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"When Tony George assumed control of the Speedway, he had one job: not to fuck up the Indy 500. He wasn't tasked to bring in F1 or NASCAR, or to create an inferior racing series. He was entrusted with the stewardship of what used to be America's greatest race. Never has a man failed so miserably at his job."

What I Hate The Most About Tony George

It’s pretty much a no brainer as to whether or not CART’s many fans dislike, hate, disrespect, loathe, or get annoyed with Tony George. We do, we do, we do. If you read what’s out there on the subject of open wheel racing in North America, you will end up agreeing that George is largely responsible for destroying the vitality of the sport that so many of us know and love. What no one is talking about is why we hate Tony George so much, and where we can go from here? That’s what this article is all about.

Most of us CART fans grew up in the middle of the economic pecking order. A few of us may have been poor at one time or another. A few of us may have been highly privileged. But, most of us had enough to get by without having to worry about the problems of excess. And, all of us knew at least one person we positively loathed: The Rich Guy. He was the guy who got the car, the job, the office, the “whatever” that we wanted. He got this stuff not because he was talented, good looking, or capable. No, we were pushed aside for the sake of the almighty checkbook. Understandably, this made us angry. Maybe we were angry with The Rich Guy (TRG) personally, but mostly, it’s just that it wasn’t right that we were pushed aside, so he could have whatever he wanted.

This feeling is at the heart of the issue with Tony George and racing fans that is playing itself out right now as Indy has a field filled courtesy of TRG’s checkbook and another series’ drivers and manufacturers. The North American race fan is once again being pushed aside by The Rich Guy, so he can have whatever he wants. Race fans don’t like this, and we are showing our displeasure with our checkbooks.

Some may have been deceived by George’s claim in 1996 that the Indy Racing League was being set up so that American drivers could have an affordable alternative to CART. Anyone observing this year’s IRL will immediately understand the irony that the League stands for none of these things today. The sad truth is that neither CART nor the IRL is welcoming new American drivers for reasons I will go into later. Instead, it has become patently obvious that the IRL exists for one reason, and one reason only, and that is so that Tony George, The Rich Guy, can get whatever he wants. Not that we would, per se, mind if he gets what he wants. It’s the fact that he gets whatever he wants at our expense that makes our blood boil.

Paul Tracy being robbed of his rightful victory in the 2002 Indianapolis 500 is more evidence that the IRL is really all about Tony George getting his own way. There is just enough structure to the IRL so that Paul Tracy could appeal the decision to initially give the win to Helio Castroneves. However, the appeal was basically meaningless because it ultimately went to one Tony George, who wanted an IRL team to win. Of course, this is all about TRG getting what he wants, and if this tarnished the Indianapolis 500, why should he care? And, to add insult to injury, Tracy’s team owner, Barry Green, really showed the IRL how steamed he was, didn’t he? Would someone please put out an APB for Mr. Green’s family jewels?

I love the quote that is at the beginning of this piece, because, like most fans, I see TRG’s role to be that of a steward for the “greatest spectacle in racing.” No one can truly own Indy. It’s a place where the great racers have passed through: the Unsers, the Andrettis, the Formula One drivers like Graham Hill and Jimmy Clark, Johnny Rutherford, and even A. J. Foyt. It’s the place where we heard about turbocharged engines and something called an Offenhauser. IMS was at one time the Mecca of open wheel racing, and if it is no longer that today, a good part of the blame must be placed at the door of The Rich Guy, the guy who has to have his own way, or else.

Let’s begin with the original premise of the IRL, which was that only boys who played in his yard by his rules were allowed to compete at Indy – the old “guaranteed spot at the 500” carrot that was dangled before prospective owners. Most CART owners took a pass on this, and the decline of the “greatest spectacle in racing” began. It was no longer about the 33 fastest cars getting into the show, it was whether or not you had agreed that Tony got his own way, or else. Indy as a symbol of the ultimate in speed and the ultimate in competition was sacrificed to one man’s overblown ego.

The level of competition that resulted from this overdose of testosterone was so completely mediocre that even TRG was ultimately forced to abandon it. Not that he wanted to, and not that he would, God forbid, admit he made a mistake. Poor attendance at nearly all the IRL races except the Indy 500 caused him to re-think his strategy. So, instead of concentrating on building his own series, Tony George decided that the best way to correct his mistakes with the IRL was to steal someone else’s open wheel racing series.

It was a strategy that took several years to execute, but ultimately, he sold an entirely different bill of goods to engine manufacturers Honda and Toyota. This time, Tony George decided to capitalize on CART’s mistakes and successfully convinced the dynamic duo that CART’s leadership was flawed and that the IRL had the best marketing opportunities. That Tony George is some salesman, because they bought it lock, stock, and barrel. The defection of two of the three engine manufacturers could have sealed the end of CART, and that was certainly his intent, as evidenced by his famous “taking my hammer to work everyday” quote. Yet, it did not.

There are those pundits who credit Chris Pook as the savior of CART and without doubt, Pook was instrumental in righting the ship and charting a new course for the troubled series. But, I respectfully disagree that Pook is the savior of CART. The fan – the disregarded, shoved aside, TRG hating racing fan is the true hero of this particular sports drama. We have overwhelmingly voted not only with our checkbooks, but also by virtue of showing up or not showing up to races as our preference dictate. And, we prefer actual racing, and not manufactured racing, as Tony George’s misguided attempt to cast his series as the open wheel version of NASCAR appears to be.

But, attendance at races does not necessarily change overnight. Corporations buy tickets for their customers, often making these decisions many months out, and so it took a few years for these customers to start letting their hosts know that Indy 500 tickets were no longer the incredible treat that they used to be. So, TRG has ultimately failed in his job. Yes, he got his own way. But, he failed utterly in his primary mission: to not fuck up the Indy 500. What is his legacy today?

His league is chock full of the foreigners he pledged to keep out. The competing engine manufacturers he stole from CART are starting to call the shots in the IRL as they came to do so in CART. I’ll give you a hint, Tony: even if you continue to kowtow to Toyota and Honda, it’s no guarantee they will stay with you. In fact, look over at NASCAR, and you’ll find Toyota trying to get into that series. And wherever Toyota goes, you can be sure Honda will shortly follow. Trust me on this one, folks. Other than making the Indy 500 less than it used to be, perhaps George’s biggest, fattest, most spectacular error was in misidentifying who the enemy was.

It was a natural enough mistake for a young man to make. For a rich, spoiled, indulged young man, maybe it was inevitable. While NASCAR was grabbing market share and, most tellingly, the best racing talent in the United States of America, Tony George was busy being insulted by the team owners who ruled CART. Well, he really showed them. He started his own series. And, he was a good enough salesman to make many of them abandon the series that made them. So, where do we go from here?

Until open wheel racing can heal its own wounds, if it can even begin to do this, Tony George needs to understand who his competition is—NASCAR. Not CART, not Formula One, not football. NASCAR, my open wheel friends, is our enemy. Our best young open wheel drivers are going into NASCAR. And that’s a big problem. Without young driving talent, our sport will die a slow painful death. And, that’s what makes me hate Tony George more than anything does. Solutions? It’ll take another article or two to address that one.

Until next time…

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