Racing royalty looking shaky these days
What for 15 years was a fundraiser by royalty, for royalty -- the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard -- will be run for the 16th time Sunday.
This time it's too little, too late to save the usual beneficiary, Anton Hulman "Tony" George. His ventures and misadventures as head of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and founder of the Indy Racing League were financed largely with enormous profits from the NASCAR race at the Brickyard, a joint function with the France dynasty.
Before his ouster last month by his own family, George was one of four hereditary rulers of American automobile racing, power having been dropped into their laps over a realm built on bare-knuckle grit, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and vision -- of their ancestors.
Now one has fallen. That's enough to give me pause about the three who remain.
There is Brian Z. France, 46, chairman of NASCAR, grandson of the sanctioning body's founder, William H. G. "Big Bill" France and son of the second, sternest czar, William C. France, known as "Bill Jr."
There is Brian's sister, Lesa France Kennedy, 47, CEO of International Speedway Corp., controller of 12 tracks on the Sprint Cup tour, publicly traded but France-family controlled.
There is Marcus G. Smith, 35, president of the other mighty archipelago of American tracks -- eight, including seven on the Cup tour -- Speedway Motorsports Inc., built by his father, the still-active -- but 81-year-old -- O. Bruton Smith.
And, until June 30, there was George, 49, ruler over the hallowed ground that turns 100 this summer, and its still-struggling offspring, the IRL.
Of all this royalty, George, grandson of the late Indianapolis Motor Speedway savior Anton H. "Tony" Hulman, was the one who demonstrated the most passion, inner fire and attempted vision for the pure endeavor of motor racing.
For all my criticism of his moves over the years, I never once doubted that Tony George is a pure racer in his heart and in his mind.
I wonder about the others.
It is "product" that they push, and racing happens to be the product. Sometimes it seems they might as well have inherited fortunes built on disposable diapers or over-the-counter remedies. A lot of very savvy racing people I know join me, privately, in questioning the amount of passion at the top.
George is the only one who has taken enormous risks, and his losses were his downfall: a widely estimated $500 million or more trying to prop up the still-struggling IRL, and another $100 million or so improving IMS to the liking of Formula One, which of course has vacated Indy after picking George's pockets.
Some might say the other three hereditary rulers have not shown anything like the aggressiveness of George, so there is no reason to think they might fall as George did.
But not enough time has passed under their rule to be certain. Remember, George's real adventurism did not shake American racing until five years into his reign, in 1995, when he formed the IRL and precipitated the schism with CART that would prove disastrous.
Brian France did not replace his father as chairman of NASCAR until 2003. Kennedy wasn't named president of ISC until 2003, or CEO until this year. Smith was named president of SMI last year.
George's mother, Mari Hulman George, and his three sisters kept out of the racing limelight while the family fortune dwindled, until enough losses became enough. Then they voted him out of power, replacing him with trusted non-family members and leaving him in charge only of the IRL. And he abdicated even that position.
There is similar silent power within the France family. James C. France, 64, younger brother of Bill France Jr., retains his 50 percent share of privately owned NASCAR, and remains chairman of ISC. But Jim France has remained, by choice, deeply in the background, leaving visible command to his niece and nephew.
George acknowledged for years that revenues from the NASCAR race at Indy replenished his war chests and helped him fight the 13 Years' War with CART and then its carcass, Champ Car, and carry on his tempestuous fling with Formula One, a costly and at times embarrassing affair that lasted from 2000 to '07.
NASCAR has benefited as much as Indy, because nothing has affirmed NASCAR's rise out of its cradle in the South quite like the annual pilgrimage to American motor racing's most hallowed ground.
But the France dynasty's alliance with the Hulman-George lineage, for the fundraiser 400, was forged by Bill France Jr., not his son.
Until recently the 400, now NASCAR's second-most prestigious race, and the showcase Daytona 500 have operated somewhat on autopilot. They've stood on their own prestige, without much need for hard work or vision by the heirs.
It has all largely promoted itself.
Under the dynasties, American motor racing is mired in sagging attendance, falling TV ratings and chronic fan malaise. Much of this would be true, I suspect, even without the awful economy that has exacerbated the troubles but is by no means the sole cause.
Both the Frances and George are third-generation. Smith is second-generation.
H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler was sort of the last prime minister of the SMI empire, the non-family president until he retired last year. He believes current conditions are a crucible for the dynasties he served and advised for decades.
"Where you get the challenge with leadership is when you begin to suffer long-term, serious problems," Wheeler says. "And that's what we're going through right now -- long-term, significant problems in auto racing, across the board, in all types of auto racing.
"So what kind of leadership do you need when that happens? You need dynamic leadership, creative thinking, and people who are not afraid to make bold moves. Not reckless moves, but bold moves. Sometimes reckless and bold get awful close together."
In my own experience, the difference between bold and reckless moves has always been visible mainly in retrospect, from the outcomes.
George's breakup of Indy car racing was viewed by many at the time as bold. Fourteen years on, it must be revisited as reckless.
Two years on, Brian France's mandating of the Car of Tomorrow -- seen as bold at the time, but since despised by the majority of fans, as well as most drivers, crew chiefs and pundits -- is fading toward the reckless verdict.
NASCAR's own recent indications of relaxing the rules on "the new car" amount to admission that the move went too far, to the detriment of competition on the track.
E-mails and column comments arrive here regularly with the intentional typo "Brain" France, not only because of the COT but because he is perceived as the embodiment of NASCAR's rejection of its grassroots in favor of the rush uptown to bigger -- and more apathetic -- markets such as Los Angeles and Chicago.
Kennedy reportedly is bent on another perhaps-bold, perhaps-reckless move. If it goes through, it's likely to refuel fan resentment of big profits for the royalty trumping good racing for the masses of paying customers.
She reportedly wants to move a second race annually to the ISC property at Kansas City, a track that hasn't exactly been conducive to electrifying racing. The idea is to bring heavy traffic into a casino to be built on the property.
The scheme has stirred rumblings that the ISC track to lose a race would be storied little Martinsville, where the racing is wildly entertaining but the rural Virginia market is small.
Take a race from any ISC property still conducive to old-style racing -- Martinsville, Darlington, Richmond -- and award it to cookie-cutter Kansas and you tell the fans you're choosing taking as much of their money as you can over giving them good racing.
Better if Kennedy admitted she and her brother made a mistake by putting two annual Cup races at Fontana, Calif., in their gold rush to the Los Angeles market (talk about a move that turned out to be reckless), and gives one of those to Kansas. A dull track-to-dull track transplant wouldn't worsen NASCAR's already-eroding reputation for good racing.
The only heir who hasn't misstepped yet is Marcus Smith, a quiet young man, a devout evangelical Christian who has shown none of the steamroller characteristics of his wheeling, dealing father.
Marcus got off on tenuous footing with Wall Street investors in his father's public company. Bloomberg News reported earlier this year that the younger Smith did not in fact graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as SMI reported in a sacrosanct filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But Marcus has been in power so briefly, only 14 months, and in the midst of such a downturn in race attendance due to the economy, that the jury's still out on him -- rather, it hasn't even convened yet.
Sensing a lack of passion, watching the steps and missteps and even the fall of one prince of racing, you can't help recalling the old American axiom about families and money: One generation makes it, the second generation holds onto it, and the third generation loses it.
But it won't come to the collapse of an entire American sport, even if the royals all should fail, according to some expert observers and participants in the industry, who insist on anonymity for fear of drawing ill will.
They believe that, perhaps as early as within the next 10 years, control of American auto racing could be sold -- leagues, tracks, everything.
The potential buyers may be big media and/or entertainment companies, big sports agencies and management companies, or -- most likely -- private equity groups.
"The world is awash in cash," even in this deep recession, said an expert on both racing and the financing of it, because so much money has been pulled from the markets and sits parked in bonds and other safe havens. With private equity groups shopping freely, if current conditions worsen for auto racing, the dynasties might choose to "head for the exits," as another put it.
Such ownership, by those who want it enough to acquire it -- rather than those who simply inherited it -- might react faster, more rationally, more relevantly, more successfully, with greater sensitivity to what the customer -- the public -- really wants.
"There's nothing wrong with second, third, fourth generations [in power]," Wheeler says. "The monarchies of the world have been running like that for centuries.
"Sometimes they do well, and sometimes they don't do well."
When they don't, historically, they end up yielding to other systems.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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