For IRL founder, it's been worth it
Indianapolis Motor Speedway President and Indy Racing League founder Tony George took time out to talk to ESPN.com's John Oreovicz on the eve of the IRL's 100th race, running Sunday (ABC, 3:30 ET) at Nazareth Speedway. George expounded on a variety of topics related to the League and American open-wheel racing.
ESPN.com: I'm sure it's hard to quantify, but do you feel like your plan for the League is on schedule?
George: The plan has changed from time to time. Right now, it's easy to say I would have envisioned the League being where it is today four or five years ago, but hindsight is 20/20. We're pleased with where we're at and just stay focused on where we are today and where we want to be tomorrow, not worry about what could have been. This 100th race of the Indy Racing League is considered by some as a milepost. Certainly to those of us who have been here since Day One, since the first race, it probably means something more than to others who haven't been here from the beginning, whether it's their second season or their 12th or 13th race. It means different things to different people, I guess. I think the addition of road courses to our schedule next year sort of ushers in a new era for the League. We'll try to continue to provide close, exciting racing on track and see what opportunities going into a new discipline and new markets will present us. I think we have to do a better job of telling our story and getting connected with the public. That's our biggest challenge today.
ESPN.com: Obviously, the hallmark of the League is the close racing, especially on the big ovals. When you watch the cars running so closely together, what kind of feeling does it inspire in you?
George: I guess at different times I feel different things. It's not the same every race. I get some of those same feelings watching a race at Richmond or Nazareth that I do at the big tracks. Clearly, the side-by-side racing that the mile-and-a-half and two-mile tracks have produced has been good for the League from the standpoint that the rules package keeps our cars close. Success at the end of the day is often determined by the preparation of a given team on that weekend -- whoever works the hardest and has the best strategy, or adjusted the car to be good all day and be there at the end for the win. The best teams generally end up coming out on top. But it's that close, side-by-side racing that gets my blood flowing and generates a lot of different emotions. I've always believed that oval track racing provides a great opportunity for an entertaining product, and we've been able to establish and keep that.
ESPN.com: Why are oval tracks so important to you and the League?
George: As I said, I think ovals provide great entertainment for the viewing spectator. It's also something that can be covered cost-effectively for television. It lends itself to close racing. It's a uniquely American discipline, and for those reasons, it's important to me. The Indianapolis 500 has been run on an oval track for almost 90 years and the Indy Racing League was created to build on the history and tradition and legacy of the Indianapolis 500 and it is a very meaningful part of the American motorsports scene. When we started the League in '94, it was with the hopes that we would encourage more oval tracks to be built. In a small way, I think we have been able to play a part in that renaissance of being able to build and develop new tracks. Certainly a lot of tracks have been built in the hopes of getting a NASCAR race but many of them haven't ever received a Cup date. We want to provide quality inventory for those racetracks to hopefully make money and provide a return on investment. There have been some great tracks built in some exciting new markets and we have been fortunate enough to take advantage and be a part of the business plan of many of those tracks.
All the while, we said we would be interested in running road courses as part of our schedule. We always said that if and when the right opportunity presented itself, we would consider it. Fortunately or unfortunately, I don't know, it has taken us until now until we could work out a deal and add them in 2005. But we've had several starts and stops, beginning with Chris Pook before the IRL even turned a wheel. Back in 1994-95 he was a part of some of the formative meetings of the Indy Racing League and he contemplated Long Beach being part of our schedule from the beginning. For whatever reasons, that didn't work out and that's all part of history. We've gone on to build a great series that I think has a bright future. Now that we're ushering in a new era of running on road courses the challenge will be to continue to provide the same quality and entertaining product on road courses that we do on ovals.
ESPN.com: It seems a key change in public perception over the last couple of years has come from the fact that many of the top drivers, sponsors, manufacturers and teams in American open-wheel racing have decided that it is better for them to do business in the IRL rather than Champ Car. Can you discuss the impact that these known quantities have made on your series?
George: For the most part, the partnerships that existed between teams and sponsors and manufacturers existed for a reason and had an objective. By and large, the ones that came over here had the objective to be in the American markets. Most people would enjoy running a race in Canada or Mexico, but clearly, North America is where their focus is. They are not interested in globetrotting and going all around the world because of domestic budgets and domestic business they are trying to build or awareness they are trying to create. Our television partner wants many of those same things, and as a result, that coincides with our objectives too. I think we've tried to create an environment for these teams to do business. Many of them who came over here with a bit of trepidation have come to enjoy it and genuinely like it. It's something that we hope remains the case for many years to come.
ESPN.com: One of the themes of 2004 has been the performance of the Honda engine. Do you think the League needs to take steps to restrict Honda, or assist Chevrolet and Toyota?
George: I think by and large Honda and Toyota recognize that Honda did a fair amount of homework in the offseason and has come out with a strong package this year. They all tend to be competitive and Brian Barnhart or any manufacturer has not made me aware that they are asking or looking for any kind of assistance or relief or tightening down on one manufacturer as a result of their success on the track. I think there is a system in place to deal with that if requests of that nature come about, but to my knowledge, no one has come to Brian or me with any request. I think a lot of it is attributed to their respect of the job Honda has been able to do.
ESPN.com: How important was it for the League to identify and develop an American star to become the identity of the IRL? I'm talking about Sam Hornish Jr.
George: I thought you were talking about Buddy Rice! I'm just pointing out that there is a lot of American talent out there. Sam is a great talent and a great race driver. I recognized it early when he was with PDM. Panther gave him a great opportunity and they had a lot of success together and it was important for us to try to keep him involved in IndyCar racing. Obviously, Roger recognized that and offered him a situation, which to Sam, I'm sure, fulfilled a lifelong dream. We're happy that Sam is there, hopefully for the long term, and we wish him continued success. I hope there is a lot of competition on the track to make him work for his successes and hopefully there are more Sam Hornishes out there to come along in the future.
ESPN.com: In creating the additional races you now run at the Speedway you have worked closely with Bill France Jr. and Bernie Ecclestone. Are there any lessons you learned from those respected businessmen that you were able to apply to the IRL?
George: There are always lessons to be learned. You live your whole life learning new things. I've learned a lot since 1990. Since the early '90s, I really started developing a relationship and a dialogue with those guys and I guess there are lessons I've learned from them -- though I'm not sure it is appropriate to share. But it's all a part of business. I think there are some things we have taken from Formula 1, some things we have taken from NASCAR, some things we have taken from CART as we were looking to put our series together.
I think Formula 1 has been a challenge to develop in the United States because of the business model. Likewise, you can look at the success of NASCAR in the United States and try to formulate a model for international expansion and it becomes more challenging. I guess with IndyCars, CART always tried to do that and we want to try to find the right balance or the right mix and position our series as an eclectic international series with true international interest. It is an American product that we want to export on a limited basis by doing races outside the country, but we also want to make it something that through other forms of medium, take it to the world. Television obviously plays a big part in that, having the right partners. It helps to have international stars when you are doing that. I think we're just trying to find the right balance.
ESPN.com: The France family kind of created a blueprint where they own Daytona and run NASCAR. As the steward of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, do you feel that it is your right or your responsibility to lead open wheel racing in this country?
George: I have a responsibility being in the position I'm in at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With the position I was offered in 1990 came a great deal of responsibility and opportunity. So I tried to take that seriously and position the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a leader in sports entertainment and do some things beyond opening up the gates one month a year to run a race. I think my grandfather always tried to be a benefactor of racing and he supported it at many levels. I think we have expanded on that legacy and tried to continue to provide some leadership and direction in growing motorsports. You know, motorsports was becoming very popular in the late '80s into the '90s. I guess I just came along at a time when our family was sort of looking to broaden its horizon. With the Formula 1 race and the Brickyard 400, we wanted to expand our base and introduce new fans to our facility, and certainly having those races has accomplished that. We have a very diverse group of fans that come through the gates every year for our three races. At the same time, it has been fun and challenging being a part of those and starting the League.
ESPN.com: You mentioned earlier that building a fan base was the toughest challenge. Has it been harder than you expected in that respect? Has there been more backlash then you expected from what seems to be a very loyal Champ Car fan base?
George: Yes, but I think the IRL has a very solid core group of fans. I think CART or Champ Car had a very solid core group. I think both have a lot of casual viewers that we need to connect with. Before Marlboro was here, reaching out to their consumers and bringing them to our races and introducing them to the experience here, they were doing that at CART races. The challenge when you have a sponsor who helps connect you with their consumers is to convert them into ticket buyers going forward. That's probably a challenge that both CART and IndyCar have had.
It's the vocal minority that have sort of fueled the back and forth verbal barrages over the last nine or 10 years that really turned a lot of people off. It wasn't so much the racing -- it's the territorial nature of fervent fans who follow it. I think both organizations would have been better served by trying to just stick to their business and not try to go tit for tat. The people that work for me have really tried to do that. I can't control the people that support us as racetrack owners or promoters or car owners or drivers, but as far as the League is concerned, we've really tried to worry about our own business. It has created some distractions that haven't allowed us to focus on developing our fan base. If CART or Champ Car was as strong as it believed it was, it wouldn't see the erosion that it has today. There is a lot to be said for maybe trying to have coexisted peacefully instead of allowing so much emotion to enter into it. Again, you can't control all the other people. You can only control things you can control.
ESPN.com: Given that the so-called reunification efforts that took place this summer have ended, are you optimistic that the two series can coexist peacefully?
George: I don't know why not. As it was laid out to me last fall, clearly their vision and their business plan for the future is inconsistent with ours. That's why things didn't lead to a unification. If they are true to their word, they are going about doing things differently than us. So I don't know why we couldn't coexist. I guess we'll just have to wait and see. Their plan or vision for a unified series was different than mine. I think you'll see us focusing more on our business and developing future opportunities that are unique to us. I have encouraged our people to stay away from anything that might look like we're sitting around trying to pick at the bones of the CART carcass. That's people's perception. We don't make phone calls to race promoters trying to steal races. On occasion we take phone calls when they call us. But one thing I am not interested in is being played off CART anymore. That has happened since Day One. I started with Chris Pook when he sat in on the formative meetings of the IRL and I'm just not interested in playing that game anymore.
ESPN.com: Clearly, you have invested a great deal of money in forming and sustaining the League and you have been personally attacked for doing it. Has it been worth it?
George: Yeah. I mean, I haven't missed one of these races because I enjoy coming to them. If I didn't enjoy coming to them and being a part of it, I would miss one every once in a while. But I genuinely enjoy it. It has all been worth it. Maybe it's a good thing that I don't know everything that everyone has said or has thought about me. I know of some of it. I've had personal close contact encounters with angry fans over the course of the years and I have always tried to either try to personally respond, whether in an e-mail or face-to-face response, to an angry fan because I think it's important. If they are sincere, then they deserve a sincere response from me. If they are insincere, I generally don't give them the benefit of a personal response. But I have tried to be accessible and personal in my response to many of the people who have expressed their displeasure with me personally or with the League. On occasion I have just tried to explain things from my point of view. Sometimes they see it and sometimes they don't, but that's okay.
Part of the learning experience for me is having people have a different perspective and sharing it. Not everybody likes NASCAR at the Speedway, not everyone likes Formula 1 at the Speedway and not everyone likes the IRL, but they are entitled to their opinion. On balance, I think that myself and the organization at both the Speedway and the League have been able to add value to the motorsports equation -- more so than detract from it.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.