November 14th, 1945, Tony Hulman, a businessman from Terre Haute, IN., purchased the famed but rundown Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker for $750,000. It was this purchase that brought the fabled Speedway back from the ashes of World War ll and turned it into the World's Greatest Race Course.
The War had left the venue dilapidated, overgrown and in dire need of a savior. Mr Hulman was determined to be that man. Now, the Speedway may need to be saved again, and it's from Mr. Hulman's own family.
Three-time Indy 500 winner, Wilbur Shaw, had been urging Hulman to buy the Speedway for sometime, and the deal finally came to fruition 67 years ago. What remains particularly amazing is how, in a world littered with bankruptcies, buyouts, mergers and takeovers, the Speedway has remained in the hands of the family ever since.
For the Hulman-George clan, it's fair to say that the Brickyard is their life. While some of us might have been lucky to grow up with a family-owned pizzeria, or a pair of blood sucking (yet delightfully parental) lawyers, the Hulman-George's were raised in the high-paced, celebrity-ridden world that is the Indianapolis 500. It was, and still is, the largest attended single day sporting event in the world — around 400,000 people enter the gates on race day.
Growing up in this intensely elite circle has often left the family business to be viewed somewhat akin to a Ryan Seacrest-produced reality show. Hardly surprising given the sheltered lives one must surely live.
The family — now run by Tony Hulman's daughter, Mary Hulman-George — own more than just the Speedway. They own Clabber Girl Baking Powder. But more importantly, they own the entire IndyCar Series. Back in the late 80's, early 90's CART/IndyCar was the race series to watch. NASCAR, believe it or not, was a mere spec (albeit a growing one) in the wake of openwheel domination.
Of course, this plush life for IndyCar teams, owners, drivers and officials — as well as the fans — was inevitably destined to crumble. Once egos became established and the sense of indestructibility grew, the series split into two. The team owners with the huge egos stuck with the CART series while Tony George and his huge ego formed an all-oval championship, the Indy Racing League. CART had the well known drivers and teams, the IRL had the Indy 500, aka the biggest race in the world. It was a recipe for disaster.
Both series soldiered on for years, but eventually the toll of a split division, lack of distinction, and fan confusion led to a catastrophic meltdown of U.S openwheel racing.
In 2008, a deal was finally struck to merge the two series back together and IndyCar was once again reborn. Only this time with far fewer sponsors, a considerably depleted fan base, and financially drained teams, making it necessary for drivers to buy their rides, rather than be hired based upon talent. No more private jets this time around.
Despite an effort to grow the series — and, of course, the Indy 500 — the going has been tough. Randy Bernard, the man who led the growth of the Professional Bull Riders as its CEO, was brought in to right the ship. But after serving three years of his five year contract Bernard was relinquished of his duties just a few weeks ago amidst the anger of fans that loved him and the delight of the greediest team owners that loathed him.
The Hulman-George family has remained adamant that the IndyCar Series is not for sale, in much the same way the Speedway has never been. And the subsiding interest in the world's largest race makes a sustainable series a crucial asset in bringing the Indianapolis 500 back to its former glory.
The Speedway, of course, has other races to complement the 500. Formula One visited the venue from 2000 until 2007, but Ferrari team tactics and Michelin's tire fiasco left a bitter taste. Moto GP bikes have become a recent addition to the track's roster, and of course NASCAR's Brickyard 400 (now including a Grand-Am road race) has become a feature. Still, the crowds are dwindling and TV viewership is declining.
The Hulman-George family is desperately trying to revert the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, along with the IndyCar Series, back to the position of old. But with IndyCar hemorrhaging money faster than one of Bernie Madoff's clients, the goings at 16th and Georgetown remain tough.
For race fans worldwide, the success of the Speedway is crucial. Having raced at such esteemed venues as Monaco, Daytona, as well as Indianapolis myself, there is no race on Earth that comes close to the historic 500-mile race. And while the running of the business may be similar to an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Tony Hulman brought the Brickyard back from the brink of destruction, and turned it into one of the finest venues in the world. We can only hope the latest generation of Hulmans can guide the ship in a similar way.
Photo Credits: AP Images, Getty Images