoon holds a much more somber meaning, looking back. It would be the last time Hulman saw a 500. He died on the operating table at St. Vincent Hospital due to heart failure from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. He was 76.

“The world probably lost one of the greatest sportsmen of all times,” Foyt told IndyStar after Hulman’s death. “He never forgot a name or a face, whether you were a rookie or the greatest driver in the world.”

But Hulman’s legend continued to play a role in IMS’s future. Like Penske in the present-day, part of Hulman’s genius was the company he surrounded himself with. First, it was Shaw, who helped get his many projects off the ground and took on the public front during their partnership. With Hulman’s passing, Joe Cloutier, who had long been the track’s executive vice president and treasurer, was named president – with Hulman’s wife Mary Fendrich Hulman, succeeding him as chairman.

Together, the two, along with brief president John Cooper and Hulman’s daughter Mari Hulman George, who was bit early-on by the racing bug, helped keep the traditions Hulman instilled and the reputation he built intact.

“Mrs. Hulman and I will just try to do as good a job of running the place as Tony did,” Cloutier said in 1977.

The best intentions

In January 1990, Hulman’s 30-year-old grandson, Tony George, took the reins. As Davidson describes him, George in so many ways epitomized Hulman’s demeanor: a racing diehard never exactly eager to stand in the spotlight – but someone dedicated to keeping the legendary status of IMS alive. George could not be reached for comment for this story.

In the early 90’s, George took that passion for the speedway in a slightly different direction than those before him. The track’s first family had rebuffed the idea of running any other series on the IMS oval – including NASCAR – for years, wanting to preserve the sanctity of the track and the month’s worth of events that helped boost it high atop the racing community.

The track was like a rare sportscar, they feared: the more times it rolled out of the garage, the more luster it lost. Not George. To the shock of the IndyCar faithful – and the elation of the stock car community – George welcomed NASCAR to have the 1994 Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6 that year — marking the first race other than the Indy 500 held at the track since 1916.

Like his grandfather, George saw protecting the image and legacy of the track as his primary duty, but he put a new spin on the perspective. George wanted to share the grandeur that Hulman had built and perfected with the masses. On the heels of NASCAR carving out its own chapter in the IMS history books, George announced in 1998 that Formula 1 would return to the U.S. for the first time since 1991, headed for a newly minted IMS road course, where it  would run annually from 2000-07.

“Tony (George) was very analytical and willing to take a chance,” Davidson said. “He didn’t set out to be a controversial person, but in this position, he was willing to try something different. He could have continued on, I think, just doing the 500, and that would have been fine, and I don’t know where we would be.

“But he was trying to do things to enhance it, and maybe make it better. He had some of the best intentions, but things didn’t always work out.”

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Months before George held the inaugural Brickyard 400, he announced in March 1994 the creation of the Indy Racing League, designed to be a rival series of CART. Initially dreamed up as a bargaining chip in his quest to gain some control of the governance of CART, given IMS’s massive role in the series with the 500, George split off completely at the start of the 1996 season, running an abbreviated calendar with the famed 500-mile race pitted against CART’s attempt at a coup in the American open-wheel landscape – the U.S. 500.

With the landmark success of his NASCAR race, George helped bankroll the IRL, which highlighted oval racing and helped bring racing opportunities to young American drivers the series mastermind felt had been left behind. But one of his premier goals in this move fell flat. As CART’s popularity skyrocketed through the 80’s and early 90’s, George saw writing on the wall that threatened the Indy 500’s glory

“What he was trying to do was protect an event and make sure that event continued to be the biggest event in the world,” Boles said. “At one point in time, I worked for the Mayor’s office, and the head of CART came in right before ‘The Split’ to talk, and the gist of it was, ‘Well, the CART season is 16 races, and ultimately, we want to run one weekend at IMS. It should just be one of 16, and it should be a larger goal to win the CART championship.”

Penske, who led one of the strongest teams and held one of the most trusted voices in the CART paddock, has admitted years after ‘The Split’ that he feels both sides deserve blame for the chaos that was ignited in both series, as they slowly spiraled and allowed NASCAR to become the most popular form of racing in the U.S.

Though he thinks George misinterpreted the warning signs he sensed, Penske, now sitting in the same seat after his deal with George in 2019, understands a little more.

“I don’t think Tony did anything wrong, or we did,” he said. “People disagreed on maybe the mission and the future, but coming back in (2001) was the smartest thing we did.”

Added longtime Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull: “(CART) had become this massive property, and my personal feeling is the Hulman-George family and the Indy 500 brand didn’t want to be swallowed up by that. There’s a lot more to it, but that’s the reality.

“And then the CART owners association disintegrated as time went on, and part of that was because they realized that the Indy 500 was as important to them as the Hulman family.”

Passing the torch

Aside from ‘The Split’, George’s tenure was far from spotless. There were tire debacles at IMS from F1 (2005) and NASCAR (2008). Waning attendance for the 500 post-Split became an image ingrained in the heads of lifetime fans, even after the two series merged in 2008. The 500’s 2002 winner will forever be argued, as Paul Tracy was in the process of completing a late-race pass on defending champ Helio Castroneves when a caution came out. Some say Tracy was already ahead, but the Team Penske driver retained his title.

Then, on June 30, 2009, George was ousted as president and CEO of IMS and Hulman & Co., a move forced by his mother and sisters. At the same time, he elected to stand down as head of the IRL. Though he was reinstated to the board in 2013 and renamed chairman in 2016, it will always be a dark cloud that hangs over his legacy.

But for all his faults, George helped keep the pieces in place, allowing reunification. And ahead of the 100th running in 2016, he led IMS’s massive facelift that helped bring the track into the 20th century before the 500 returned to sellout fashion that year. Then, maybe most importantly, when he had helped revive the series, race and the track his grandfather made the “Hulman-George” name so famous for, he handed it off to someone better equipped to protect the assets for generations to come.

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Sunday, the family will be honored with a tribute video played on the big boards visible to the drivers and during the pre-race ceremony, before Penske gives the command to start engines. It’ll be the first time since 1946 a member other than the Hulman-George family has done so. 

Additionally, Miles told IndyStar that IMS is nearing the unveiling of a permanent way to honor the family that owned the track for more than seven decades.

“We are nearing the public presentation of what I think will be an enduring and appropriate way to, physically on campus, honor Tony Hulman, and in doing so, the Hulman-George family,” he said.

Miles also said that, though the Penske Entertainment Corp. board solely consists of officers and directors of the company, “it’s quite possible that, in the future, there could be some additions to the board. Though Penske offered members of the Hulman-George family the option to gain a minority stake in the company during last year’s press conference, though Miles said Penske is the sole owner presently.

And maybe that’s for the best – a clean break, a clear changing of the guard.

That may be George’s most enduring legacy when we look back 50 or even 100 years from now. Maybe the best thing he could do, just days before his family’s 74th anniversary of owning the track, was admit they’d run their course. In Penske’s hands, even in the midst of a pandemic, survival is all but ensured.

For Hulman, that was always the most important thing.

“We all love it, and we all care deeply for it,” George said, holding back tears, at the November news conference. “I think we all realize that, as a family and as an organization, we probably had taken it as far as we can.

“We, with emotion, are happy to be here today.”

Email IndyStar motor sports reporter Nathan Brown at nlbrown@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @By_NathanBrown.

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