At the Indy 500, Hulman-George family quietly fades from public view

Bruce Martin
NBC Sports

It has been seven weeks since the transfer of ownership of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was completed on Jan. 6.

During that brief time, new owner Roger Penske has made an immediate impact. He has transformed the direction of the NTT IndyCar Series and announced grand plans to turn the venerable motorsports shrine into a modern-day entertainment palace.

Under Penske’s direction, the newly formed Penske Entertainment is moving full speed ahead into the future with oversight and ownership of IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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Meanwhile, many Hulman-George family members quietly have moved on and faded from public view — but secure in the knowledge that the public trust they guided for nearly three quarters of a century still remains in very good hands.

“I don’t think anyone had a better feeling or better idea of who could be a better successor to the Hulman-George family than Roger Penske,” Ed Carpenter, a Hulman-George family member and shareholder in Hulman & Company, told NBCSports.com recently. “He gets it. He is going to do a great job. His business enterprise is so huge. It makes us all excited to see what he is going to do what is there already.

“It’s different for everybody in the family. It has been an emotional process and transition. I think one thing everyone can agree on is it’s going to be exciting to see the next 100 years.”

For more than 74 years, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500 were run under their stewardship. It began with Tony Hulman of Terre Haute, Indiana, buying the decaying facility from previous owner Eddie Rickenbacker on Nov. 14, 1945 for $750,000.

In announcing the sale of IMS and IndyCar last November, former track chairman Tony George said the family had taken IndyCar and the speedway as far as it could. It was time for a new leader in Penske, who is the most successful team owner in auto racing history with a record 18 Indianapolis 500 victories and 16 IndyCar series championships.

Carpenter continues in the NTT IndyCar Series as an owner-driver. His mother, Laura, has been married to Tony George since he was a youngster. Carpenter knew about the sale before any other drivers in the series and also was aware of other bidders.

“My reaction was much different when Roger became part of the conversation instead of some of the other conversations that were had,” Carpenter said. “It made me feel a whole lot better.”

Carpenter believes his family will be just fine away from the public spotlight.

“The bad times are a decade old,” Carpenter said. “They weathered the storm a long time ago. They have been focusing on other things and other businesses and traveling and family.”

Penske continues to keep Tony George in the loop when it comes to changes he is making to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Some may view it as a professional courtesy, but Penske understands and respects what the Hulman-George family has meant for the sport. Penske even has talked about naming George to the new company’s board of directors.

George is the sole North American distributor of SONAX, a line of automotive refinishing products and polishes. He also is involved with Ed Carpenter Racing. George’s sisters, nephews and nieces all have moved on since the sale was completed.

“As far as Tony goes, I haven’t noticed a huge change because he is who he is,” Carpenter said. “I think he is at peace with everything. As his son, I haven’t noticed a huge difference. He is more relaxed now.”

George can breathe easier because it’s a happy ending for the crown jewel of a family business that began a century ago.

The Hulman fortune came from a variety of businesses, including Clabber Girl Baking Powder. Financially, Hulman turned that $750,000 purchase price into an immediate profit when he sold the concession rights to Sports Service for $1 million over 10 years.

The Indianapolis 500 had been halted from 1942-45 because of World War II. Hulman revived the Memorial Day weekend classic in 1946 and during his helm, built it into the largest single-day sporting event in the world with crowds in excess of 300,000 spectators.

The Indianapolis 500 also put the city on the map. Today, Indianapolis is a professional sports city with the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, the NBA’s Indiana Pacers and the WNBA’s Indiana Fever. It’s likely none of that would have been possible if the sporting spotlight did not shine on the capital city of Indiana every Memorial Day weekend, bringing the world to the “Crossroads of America.”

Hulman died Oct. 27, 1977 at the age of 76. His widow, Mary Fendrich Hulman was in charge of the family business with the Speedway capably run by the likes of John Cooper and Joe Cloutier. As Mrs. Hulman aged, the couple’s only child, Mari, took over as the family matriarch.

Previously married to the late Elmer George, a race driver, Mari Hulman George had three daughters and a son, Tony. He eventually would become president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1989 after Cloutier died.

It was under Tony George’s leadership that Indianapolis Motor Speedway entered an aggressive period of change. He brought NASCAR to the “hallowed grounds” for a tire test in 1992, breaking with tradition of Indy cars only at IMS. That led to the inaugural Brickyard 400 on Aug. 6, 1994.

It was probably the most anticipated race in auto racing history at that time because of what it meant. The Indianapolis 500 had been run since 1911 and from that date forward, with the exception of World War I and World War II, it was the home of Indy car racing. The first Brickyard 400 helped serve as a launching pad to NASCAR’s incredible growth from the mid-1990s through the next 15 years before it began to fade.

George also took the huge gamble and risk of breaking away from the team owner-driven Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit and creating the Indy Racing League. He announced the new series in 1994, and it began competition in 1996.

CART teams viewed it as a hostile takeover and boycotted the Indianapolis 500 beginning in 1996. The top teams stayed unified in that boycott until team owner Chip Ganassi entered two cars in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 with then-defending CART champion Juan Montoya and Jimmy Vasser as the drivers.

The race was no contest. Montoya whipped the field, leading 167 of the 200 laps and became the first rookie since Graham Hill in 1966 to win the Indy 500. Team Penske joined Ganassi in 2001 and another rookie, Helio Castroneves, won for Penske.

That created a shift that ultimately spelled doom for CART and its successor, Champ Car. With the big teams returning to the Indy 500 and joining the Indy Racing League, it was only a matter of time before one series would survive and the other would become extinct.

George negotiated a unification plan with Champ Car Series boss Kevin Kalkhoven in early 2008, bringing Champ Car’s teams to the IRL. George would provide them with free cars and equipment to help in the transition.

Beginning in 2008, IndyCar racing was whole, again.

One year later, George’s sisters who were also owners of IMS and IndyCar believed the family fortune had been spent. They ousted Tony from his position in a board meeting two days after Castroneves won his third Indy 500 in 2009. George left the company completely but would return a few years later.

IndyCar continued with some fantastic racing during the ensuing years, but it relatively went unnoticed by the rest of the sporting world. Randy Bernard tried to bring some attention to the series as its new promoter, but many of his ideas missed the mark completely, and his management style led to his ouster in October 2012.

Mark Miles was tapped with the duty to bring IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway back to relevance. He promoted Doug Boles to president of IMS and hired Jay Frye as chief marketing officer and promoting him to IndyCar president in 2015.

They began the long climb back to prominence. Tony George returned as IMS chairman of the board as Mari Hulman George entered the final years of her life.

She died on Nov. 3, 2018.

On Nov. 4, 2019, the Hulman-George family announced the sale of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IMS Productions to Roger Penske.

It was just one year and one day since Mari Hulman George had died.

Carpenter is no longer a shareholder, but as a competitor, he remains a stakeholder in IndyCar’s growth.

“For me, racing there with the change of ownership, it doesn’t feel any different,” Carpenter said. “I get asked, ‘What would it mean to win the Indy 500 with your family owning the place?’ It doesn’t mean any more to me than anyone else.

“We all want to be IndyCar drivers because of the Indianapolis 500. My connection to the track has always been as a competitor. When we all go there, we all feel like we are part of it, and we all own part of it.

“That remains unchanged.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

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