Smith: Making Sense Of Monday’s Announcement For IMS/IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS – I’ll have to admit, Monday’s announcement regarding the sell of everything that the Hulman George family owned to Roger Penske threw me off guard. I didn’t expect anything of that magnitude to come down any time soon. I know me, nor anyone else in the media got a sniff that this was coming. It was earth shattering to say the least.

For years, IMS has always said that they’re not for sale. I believed them. After all, Tony Hulman purchased this place in 1945 and it’s been in the Hulman George family ever since.

With the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 on the rise, why sell? Was there something I was missing?

Following Monday’s press conference, I spoke to Tony George regarding that and I feel like my instincts were right. Those instincts?

I felt like while someone wants IndyCar/IMS, might as well get out while you can.

That was partially right. The other part was, when Mary Hulman George passed away last November, it sparked a sense of urgency with the family to figure out their future plans were going to be. Do they want to keep what their family started? If so, who wanted to run it? If this generation ran it, would the next be interested? There were a lot of questions that became clearer – sell it all.

First came the selling of Clabber Girl in April. That got the family thinking, do we unload everything else? It led them down a road to where we sit today. Now was the time. So, why not control who they sell to while they can?

For years, IndyCar/IMS were mismanaged. This can keep them in the right path. It’s no big secret though. The two (IndyCar/IMS) couldn’t get out of their own ways. They operated in the red year after year. Then, in the offseason between 2011 and 2012, they hired Mark Miles to lead the charge. His goal was to get IndyCar relevant again and to get the two sides back in the black.

It worked.

2012 was bigger than 2011. 2013 was bigger than 2012. Meanwhile, Doug Boles became the President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and turned the place around too. The 2014 race was huge. So was 2015. The 100th Running in 2016 was the biggest crowd that the track has seen in decades. 2017 was bigger than 2015. 2018 was bigger than 2017. 2019 was bigger than 2018.

IMS/IndyCar are trending up. They’ve seen a consistent rise in attendance, ratings, social media, etc. since 2012. They now have the leadership in place to steer this ship down the right path. They’ve earned respect in the paddock, in the grandstands and most of all, in the media.

So, why sell then? Why get out? The reasoning now made sense. But, why sell to an owner at that? Wouldn’t this be 1995 all over again?

I’m not as fearful as the first announcement, but still have some reserve of backlash in the paddock. Right now, the other owners are saying the right thing. But, what happens if something sways towards one of Penske’s teams in the future?

Remember prior to the split in 1995 when Tony George was fearful of the CART owners gaining too much control? It was a fierce battle of George vs. the powerful owners of CART. In the end, a split happened. George went his way with a new league (IRL) and the Indy 500 and the big CART owners went their way.

The CART juggernaut was gone. At that point, open wheel racing was the biggest form of motorsports here in the United States. NASCAR wasn’t on their rise yet. This split put open wheel racing out of its misery.

From 1995 on, major open wheel racing was in peril. They’d spend years trying to get out of that mess and even after a reunification in 2008, they still struggled. That’s why this rise is so crucial. Both are on solid footing for the first time since arguably before the split.

IndyCar is one of the few sports in the world that was on the rise. In a day and age where attendance and ratings are dropping, IndyCar’s keeps rising. In came a new entitlement sponsor. In came a new TV deal. In came a new car, a new engine package, a new direction for the future.

Now, a team owner has gained control of IMS and the series as a whole. What do the other teams think? What would NFL fans think if Robert Kraft owned the NFL? Isn’t that a conflict of interest?

Yes, Tony George ran the league as well as Vision Racing in the 2000s, but lets be real, Vision Racing isn’t what Team Penske is today.

Penske, has been whopping the field in Indy Car for years. Now, he owns the league outright. How will this be received in the paddock?

So far, it’s all positive. But, will it remain that way?

The big reason to why this whole thing has grown was a sense of direction again. Prior to 2012, the owners were a big reason to why IndyCar was failing. Nothing could appease them. One change would keep one side of the paddock happy but the other side not. Get on the bad side and they’d threaten a revolt. Appease the entire paddock and the fan base wasn’t happy. Being in leadership in IndyCar was a death wish.

Under Miles and Boles’ watches, they found a way to get the series on solid ground and to align everyone. The constant bitching and complaining were gone. They brought in Jay Frye to run the paddock and his vision and respect from all sides helped IndyCar rise.

Now, how will it look when a team, one that has won three of the last four championships, is running the league in general? Won’t the other teams question every move that is made? Won’t this go back to what it used to be?

If everyone aligns, then this could be the best move and direction for IndyCar. Penske can keep this thing going. But, will the teams let him?

I think Penske can take Indianapolis to brighter depths that we haven’t seen before. He lives for this place. He and Boles can be a combination to lay the foundation to make Indy remain the greatest race course in the world for the next Century.

But, it’s the IndyCar side that I’m worried about. Can Penske separate the two and keep everyone happy?

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