Twenty years ago this summer the Indy Racing League was announced, and the longest labor dispute in organized sports began.
American open wheel racing was dealt a massive blow when then Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George decided to form his own racing series with the Indy 500 as the lone jewel. Imagine if Bruton Smith decided to split with NASCAR, form his own series and ban NASCAR from all of his eight tracks. That’s what Tony George did to the most successful form of racing in America at the time. No sport could survive that sort of competition. It muddied the waters and drove away casual fans, and the sport hasn’t recovered six years later. Indy 500 ratings were good this year, but still a third of what they were before Tony George found the Indy Racing League.
When I conceived of this article the idea was to find five reasons why you couldn’t blame TG for the split, but I could only come up with one. One reason that I couldn’t bring myself to believe. Founding the IRL did more to shift the landscape of a professional sport than any single decision ever made. I could only come up with one reason justifying his actions; he was acting on what he thought was the best interests of the sport. The only argument that makes any sense is that Tony George saw the sellout crowds at his track, ratings that challenged the Super Bowl and the strongest field of teams and drivers outside of Formula One and thought there was something wrong with it.
The only way you can believe the, “Best Interests” argument is if you honestly believe that Tony George saw that CART was going to implode. I just can’t make myself believe that.
I think I need to say that I don’t think Tony George is a bad guy, I don’t hate him. I don’t think he’s incompetent, or a fool. I think he’s a guy who made a decision, and that decision had lasting repercussions.
Number Five: He failed
Tony George went from controlling the league, the speedway and a team to being almost entirely removed from the sport. Today he keeps a minimal public profile, as a thankfully silent owner in Ed Carpenter Racing and has a seat on Hulman & Company, the parent company of the Speedway and the Verizon IndyCar Series. George spent millions of dollars before being sidelined by his family, if that doesn’t speak volumes to the quality of his leadership skills I don’t know what will. You can absolutely blame the guy who gambled, and failed. Never in the history of sports has one man’s judgment cost so many people so much.
Number Four: He didn’t learn from history
I think most fans and writers don’t get “The Split” it wasn’t a civil war, it was a labor dispute, and those strikes and lockouts provided a realistic portent to Tony George as to what would happen if there was a lockout in racing. You can say that CART was striking against the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or the speedway locked out the teams, but one thing happens in a labor dispute: Both sides fight over a pool of money and at the end they have a much smaller pool of money to fight over. The longer the strike goes the smaller the pool of cash remains at the end. It’s not like there wasn’t a long list of labor disputes to teach Tony George what a horribly bad idea he was embarking on. Major League Baseball had eight labor disputes before 1995, while the NFL, NHL and NBA all had two strikes each. Had he bothered to do some research he could have seen what the result of a prolonged dispute with CART would cost the sport. He either didn’t do the research, didn’t consider he’d lose, or he didn’t care.
Number Three: Roger Penske
Yes, the CART ownership model had its problems, but the two people at the center of the ownership group was Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi. Penske was a CART co-founder and controlled Michigan International Speedway, California International Speedway and Nazerath Motor Speedway. If the nearly 20 years following the split has shown anything it’s that Roger Penske is a better businessman than Tony George. I don’t understand how anyone can make the argument that the sport would be worse off if Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi, Carl Hass, Paul Newman and Michael Andretti had ran it together instead of Tony George trying to go it by himself.
Number two: It was all about money
There was a feeling publicly acknowledged by the team owners that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was trying to extract as much money from the teams as possible throughout the long month of May. CART teams were talking about streamlining the Month of May down to a weekend or two, and George was aware of that.
I can’t count the number of CART owners who have stated on various occasions that they would prefer to emasculate the month of May, and instead re-make the greatest automobile race meeting in the world into a single-weekend event.– Tony George, October 1995
Tony George saw how the possibility of his payday taking a hit, and looked at how the France family uses NASCAR to funnel money to its family owned International Speedway Corporation. According to public documents, NASCAR gives 65 percent of television revenue to the track owners and keeps 10 percent for NASCAR. ISC owns twelve tracks that hosts a combined 20 of the 36 they reap the biggest slice of television deals that combine to $6.8 billion. NASCAR also routinely poaches sponsors from teams, charging a fee to be “The official…” whatever of NASCAR. Tony George and his family saw all the revenue NASCAR generated and wanted to emulate it. It’s no coincidence that the first ever IRL race was held was at Walt Disney World Speedway, which was built by the George family. The George family also bought into the construction of Chicagoland Speedway with IMS.
Number One: No Vision
In the early 90’s George took over the family business and started pushing CART to merge with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. His proposal would cut out most of the team owners and give promoters — mostly George — a bigger say in the affairs of CART. George called CART a “Complete disaster.” It was a “Complete disaster” that lured the reigning World Champion Nigel Mansell in 1993, and launched the career of another, Jacques Vilieneuve. Ratings were strong and attendance was solid, but this to Tony George eyes was a complete failure somehow.
One of the biggest complaints George lodged against is that the team owners had too much say in the direction of the sport, and that they were dysfunctional as a result. The problem with that is do you know of a sport that’s controlled by 32 owners that’s doing rather well right now? The NFL. George’s ideas were turned down by the CART Board, and George decided to go ahead with his idea for an Indy Racing League, an idea that on it’s face was incredibly stupid. It inherent idiocy of the idea was so apparent that Kears Pollock, then vice president of automotive products for CART titloe sponsor PPG explained the future perfectly to New York Times Sports Writer Joesph Siano in 1991, three years before the formation of the IRL was announced.
I guess the best-case scenario is we don’t make things worse than the status quo,” he said. “And the best case, if it doesn’t come about, is we miss an opportunity to get better. “The worst case-scenario for a major sponsor is that I.M.S. feels that it has to go in a completely other direction and is able to pull it off.” In such a scenario — with the Speedway creating its own rules for cars substantially different from those in CART’s series — two totally separate, weaker entities would be created: an Indy 500 unsupported by any national series, and an Indy-car series devoid of the race that literally defines it. And that would so dilute the effect of sponsorship dollars, Pollock said, that it might cause his firm and others to ask whether their money might be spent more effectively in another sport.
Either Tony George didn’t see the future as explained by Pollock, or he didn’t care.
What Tony George saw as “A complete failure,” was, in fact, the universally acknowledged high-water mark of American open wheel racing. If that’s not missing the moment, I don’t know what is.
I can’t and won’t believe that Tony George’s actions were altruistic. Money motivates 99 percent of business and professional sports decisions and the other one percent is lying about it. CART had called George’s bluff, but he spent millions to “win.” At any time over the twelve years of the split he could have called it off. He could have ended “The Split” at any time, but chose to race on, as the pile of money and fans dwindled. Now Indycar is rebuilding itself from the bottom up, and the main reason the sport has to do it is Tony George.