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Parting shots to Tony George don't tell whole story

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The battle over who is to blame for the decline of IndyCar racing is as heated and devoid of true context as any political wingnut debate.
The battle over who is to blame for the decline of IndyCar racing is as heated and devoid of true context as any political wingnut debate.

Let me be clear about one thing from the outset - I do not make it a practice to call out other writers.

But right now I'm going to make an exception, because in the wake of Tony George's resignation from the Hulman-George companies there is a lot of revisionist and sentimental "reconcepting" of history that requires a little balancing out.

Specifically, I am going to take issue with John Oreovicz's recent blog at ESPN.com. I respect John's work - he's an outstanding writer whose strong opinions make him a valuable commentator on the sport. Likewise, it's clear that he loves IndyCar racing, which is a rare commodity in a sports writer in general and a nationally-published one at that.

But his column about Tony George's legacy is a parting shot at the founder of the Indy Racing League that George doesn't deserve. Calling George's resignation a "whimpering, anticlimactic end" to a "traumatic" 20-year tenure as guardian of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Oreovicz places the blame for IndyCar racing's present-day ills squarely at Tony George's feet.

And that's just not the whole story.

I am one of those racing fans who believed - and still do - that the formation of the Indy Racing League was totally unnecessary. I have been an IndyCar fan literally since birth. I was born in Indianapolis over Memorial Day weekend and grew up mere blocks from the Speedway. I have lived and breathed the Indy 500 for my whole life.

So when I started reading about Tony George's belief that there needed to be an Indy Racing League to "preserve" the legacy of the sport and its heritage, I was exceedingly skeptical. I reiterate that I was a fan of the Indy 500 and IndyCar racing, but I had no dog in the fight about USAC and providing opportunity to the nation's "heartland" racers. For me, it seemed pretty obvious that Tony George felt that as the grandson of Anton Hulman, he should be the one in charge of the Indy 500 and IndyCar racing.

The people in charge of CART, the series that raced at Indianapolis from 1979 onward, did not feel that way. They had broken with USAC with the idea that the only people who knew how to run IndyCar racing were the people who owned the teams and paid the drivers. For every drop of hubris attributed to Tony George, the power cabal of CART possessed it in equal - if not greater - amounts. Their pride and ego stemmed from the results of their promotion of IndyCar racing as a series instead of "those guys who race at Indianapolis." In their favor, by 1995 they had successfully piqued America's interest in IndyCar races other than the Indianapolis 500.

These, then, were what the "millions" of IndyCar fans who have allegedly abandoned the series considered "the glory days" of IndyCar racing. As Oreovicz puts it:

Fueled by an enticing combination of veteran American drivers with names like Andretti, Unser and Mears and an incoming wave of international Formula One stars including Emerson Fittipaldi and Nigel Mansell, Indy car combined the best elements of traditional American oval racing and F1 and reached its peak from 1990 to 1995. By every measurable statistic -- little things like sponsorship, attendance and television ratings -- it was a match domestically for NASCAR and starting to worry F1 on the world stage.

Sounds great, right? Except that this summary doesn't mention the enormous controversy over the influx of foreign drivers and their money in those five years - an avalanche that effectively closed the door to American IndyCar hopefuls. Calling IndyCar racing a match for NASCAR is stretching the point quite a bit - while the Indy 500 was the most-watched single race in America, the rest of the PPG IndyCar Series' schedule were far from matching that interest. As far as the worries from F1, that had more to do with CART's interest in racing in F1's overseas markets and Bernie Ecclestone wanting to maintain a monopoly than with the popularity of the IndyCar series or the "defections" of Fittipaldi and Mansell.

In short, it is true that "the glory days" of CART represented a high-water mark for IndyCar racing - whether that momentum was sustainable or not is up for debate. Fans had already begun to rebel against the encroachment of foreign drivers and money into the sport and the swing of pop culture interest towards NASCAR had already begun to tell on the IndyCar series.

George's foundation of the Indy Racing League was certainly a direct blow to CART and its cabal, but the act of starting the series was not the beginning of the end of IndyCar. In fact, it is conceivable - even likely - that had those in charge of CART chosen a different course of action, the IRL would have been stillborn and a settlement negotiated between George and CART to satisfy their mutual differences. Had CART brought their "stars and cars" to IRL races and convincingly pummeled the startup series' teams into submission, they would have been in the driver's seat to dictate terms after that first season.

Unfortunately, the CART owners took George's actions far more personally than they should have. Rallying around the "lockout" of CART from the Indy 500 - based on the 25/8 rule that would have guaranteed 25 of the 33 Indy 500 starting spots to IRL regulars - CART boycotted the Indy 500 and scheduled the US 500 to run on the same day. Such was the collected injured ego that the option of CART teams competing in the IRL races to qualify as "regulars" and thus becoming eligible for the guaranteed spots at Indy did not even occur to them - they had no desire to cede one whit of legitimacy to Tony George or his "band of pretenders." Their thinking went that America cared more about the "stars and cars" that CART could provide than they did about the Indy 500, and that the US 500 would eventually supplant the Indy 500 as America's "Greatest Spectacle" on the strength of CART's (self-)importance.

This, of course, was patently ridiculous. Perhaps pockets of die-hard racing fans might have felt that way, but like the Kentucky Derby is the one horse race that interests virtually every American, the Indy 500 was and is the only IndyCar race that manages to cross most demographical boundaries of national interest. America in general had no reason to care about whether Donnie Beechler or Racin Gardiner were able to move up from USAC to race in the 500, but neither did they care much about Jimmy Vasser or Mauricio Gugelmin or Fredrik Ekblom outside of Indianapolis.

What happened, of course, was that the Indy 500 went off with a bunch of no-name drivers, and the "stars and cars" at Michigan in the US 500 ended up looking like a pack of idiots thanks to a massive accident coming to the green flag. The result? Tony George's IRL looked like it had far more staying power than by rights it should have, and CART came away looking like a bunch of entitled egotists whose talent was apparently overstated.

And it only got uglier from there. The CART series waged a war of attrition with the IRL, but George and his series - even with their motley collection of drivers, NASCAR-sounding engines, and ugly cars - still had the Indianapolis 500 on their side. Indy was the trump card - no amount of marginalizing the 500 by CART could change the fact. That, unfortunately, did not deter CART or their fans from waging a determined public battle to cast the Indy 500 as a non-essential race. This battle continued on even after CART teams began "defecting" back to Indy starting in 2000 and did not cease until Champ Car came to its own "whimpering, anticlimactic end" with the 2007 unification.

Tony George made a lot of mistakes at the head of IndyCar racing. Desperate for allies early in the battle with CART, he foolishly aligned himself with the France family and Bruton Smith's NASCAR-friendly Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Consequently, many of his early decisions played right into NASCAR's hands - NASCAR's star continued to rise, while the IRL increasingly began looking like the Frances' red-headed stepchild. By the time George belatedly changed course and opened the door for CART teams to defect to the IRL, the damage had already been done.

Still, those that sit back and chortle about how pathetic the IndyCar series is today because of Tony George cannot have it both ways. While there aren't the multiple sponsors and manufacturers that CART enjoyed in its heyday, the character of today's IndyCar series is quite similar to that series of yore in its makeup. Cries of mismanagement ring hollow when you consider that the same people who are power brokers in the sport now - the Penskes, the Ganassis, the Andrettis - were also the "big wheels" in CART.

When all is said and done, many people would love to put all of the blame and criticism onto Tony George's shoulders for the state of IndyCar racing today. Having a lightning rod of hate certainly helps to focus that hate and keep it from leaching out onto other people who may be just as deserving. But it's no solution that will help either erase what has happened in the past two decades or make the next two any more promising.

Oreovicz ended his column with this frankly astonishing demand for an apology from Tony George:

I strongly believe that Indy-car racing's former fans -- and there are millions of them -- aren't going to embrace the IRL until the man who created it accepts some responsibility for the detrimental actions he forced upon the sport they love.

What Oreovicz fails to admit is that the previous mantra stated that the "millions" of former fans wouldn't embrace the IRL until George resigned. Now the bar apparently has been moved to include "accountability." That is a bunch of hooey. If Tony George were to issue a McGwire-like statement, these selfsame former fans would simply take the opportunity to vent more criticisms on his head (who knows where they would set the bar next - although in the past certain folks already brought up the "attractiveness" of a plane crash) and then simply keep on hating on the IRL like they have been for fifteen years.

More worrisome, the other parties who deserve just as much schadenfreude as Tony George ever did seem to be getting off scot free - at least from criticisms from pundits. But perhaps their karmic retribution is that they reaped the bounty from their elitism and egos. Either they went down with their ship as part of CART or Champ Car, or they are now stuck on the same leaky raft with the rest of IndyCar.

The moral of this story is that the formation of the Indy Racing League was a flashpoint that ignited inflammables that were already ready to combust. Tony George may have lit the match, but plenty of people kept the fire stoked over the past fifteen years.

Laying the blame solely at George's feet is cold comfort at best - a band-aid over a wound that requires far better care.