Commentary

Dear Anton: Miss you (sort of)

Updated: July 27, 2009, 9:17 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

Mr. Anton H. George
Team owner
Vision Racing
c/o City Centre Airport race course
Edmonton, Alberta


Dear Tony,

You didn't miss much here on Sunday in Indianapolis, at the track you used to rule. But we sure missed you.

A race without much action is bad enough, let alone one on a track without a face -- without someone for everyone to blame.

The 16th Allstate 400 at the Brickyard was a dog. I know, I know: What's new?

But a faceless Indianapolis Motor Speedway, operating on an eerie sort of autopilot without you, made it even more forgettable.

For better or worse, we had grown accustomed to your smirks and scowls with the ups and downs of this place these past 20 years when you had reigned, before your mother and three dear sisters threw you off the throne and under the bus last month.

Can't say I blame you for getting as far from here as you could this past weekend, way up there in northwestern Canada, running your IndyCar team. Nice move, by the way, to assuage any suspicion that you might be pouting.

You would have left here frowning again. NASCAR would have embarrassed you again. I know, I know: What's new?

FYI, in case you care: Jimmie Johnson won again, ho-hum, his second straight here and third in the past four, after some semblance of a late duel with Mark Martin.

Before that, the snoring of the crowd might have drowned out the engine noise, except that these magnificent, once-proud grandstands were half full -- and that's being kind.

Maybe 150,000 showed up, the humblest gathering I've ever seen for an oval-track race here -- smaller even than the Formula One crowds the first year or two on the road-oval course. Your grandfather used to draw bigger crowds than this for Indy 500 time trials.

Snoring notwithstanding, it might have been better if Juan Pablo Montoya had been allowed to go ahead and run away with this race, more dominantly even than when he won the Indy 500 in 2000. Remember how he led 83 percent of the laps that year? He was well on his way to leading 90-odd percent of the laps Sunday.

At least the fans would have seen one for the record books, and your old pals in the media would have had something substantive, memorable to chronicle.

But no, hell no. NASCAR had to act like cops at a small-town speed trap, snuffing anything remotely fascinating about this race by busting Montoya for his hyperhaste down pit road with 35 laps to go.

This pit road speeding thing has gotten out of hand, with NASCAR computers nitpicking to the brink of ruin for the whole Cup series, everywhere NASCAR goes. Now they pull this stunt at the last place on Earth where electronics should determine the outcome.

Remember how outraged and embarrassed you were last year when NASCAR let Goodyear bring such inadequate tires that drivers had to pit every 10 laps or so or risk crashing? And then they blamed the debacle on the diamond-ground surface of your track?

[+] EnlargeJuan Pablo Montoya
Jerry Lai/US PresswireThe action at the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard couldn't have been any worse if Juan Pablo Montoya had dominated wire to wire.

Well, the opposite scenario stunk up the show this time. After extensive testing here -- duh -- Goodyear came up with a more-than-adequate tire. Almost too good. There were only three cautions to bunch up the strung-out (as usual) field, and only two passes for the lead under the green flag all day.

And one of those was artificially induced: Johnson's pass of Martin on the final double-file restart.

Personal question here: I'm hearing that your sisters might have overthrown you for more than just spending a cool half-billion of the family fortune propping up your beloved spawn, the Indy Racing League, and getting your pocket picked for another hundred mil or so by Formula One.

I'm getting vibes of serious sibling quibbling -- issues such as who got the big family jet on which weekends, and why your stepson has been fully funded to race while some of your nephews haven't.

You don't have to answer me now, not any more than you ever did. Families deserve their privacy, even the very rich ones who control the fate of American institutions such as Indy.

Hey, this joint would have been a shopping mall decades ago if your late grandfather, Tony Hulman, hadn't saved it at the end of World War II. That's why your IRL believers said the Indy 500 was yours to do with as you pleased, even though I countered that, no, the American people owned the Indy 500. They made it.

I'm sure you've left Edmonton by now, but I'm hoping the track will forward this letter to you, wherever you might be. You've been hard to catch this summer. Hell, I had better access to you while you were trying to ban me from the Indy 500 in 1999. (We had a lot of laughs that year, didn't we?)

I really did miss you this past weekend. Regardless of the business of motor racing and how you conducted it, and how I criticized you for it, I've always liked you as a person. Through our roller-coaster years, you would always stop to talk and shake hands, no matter how adversarial our relationship might be at a given time.

And I'll give you this: You had guts. You were and are a racer at heart. You were a gambler -- more so, by far, than your fellow third generation of racing royalty, NASCAR's ruling France family.

The only thing is, you lost. Terribly.

And now you're sort of like Steve McQueen in the old movie "The Cincinnati Kid," after the no-limit stud poker game, walking the streets of New Orleans with a stoic face and a quarter in his pocket.

You have a lot more than a quarter left in your pocket, maybe even a quarter of a billion -- yeah, with a B -- but you still lost horrifically. And you took the American public on the ride with you, so that the late actor/racer Paul Newman once opined to me grimly that it was "damn near criminal what he's done," dividing and devastating Indy car racing.

Oh, on a brighter note, I almost forgot! We see that you're blogging now, on your racing team's Web site, Visionracing.com. Your latest installment was a big hit around the media center Sunday morning.

We were all reading it, interested that you, in your words, "have decided to use the Vision Racing website [sic], in a therapeutic way, to help clear my mind …"

Seems you might be opening up the family feud to the public soon, writing that, "I continue to be perplexed by the board's [your sisters' and mother's] decision to relieve me from my responsibility as CEO of the enterprise."

But you say, "I understand that maybe they don't feel that they owe me an explanation."

At long last, you've written that "contrary to popular belief, our family does not have an endless supply of cash …"

A lot of us have always realized that. Some just wondered at times whether you did.

Assuming your family really hasn't explained what happened to you, I'll offer my best educated guess, just for old times' sake.

Ultimately, nothing within the Hulman-George family did you in. You stepped onto the slippery slope the minute you let a France -- or as I understand it, one of the family's intermediaries -- whisper in your ear the notion of stampeding NASCAR cars down the hallways of your family estate.

It didn't work Sunday, any more than it has since 1994 on this narrow, flat, rectangular track built in 1909. And now, after 15 years of chronically boring racing, the "hallowed ground" rationale for NASCAR stumbling around this lovely old place has worn thin.

But the huge crowds and profits of those early Brickyard 400s emboldened you, filling your coffers for 13 years of all-out war with CART (and its carcass, Champ Car), until finally you reigned over little more than the scorched earth of American open-wheel racing.

Remember how you told me yourself -- a few years back, at Joliet, Ill. -- that the big NASCAR bucks had replenished your war chest?

Did NASCAR intend to devastate Indy car racing?

I don't know.

But Bill France Jr., who made the original deal with you, did say on the phone to me, with a chuckle, during the open-wheel civil war you wrought, "It hasn't hurt us any, has it?"

Lore is that his father, NASCAR founder Big Bill France, while being ejected from your grandfather's track in the 1950s, before you were born, shouted over his shoulder, "I'll own this place someday!"

His heirs don't need to.

Olympus has been razed, the Indy 500 toppled from the pinnacle, 100-year-old Indianapolis Motor Speedway humbled.

NASCAR handed you so much cash that you were a little like the Vegas crapshooter who figures, What the heck, I'm playing with house money, until he finally walks away with far less than he brought.

And now NASCAR, its own fading appeal addled further by the clunky Car of Tomorrow, can hardly half-fill the place where the Indiana State Police used to estimate crowds at 400,000 for that singular race of each year, in all the world, the Indianapolis 500.

Don't blame your own family, nor the currently tempestuous economy, for your downfall.

Indy survived two world wars and the Great Depression, standing staunch for a century. But now I can't help wondering whether it will survive NASCAR and the deal you made that looked so brilliant at the time.

Regards,

Ed Hinton


Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.