Full speed ahead Featured

1:30pm EDT April 27, 2004
You could say that racing is in Anton "Tony" George's blood. George is the third generation of the Hulman family to head the Indianapolis Motor Speedway; in 1945, his grandfather, Anton Hulman, purchased it from World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, who later ran Eastern Airlines.

Today, George is gearing up for the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," the Indianapolis 500, which will run its 88th race on May 30 and feature the top drivers in the sport.

His interest in and work at the Speedway started early, as he worked there summers through school. And over the years, George, the Speedway's president and CEO, learned as much about the business of racing cars and managing a speedway as he could.

"I shadowed the superintendent and interfaced with the previous president, right up until his death," he says. "And worked my way up."

That's not to say it was easy for George to take over the top spot when he was appointed president in 1989, as though it were a rite of passage.

"I had to come to grips with what was expected of me," he says, "balancing stewardship of the (Indianapolis) 500 and leadership in motor sports in general."

And, George says, he became the leader of an organization in which most of the employees were long-time Speedway veterans.

"It took awhile for me to become comfortable in my new role," he says.

But George displays more than comfort these days. The Speedway has experienced substantial growth under his leadership; the track went from holding one event each year -- the Indianapolis 500 -- to three, adding the United States Grand Prix (June 20) and the Brickyard 400 (Aug. 8). With the added events, the size of George's staff has increased as well.

"We've had huge staffing changes since 1994," he says. "We went from 75 employees to 400."

And the slow economy hasn't rained on George's parade.

"Hospitality and entertainment expenses are usually the easiest to cut when companies are asked to improve the bottom line," he says. "And we've felt some of that pain."

But, George maintains, the Speedway's growth is a testimony to its sound financial picture.

"We have been able to fund our growth internally," he says. "We have a little debt from time to time. We take on some pretty big projects and can be taxed at times, but we've managed to do OK."

A league of its own

George, who also enjoyed a four-year racing career, has always had the racing teams' interests at heart.

"I had a few successes," George says of his time behind the wheel.

He won a Rising Star award and set a track record in the Formula Ford class in Ohio.

"I broke Michael Andretti's record, but I had no choice," he says. "My brakes went out and I couldn't slow down."

That first-hand experience provided him with an in-depth understanding of the sport and a genuine love of it. It also established a desire to meet the needs of drivers and promoters while offering fans a meaningful, worthwhile and entertaining experience.

"For the first four years I was president, I spent a lot of time listening to everyone and trying to establish better communication between the Speedway and the CART (Champ Car racing league) league," George says.

During this time, the sponsors and drivers encouraged George to assume more of a leadership role in communication efforts, which he attempted to do during one CART winter meeting.

"Mario Andretti, some other car owners and I came up with a new structure that would have more Speedway and owner representation," George says. "We were flatly rejected."

Instead, he was invited to take part in CART board meetings. But he says there was general consternation about CART's stability during the early '90s.

"They went from a big board to a small board to a big one again," he says. "And there was turnover at the top."

George believed CART didn't support oval racing as strongly as it did road racing. So in 1994, he established the Indy Racing League. Unfortunately, he didn't receive the support he had anticipated.

"I was unpleasantly surprised," George says. "We didn't get a lot of support from the CART teams. It was difficult to get equipment. We froze the rules for the first year and struggled to put enough teams on the track for the first race."

But since then, the IRL has grown steadily. Attendance is increasing, and the league is gaining more sponsors.

"We've showed that we are responsive," George says. "(And that) we have the best interests of the sport at heart. We've shown promoters that we can give them the opportunity to profit, and the fans profit, too. It's a good environment to do business and be successful."

George says the league is working with television networks ABC and ESPN to see how they can improve television coverage, and it is also planning to run road races in the near future. Still, he says the league's bumpy start has put it behind schedule.

"I wish we could've hit where we are now two or three years ago," he says. "But I am happy with where things are now."

A balancing act

As if heading the Speedway and IRL don't provide enough responsibilities to juggle, there is a third George must handle -- he's president of Hulman & Co. Hulman, a baking powder company which produces Clabber Girl brand baking powder founded in 1848, is one of the oldest companies in Indiana.

To keep his attention from becoming too fractured, George relies on key company executives to keep things at Hulman & Co. running smoothly.

"I have senior executives at all the business units responsible for the day-to-day profit objectives," he says. "I have some really great people, and they also have great people that report to them. I spend my time on big picture things and rely on them for operations."

George says it is easier to lead the Speedway and Hulman & Co. than the IRL because both are established brand names.

"Both Clabber Girl and the Indianapolis 500 are industry leaders," he says. "I have just been extending the legacy."

To that end, the Speedway isn't the only organization under George's leadership that has expanded -- in recent years, Hulman & Co. has introduced new products and is targeting nontraditional markets as a way to continue its growth.

"We've gotten into not-for-profit fund-raising products and have introduced Clabber Girl corn starch," says George. And the company has also worked to get Clabber Girl baking powder into boxed mixes.

Hulman & Co. has expanded without a significant increase in payroll costs, a testament to George's balance sheet management skills.

"We've been able to expand Hulman with adding very few employees," he says, "and without needing to expand shifts at all."

Because George juggles so many responsibilities, he is sensitive to his employees who do the same.

"A lot of people have given up personal vacation time to travel to other venues for their jobs," he says. "And there are fewer commercial flights available. So to make it easier for all those part-time or volunteer people, we now charter private aircraft so they spend less time on the road and away from their families."

But despite his juggling act, George is happy with the direction he is traveling.

"I made many people uncomfortable, but sometimes you have to, to make progress," he says. "Clearly, I've been one that believes that change is necessary whether others like it or not. Our future is bright."

How to reach: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, (317) 492-6700 or www.brickyard.com