May 26, 2002 | 12:00 A.M. EST
While there might not be someone waving a checkered flag at George, the signs of his victories pop up every day. Sometimes two or four times a day, like on Saturday. Pennzoil announced it was going to stay in IRL as a sponsor, while MK Racing said it was going to become the third company to manufacturer chassis for the circuit. In addition, the IRL revealed the purse structure for its development series, Infiniti Pro Series, and ABC announced it had sold out of commercials for the Indy 500 broadcast.
The hits just keep coming. Earlier in the week, Honda announced it was joining the IRL in 2003 and that the circuit would be racing on the Twin Ring Motegi oval in Japan.
Of course, George isn’t going to let us miss the signs because his crack team of public relationships experts will rev up their engines and go to work. And that’s all the more reason that his competitors should fear him. I’m not just talking CART, but perhaps NASCAR, too.
Things were different in the early 1990s.
Back then, George was swimming up stream. The president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which is owned by his family, didn’t seem to have many friends in the sport. He was bucking the trend, making enemies along the way. The racing public was about to follow suit by turning on George. Nasty rumors about his personal life circulated faster than the cars around the 2.5-mile oval.
A decade ago, CART held a day-long meeting in Houston, where the season-ending banquet was being held. George made a proposal to CART that the circuit basically turn itself into the Indy Racing League. He didn’t use those words, but he did bring logos and mock designs to incorporate “Indy” into the name of the series.
CART even tried to appease George after the meeting, but it wasn’t enough.
Most of us, however, didn’t really think that George had gone over to the dark side completely until he formed the IRL in 1996. Fans quickly chose sides, with most believing that George was making an egotistical power play. A few believed that he was saving a sport that CART was busying trying to destroy.
What’s happened since that meeting in Houston? George has made a serious of stunning moves, almost all of them the good ones. He looks like a genius with a golden touch.
First, George hooked up with NASCAR. Great move, not only did it produce one of the top five races in the world in the Brickyard 400, but it allowed George to establish a business relationship with not only NASCAR but Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc.
Those connections -- and the money George made off the first stock car races at the historic Indy track -- helped make the IRL. George said he started the IRL with three goals in mind: lower costs, emphasize oval-track racing and give more American drivers a chance. He’s done those things for the most part.
At the same time, he’s brought back Formula One after the world’s most popular international circuit had struggled and disappeared from the USA. His U.S. Grand Prix, though not as successful as the Indy 500 or the Brickyard 400, has still added one more jewel to George’s crown.
The CART-IRL rivalry still has many more miles to go, but George likes the way the race is developing. He’s hinted that the IRL might run some road courses and knows that CART just doesn’t have the financial horsepower that he does. While CART is a publicly traded company and must listen to its stockholders, George doesn’t answer to anybody. The IRL could even lose money, running in the red for as long as George is willing to fund it.
This year’s Indy 500 is great example of how things are going for George. CART rearranged its schedule and rules so that its teams could compete. Not only did big CART names such as Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy and Bobby Rahal make their way to Indy, but Robby Gordon came all the way from NASCAR. Winston Cup regulars John Andretti and Tony Stewart were bummed that they missed the party. The Indianapolis 500, which weakened when George made it the cornerstone of his IRL, is regaining its status as the greatest spectacle in racing.
Let’s review George’s accomplishments over the past decades. He debuted the popular stock cars of NASCAR to the hollowed bricks of IMS – a match made in racing heaven -- then brought Formula One back to the United States. In between, he started a successful major racing series, something that hasn’t been done in decades.
That deserves a least a glass of milk.