Commentary

George falls off IndyCar radar

Updated: January 28, 2010, 7:04 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Tony George is out. Completely out. The man who forever transformed Indy car racing, good or bad, is out of the sport.

In less than seven months, George went from the most powerful man in American open-wheel racing to just another guy on the street.

Racing royalty to serfdom in the blink of an eye.

[+] EnlargeTony George
AP Photo/Russ HamiltonPanther Racing co-owner John Barnes on Tony George, above: "Everyone who races in this league owes Tony a lot. I know I do. I owe him everything I've got."

Vision Racing, George's IndyCar Series team, shut its doors Thursday, suspending operations due to a lack of sponsorship.

The team was all he had left.

Some Indy car fans, still angry over the long open-wheel feud between two separate leagues, will gloat today at George's downfall, believing he got what was coming to him.

John Barnes, co-owner of the Panther Racing IndyCar team, is not among them.

"Anyone who feels that way, I feel sorry for them," Barnes said Thursday. "I think Tony is a true visionary with the things he's done at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Without him, that place would be a shopping center by now."

Not everyone agrees, including Indy car legend Mario Andretti.

"Tony's legacy is not a very good one from my standpoint," Andretti said Thursday. "His grandfather, Tony Hulman, did more for open-wheel racing than any other individual. Tony George did more to destroy it than any other individual.

"That's the only way you can put it. It is diminished today because he started the IRL."

Just last week, George resigned his position on the board of directors that oversees IMS and the family business, Hulman & Co.

But his power was lost last June when the board ousted him as CEO of the speedway in an ugly family feud that pitted George and his mother, Mary Hulman, against his sisters.

George resigned from his position as president of the Indy Racing League, which he founded in 1994.

The irony of all this is George finally got what he wanted two years ago when the IRL merged with Champ Car, what little was left of it, anyway.

But it was too late. Too late to bring Indy car racing back to its past glory and too late to save George from his family's wrath. His days of spending the family fortune were over.

Some reports estimate George spent more than $500 million to keep the IRL going through the split, but some of that money was spent on dramatic improvements at IMS to bring Formula One to the Brickyard. F1 left after the 2007 race at Indy.

George also was instrumental in bringing NASCAR to IMS, a huge success for the speedway and NASCAR. But Barnes sees a far more important contribution that George helped facilitate.

"Every driver who races today at a superspeedway should say a prayer for [George]," Barnes said. "He saved their lives with the SAFER wall and all the safety advancements of the last 10 years, and he spent a lot of his own money to do it.

"No one talks about that. I've been in racing for 42 years. No one before him ever came close to making the difference he has made."

Maybe over time, more people will recognize George for those accomplishments. But the sad truth remains that many people view him as the man who ruined Indy car racing by feuding with CART (the original name of Champ Car) and causing a split of two competing leagues that lasted 13 years.

Tony's legacy is not a very good one from my standpoint. His grandfather, Tony Hulman, did more for open-wheel racing than any other individual. Tony George did more to destroy it than any other individual.

-- Mario Andretti

There was plenty of blame to go around for open-wheel's war, including CART team owners who steadfastly refused to make needed changes.

So George took a bold step in forming a new league. The stated goals were more oval-track racing, more American drivers and reduced costs to the competitors.

But both leagues struggled while competing for the same fan base. And George continued to spend piles of money over the years to help fund the league and crush Champ Car.

It's a war he eventually won when the leagues merged before the 2008 season. However, winning didn't mean much by then, and his siblings fought to take control of the speedway and the league.

But George still had his team, until Thursday. Vision Racing was his pride and joy, with his stepson, Ed Carpenter, as the driver.

"I feel bad for Tony and bad for Ed," said Indy car legend A.J. Foyt, an IRL team owner. "Ed was really coming on last year to contend for winning races."

Foyt, the first man to win the Indy 500 four times, has been loyal to George from the beginning. Foyt was George's anchor when most of the major team owners stayed with CART.

"I feel awful about this," Foyt said Thursday. "I've been a friend of the entire [Hulman/George] family for a long time, but I always stayed out of their business because I want to remain friends with all of them.

"Tony's idea for the league was a good one. He did a lot of really good things, but at the end, I think he was getting some bad advice on how to run things."

Another irony is how today's IndyCar Series is strikingly similar to the CART series of the 1990s. IndyCar today races on a variety of tracks -- ovals, road courses and street events -- it races internationally (at Brazil and Japan) and it has fewer American drivers than foreign competitors.

Despite the turmoil of the moment -- George's team shutting down and the IMS board looking for a new IRL president -- Andretti believes the future is bright. That's important to Andretti, who says he "still has skin in the game" with son Michael (a team owner) and grandson Marco (a driver).

"The series is stable," Andretti said. "There are a lot of positive things to look forward to. It's much brighter today than it was two years ago when we still had two series. What happened, happened. Now it's time to move on."

Even after all these years, fans of the sport and people involved in open-wheel racing draw a line in the sand when it comes to George.

Andretti sees him as the villain. Barnes sees him as a hero.

"Everyone who races in this league owes Tony a lot," Barnes said. "I know I do. I owe him everything I've got."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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