NUVO met Indianapolis Motor Speedway's President and CEO Tony George in a conference room in the administration building of the IMS on the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road.
It was a handsome, well-appointed space, typical of such places, which is to say it could pass for the meeting room of an upscale businessman's hotel -- the kind you find at the margins of airports anywhere in the country.
It wasn't until our interview was over and we went outside to take some pictures that we were able to experience something of what makes the scale of Tony George's sense of place unique.
He took us on to the track.
There is something preternatural about the quality of stillness in vast places. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is vast. The largest stadium in the world, it encloses a championship caliber 18-hole golf course. At the finish line, a 3-foot band of bricks spanning the 50-foot width of the rectangular oval's penultimate straightaway, the track runs like an asphalt gully through a grandstand canyon. Standing in the pit lane and looking north, it is easy to imagine the sound and roar of cars barreling down from the final turn, accelerating toward the checkered flag.
Like old battlefields and abandoned theaters, empty stadiums hold their histories in a ghostly way. Somehow you can feel an echo of the effort that's been spent there, the tidal pull of massive tension and release.
People have died on this track. Others have made their dreams come true. And, over almost 100 years, millions have been here to watch and cheer.
The Speedway has been part of Anton Hulman "Tony" George's family business since 1945, when his grandfather, Tony Hulman, the president of Hulman & Co., maker of Clabber Girl baking powder, was persuaded to buy the track in order to save it. Racing had gone on hiatus during World War II and the Speedway had fallen into disrepair. Hulman renovated the place, creating what was proclaimed to be "the greatest spectacle in racing," a Memorial Day happening that became the single largest spectator sporting event in the world. This year, the Speedway site celebrates its 100th anniversary; the race will run for the hundredth time in 2011.
Tony George, son of Elmer and Mari Hulman George, was born in 1959, attended high school in Terre Haute and graduated from Indiana State with a bachelor's degree in business administration. He went to racing school in 1984 and, through 1987, drove in the Sports Car Club of America Formula Ford Series, as well as the Super Vee, Formula Pacific and American Racing series. In 1990 he became president and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation.
George has brought physical changes to the Speedway, including new grandstands, Tower Terrace Suites and the Pagoda, a state-of-the-art control tower overlooking pit lane.
He also expanded the scope of what happens there.
George brought NASCAR to the track with the first Brickyard 400 race in 1994. Six years later, in 2000, George brought Formula One racing to Indianapolis, with the United States Grand Prix. Last year, the track hosted its first Red Bull Indianapolis MotoGP motorcycle race.
George is responsible for committing the Indy Racing League to the use of ethanol fuel.
There have been setbacks. The relationship with Formula One fizzled. And, in 1994, when George founded the Indy Racing League, he precipitated a split with CART, the already established open wheel racing series, creating a conflict for many big name drivers and teams.
George is still criticized in some circles for this move. But the drivers and teams gradually returned to Indianapolis and, in 2008, George was able to prevail, presiding over the unification of competing open wheel series, making the IRL the signature league of its kind.
George sat down with NUVO to share his thoughts about the Motor Speedway on the threshold of its centennial celebration.
NUVO: You and your family have been involved in racing all your life. Can you remember what attracted you to the sport in the first place?
TG: I don't think there was ever one moment in time when I realized that was what I was going to be involved in. I was born in the old St. Vincent's hospital and brought back to my home on 25th Street, which was just a few blocks away from the track. I have memories of living in that house, and of the people involved in racing who came in and out. Likewise, I have memories from when I was 6 or 8 years old, coming to the track and enjoying ice cream malts and watching the cars go around. Looking back, it was a family affair. It was part of what we did.
NUVO: Has the atmosphere changed over time?
TG: A lot of things change. Everything changes. It's different. But there has also been a lot of continuity from year to year and decade to decade. The fact that we continue to hold the race on Memorial Day weekend has been part of its 100-year history.
NUVO: Racing is an international sport, but the 500 has always provided it with a distinctly Midwestern accent. What is it about the Midwest -- Indiana, in particular -- and auto racing?
TG: I think it's referred to as Hoosier Hospitality. People come from around the country and all over the world and, by and large, I think most of them enjoy coming here because of the Midwestern pace of life, Midwest values. I guess the race is somewhat part of our culture. I don't know that everyone would agree, but the fact that the Indianapolis 500 is anchored in Indianapolis, Ind., makes it hard for it to feel like anything but the Midwest.
NUVO: Do we have a special car culture?
TG: When the founders of the Speedway started it, I don't think it was with the intent to have the 500-mile race, or the Brickyard 400. It was to provide an outdoor laboratory for testing their first creations at the dozens of car companies that populated this region and city. I think that from that came the idea of hosting competitions and, in a very short period of time, it was decided there would be one big competition to test the limits of technology at that time.
So I think the Speedway has always been about innovation. As motor racing evolved into a sport, racing became a business and a lot more racetracks started popping up -- there are over 900 oval tracks around the United States, and many of these are in the Midwest. So, by virtue of the founders creating this laboratory and racing facility that built interest in competition, the real emergence of the business and sport of automobile racing came about.
NUVO: Do you have memories of particular races?
TG: It's hard to say. I think 1968 stands out because it was the first race I remember sitting and watching with interest. I didn't have that much knowledge of the drivers. I knew Foyt. I knew of the Unsers and Andretti, but didn't really know them closely. Bobby [Unser] won that race.
The memories I am more connected to are associated with the additional races -- the Brickyard, the Formula One race, in particular.
NUVO: What has given you the most satisfaction as head of the IMS?
TG: Oftentimes the disappointments balance out the satisfactions. I don't know that I'm satisfied. I'm pleased with some things. Just being involved with all this gives me a sense of satisfaction. I'm very fortunate to be in the position I'm in, to be able to do the things I've been able to do. To be involved with so many great people, some of whom were associates of my grandfather, as far back as 1945. There are fewer and fewer of those folks around. I have a lot of vivid memories of the hard work they put in to make this successful and help grow it.
NUVO: What does the IMS bring to Indianapolis?
TG: It brings 100 years of history and continuous operation that have helped provide the city with an international profile. I think we're recognized as having the world's largest venue, sporting event, stadium -- however you want to consider it. It hosts multiple world-class events that contribute a great deal to the quality of life and culture and economic future of the city.
NUVO: Where do you place the Brickyard 400 or Formula One races within the context of that history?
TG: I don't know that it's fair to ask that question, or to answer that question. They're all things I've been involved with. The family approved major decisions to add events to our calendar here. Both the NASCAR and the Formula One races are -- or were -- special. I hope that maybe we could have Formula One back -- I don't know if that will ever happen. But the opportunity's there if it were to work out.
But, to me, the most important and most special thing is and always will be the Indianapolis 500. That's our brand. The other activities are things we do, an extension of motor sports entertainment. We don't own and control NASCAR. We don't own and control Formula One.
We try to feel like we can have a positive influence on the world of stock car racing and international Formula One racing. For us, it's about hosting world-class events that contribute to our company's vision of international leadership in motor sports entertainment. That's what we strive for. Though we don't have Formula One anymore, we do have Red Bull MotoGP and we're trying to insure that that is something that continues to be part of our schedule and is a successful opportunity for us to deliver on our commitment to leadership.
NUVO: How has the conversion to ethanol gone?
TG: I think it was a fairly simple conversion. We were already running on alcohol so, with some minor modifications to the engines themselves and the different cooling properties required, it's been a fairly decent transition.
The IndyCar series is trying to act as a platform for alternative forms of energy, alternative fuels and new technologies for the future. That's the reason the Speedway was built. It's the cornerstone of the league and the IndyCar series. It seems like an obvious and natural forum for us to provide the platform to encourage and, hopefully, introduce new ways of thinking about the next 100 years of the automobile.
Ethanol is easy for us to do and makes sense now. It's got people thinking about a lot of things. Current ethanol production from feedstock isn't sustainable or viable, but what is the next generation of ethanol -- and how will that play in our nation and our world? Ethanol will play some role. How big a role remains to be seen. We're looking at offering a platform to showcase other technologies and different fuels that will all be part of an overall energy solution.
NUVO: Do you think we'll ever see an all-electric 500?
TG: I don't know. It could be a decade away. It's hard to say. Everyone talks about hydrogen. We'll see. There's a lot of thought and discussion on that subject and what the next five or 10 years might look like. Again, I think we offer a platform to bring awareness and development and testing new ideas that, hopefully, will benefit the automobile industry in this country.
NUVO: You've been a driver and executive in the same sport. How would you characterize the skill sets of these two occupations?
TG: I raced for a very short period of time. And I started at a late age -- I was in my 20s. But I did it to learn that side of the business -- the competition side and the technical side. Plus I enjoyed the driving. I went to a couple of driving schools and I enjoyed it. It teaches you to work with others who have different skill sets than you, or different talents. There's a lot of seat-of-the-pants, you're working with your team to get the car ready, and once they drop the green flag you're out there competing and have to make adjustments to your driving style. If the car's not just right, you have to compensate. It taught me life is a team sport. You don't get through it, by any stretch of the imagination, on your own. You've got to work with others to realize success.
NUVO: What do you envision for the neighborhood around the track?
TG: All the things they're talking about as part of the Speedway Redevelopment I think are good things. It's another situation where change is difficult for some to be comfortable with, but change is all around us. It's inevitable. Sometimes it affects people in a good way; sometimes it affects people in a bad way. From a personal standpoint, I think generally what they're talking about is good and will be good long-term. But given the time and the timing, I think a lot of what we were hoping to see started and completed to some degree by 2011, when we celebrate the 100th running of the 500 -- I don't know if the current economic situation is going to impact that. But to create a main street, to create new developments and a tax base are all things this part of the city needs in a desperate way. The whole town was built around the automobile industry; perhaps its past can be its future.
NUVO: How has the recession affected racing?
TG: We're affected like most everyone else is. I'm not sure that anyone is not affected. Obviously, motor sports and racing is heavily dependent on corporate sponsorship -- more so than many other sports. If corporations are pulling back, that affects everything we do, from our events to series to the fields we draw. Also, they are spectator events and just about everyone I know is feeling the pinch and making adjustments. We depend on peoples' discretionary spending. People are being very cautious right now and rightly so. A lot of people have lost their jobs. A lot of people don't know what they're going to do next. I don't know how long or deep this recession is going to be, but it's very tough out there right now.
The interesting thing is that this institution has been here 100 years. It's been here through world wars and a depression. It's shown resilience. This is another time we're going through, and we'll live through it.
We're all very proud that we're from Indianapolis and Indiana and I think sometimes it would be nice if people could recognize that more. We bring a lot of jobs -- and we want to bring more jobs. Hopefully the engines and technologies that we use in the future can be manufactured and maintained here in the U.S. and, specifically, in Indiana.