Ingram's Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
Fall of House of Hulman?
The news of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway going the way of the House of Usher may be exaggerated. But in the season of celebrating the 100th year since the gates first opened at America's biggest and best known racing facility, these are trying times.
Like the House of Usher, there's a dark-haired, somewhat anxious inheritor caught in a dilemma over how to best determine the future of the Speedway. Sisters are involved and much like the mood cast in Edgar Allan Poe's perverse story, the situation is murky for those on the outside looking in toward the offices of the proud, gigantic racing plant.
The crack in the foundation at 16th St. and Georgetown Rd. has been the recent drop in ticket sales for the summertime NASCAR race along with yet another tire controversy just three years after the debacle at the 2005 running of the Formula 1 race.
There's a twist to the plot on who may have the upper hand when it comes to the current drama. It was Tony Hulman George who was removed from his job as president of the Speedway by the board composed of his mother, three sisters and a business partner.
It all began to go awry with the re-paving of the track in the spring of 2005, when some bumpy spots were leveled by diamond-grinding. When those patches proved to be a problem for Firestone's tires during IndyCar testing, the entire track was diamond-ground. That saved the Indy 500, but Michelin in the F-1 race weekend and then Goodyear in last year's tire-popping NASCAR event have suffered serious problems on race weekends in light of the peculiar surface.
The teams, drivers and NASCAR did their best to put on a race last year (unlike the F-1 boycott by Michelin teams) and efforts to focus on resolving the problems this year were well publicized. After a slow start to advance sales, a crowd of estimated at 180,000 graced the stands capable of holding close to 300,000.
The problem is, in part, one of coincidence. A slowdown in all NASCAR ticket sales has collided with the recent past negative publicity for the Speedway, which includes the departure of F1 after 2007, 30 percent of the vast grandstands empty this summer and the departure of title sponsor Allstate the day after this year's NASCAR event.
A larger question looms over the situation like the Usher home standing at the edge of a sluggish mill pond. Was George profligate in his use of the income from the NASCAR race to fund the creation of the Indy Racing League and the subsequent dismantling of the rival Champ Car series? The effort to control the destiny of the Indy 500 may have been secured by the demise of Champ Car, but does the current dwindling of the income stream further explain the action of the family-controlled board at Hulman & Co.?
As an aside here, there are those who suggest George spent billions -- with a b -- to establish the IRL at the expense of Champ Car, using the money from the NASCAR race. Usually offered by those disgruntled by the demise of Champ Car, this figure doesn't pass the smell test.
It is commonly understood that money spent on the IRL was made possible by profits generated at the summertime NASCAR race. But even by the most generous estimates of margins on tickets, concessions, TV rights and sponsorship, it's impossible to come up with $1 billion in profit since the first Brickyard 400 in 1994. Besides, the only way to spend that much on a racing series over a little more than a decade would include literally lighting a lot of cigars with $100,000 bills.
But it is accurate to say that hundreds of millions have been spent by George in his tenure as founder of the IRL and president of the Speedway. This includes the upgrade of the Speedway offices, media facilities and suites that befit the stature of the track as well as the re-modeling necessary for the F-1 series and now the MotoGP.
Was all that money spent for naught? Or is this power struggle a matter of restoring the cash flow to the coffers -- and holding accountable whoever is minding the store?
The scenario falls in part under no good deed goes unpunished. Having established the Speedway's control over its own destiny at the Indy 500 through the IRL -- instead of having terms dictated by Champ Car -- George has been asked to step aside. Along the lines of the Usher household, he's being buried alive in faint praise by his mother and sisters.
George's only public statement on the situation has been to say he will submit a new proposal to the board about the structure of operations. But he's already been replaced by some of his former employees at the Speedway and his own right-hand man, Joie Chitwood, will soon be moving on.
Can the Speedway be pulled under by the millstones of a bad economy, NASCAR drivers that can't pass one another due to COT chassis and an IRL that has yet to catch the imagination of the American public despite tons of promotion? Perhaps it will be torn asunder by a poorly functioning family two generations removed from Hulman & Co.'s primogenitor Tony Hulman. Could the future be dependent upon yet another woman -- Danica Patrick?
In Poe's story, the ancient House of Usher literally cracks in half after terrible deeds take place within. It is incomprehensibly dark and stormy when the structure finally crumbles into the adjoining pond. Dark times are indeed upon us when a crowd of 180,000 can be regarded as the beginning of the end.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.