Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

Tony George, the IMS, and the New Midwest

This past Memorial Day Weekend the Indianapolis 500 was run as normal, with a storybook ending as Helio Castroneves, fresh on the heels of his acquittal for tax evasion, took the checkered flag. 2009 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (the 500 Mile Race dates to 1911). This is definitely a year at the track with historical significance.

Shortly after the race, Speed TV reported that the IMS board, made up of members of the Hulman-George family, had ousted long time CEO Tony George. This caused me to return again to thoughts of the Speedway and what it teaches us about the future of the Midwest.

Think about some of the traits that are thought to hold back the Midwest and cause its decline in the 21st century. Near the top of any list would be excessive nostalgia and resistance to change. The Midwest all too often looks back to an imagined good ‘ol days and clings to its glory days. Any proposed change is met with not just resistance but outright hostility and venom in many quarters.

If ever an institution deserved to embody this attitude, it is the Speedway. The Indianapolis 500 is the most famous automobile race in the world. It is the only thing that associates with the city in most people’s minds around the globe. It has longstanding, cherished traditions such as the Borg-Warner Trophy, the singing of “Back Home Again in Indiana”, that first sip of milk by the winner and much more. The track drips with history at every step. If you ever take a trip there, you’ll first be awed by the sheer size of the place – reputably the Indy 500 is the largest attendance single day sporting event in the world – and also amazed at the specialness of it all.

But Tony George decided that all this success was not good enough and embarked on a series of, what were for the tradition bound Speedway, radical changes and innovations:

  • He broke with the tradition of open wheeled racing only at the Speedway by inviting in Nascar to start the Brickyard 400 (now the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard), now one of Nascar’s top events. This brought in significant new revenue to fund more speculative ventures.
  • He built a road track on part of the infield and hosted Formula 1 under the name of the United States Grand Prix. (Interestingly, years ago the Indianapolis 500 was part of the Formula 1 series).
  • He brought in the MotoGP series of motorcycle races.
  • He modernized the track in other ways, such as by replacing the main tower with a modern version of the old pagoda.
  • Perhaps most controversially, he used the Indy 500 brand to start the Indy Racing League, a rival to the traditional US open wheeled series called CART. His idea was to make open wheeled racing more affordable through more standardized specs as well as other things. Perhaps not least of which was that he wanted to control all aspects the series himself. This led to a bitter fued that lasted untold years until CART finally folded and sold its assets to the IRL.
  • To address the decline in open wheeled racing generally, he cut back Indy 500 preliminaries significantly. The once “month of May” is now more like the half month of May.

It is also worth nothing that this hasn’t been a one and done, flash in the pan type of change, but rather sustained commitment and continued innovation over many, many years.

This has not been without its setbacks and controversies. Among them:

  • The IRL-CART split exacerbated a secular decline in open wheeled racing just as the formerly “red neck” Nascar became ascendant. Nascar is now the most popular racing series in America, and open wheeled racing’s future is, frankly, still questionable.
  • Formula 1 is gone. A significant number of fans disappeared after a tire fiasco that saw only seven cars run in one US Grand Prix. When his contract was up, George elected not to renew a long term deal with Formula 1 on terms that would lose too much money.
  • Interestingly, last year Nascar had a similar tire fiasco that marred their race.
  • Attendance at the Indy 500 is way down. I’m not a kid, but not an old guy either. But 25 years ago all the Speedway had to do to sell out was to mail out renewal forms. The week before the race, driving back from Chicago, I saw a billboard in Lake County advertising the 500 saying, “Tickets Available” like some pathetic rental car company flogging car hire.
  • While there is still a 500 Festival in Indianapolis, with events like the Mini-Marathon (the largest half marathon in America) and the parade, its own city no longer embraces the race as core to its identity. Rather, it’s treated almost with a certain degree of embarrassment in the way that a college freshman no longer wants to be seen wearing a high school letter jacket.

Yet despite this, I can’t help but think that Tony George is not just doing it the right way, but showing the way everybody ought to be doing it. The challenges facing open wheeled racing were in the air to be seen. Tony George didn’t wait around for them to crush him. He decided to act while he was still in a position of strength, using his franchise to fund a transformation while it still had top value. Does anyone really believe that if the Speedway had stayed with only the old school 500 Mile Race that it would be thriving today? There is no doubt in my mind that this would be one troubled enterprise, with problems not totally dissimilar to the ones faced right now, only without any other carefully cultivated revenue streams.

We just watched Chrysler and General Motors file for bankruptcy, and those companies, their employees, retirees, suppliers, dealers, communities and other stakeholders face a terrible period in the wake, and a long period of wrenching change. That’s a fate that frankly might have awaited the IMS had it not decided to adopt the “only the paranoid survive” mentality and actively embrace change.

In short, the IMS is showing the way it ought to be done and exemplifying the best of what ought to be in the New Midwest. The 500 Mile Race is still there. The best of its traditions remain. The spirit is alive. But there is a lot of newness too to take that tradition forward into the future.

I’ve written about historic preservation before. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a National Historic Landmark, and one of the few that is still actively being used for its original purpose in a modern day setting. This is a rare place where history isn’t something far in the past, but where it is still being written.

There’s certainly a lot of risk. Success is not guaranteed for the IMS by any means. But if you never take any risks, defeat is almost certain in the modern age. I for one think that the IMS is as close to golden as they could hope to be. Finally with control of open wheeled racing after years of fighting, the IMS can focus on renewing the sport.

Its competition is now facing the problems that Tony George foresaw in his industry, only without the same foresight to have done something about it. The “Nascar bubble” has popped. Attendance and viewership is way down, particularly outside of their core base in the South. Their sponsor base is withdrawing, and the American car manufacturers who were always the base of their sport are in trouble and doubtless questioning whether the money is worth it, particularly when there is no longer any company content in the car. That’s the biggest problem. Nascar abandoned its roots in stock cars in favor of standardized kits and driver cults. But ultimately driver celebrity will never sustain the loyalty that the car brands did.

My Alabama father-in-law bleeds Ford blue. His garage is bigger than his house. He is a car nut and only will work on Fords. He’s got a old limited production run racing special from way back when that he still drag races as Nostalgia Super Stock. (He brags it would actually qualify for Nostalgia Stock, if there were such a thing). Every part on that car is properly date coded such that it could have possibly been originally installed on that car at the time of production. No matter how much someone likes Jeff Gordon today, personality will never generate that type of loyalty in any significant numbers again. With Nascar abandoning almost even the pretense that a “Ford” is actually a Ford, who is going to care for the long haul?

Formula 1 has its own challenges, with cheating scandals, its own internecine disputes, and much more. Interestingly, they are starting to look at ways to bring down the astronomical cost of entry through more standardization and/or “salary caps”. It makes me wonder if Tony George didn’t call the top of the Formula 1 bubble when he declined to renew his contract. Two historic events really pop out in my mind. The first was Sam Zell selling out his real estate portfolio and getting out of that business. The second was when, a way back, I remember reading an article in the Journal about some Taubman company mall somewhere was opening despite not having a Gap. Gap was at the height of their power and generally able to dictate to developers. Taubman was unwilling to agree to their terms. In retrospect, both of these events called the peak, in real estate and in Gap stock respectively. Did Tony George call the peak in Formula 1? Only time will tell. But I suspect after some events play out there, the Speedway will be back in the Formula 1 game – on vastly improved terms.

Frankly, all things considered, it’s hard to realistically imagine the Speedway being in a better place than it is today. Hey, they could go bankrupt tomorrow for all I know. They are a private company that is famously reticent to share information to the public. They don’t even officially release race attendance. But I’m very impressed with the moves they’ve made and the bets they’ve placed. Stay tuned to find out where they land.

Something else is very worthy of note. The Speedway is a 100% private entity that has never, to the best of my knowledge, asked for or received any public subsidies apart from public safety support for events. The Speedway is a 100% privately financed venue. It actually pays taxes. I’m not even aware that they’ve even received tax abatements on their investments. Truly remarkable and definitely noteworthy in the modern era.

A lot of Midwestern places and institutions could learn a lot from studying Tony George and the Speedway. Now that he’s been forced out, it will be interesting to see what happens to them.

So what next for the IMS? In my view, the kit car concept has its pluses, but ultimately isn’t the greatest. One of the things that the IMS is most proud of is that the Indy 500 pioneered technologies that ended up in production vehicles many of us drive today, like rear view mirrors. Can the Speedway recapture some of that spirit of technical competitiveness in way that a) ends up being directly consumer relevant in some instances and b) doesn’t bankrupt racing teams? That’s an interesting challenge.

Curiously, I already had this article cued up, but today I pick up the latest issue of Nuvo and discover that Tony George was honored with Cultural Vision Award. He talked a bit about the Speedway and green tech. The article notes:

George sees the IMS playing a significant role in the reinvention of the American automobile industry. “I think the hundred year history of the Motor Speedway has been closely aligned with the development of the automobile as part of our culture,” he says, adding that he believes this has important implications for the national and local economy.

The article talks about sustainable fuels among other things. Perhaps giving “sustainability credits” in the form of spending, horsepower allowances, or other things as a reward for creating various green aspects of the car could draw capital into the IRL, create racing drama, drive consumer innovation, and re-inject competitiveness and innovation into the teams. This would also align to the energy systems local economy development effort.

Whatever the future holds, I’ll be interested to see how it plays out.

Topics: Civic Branding, Economic Development, Urban Culture
Cities: Indianapolis

28 Responses to “Tony George, the IMS, and the New Midwest”

  1. hharrington says:

    Interesting take on the 500 and how it is positioned in Indy and it's future. I went to my first 500 this year as a broadcaster (I'm host of a sports talk show in Louisville). I must say that it was truly a great event. It was a different atmosphere than what I had expected.

    I commend George for trying to keep the 500 relevant by being innovative. Being from the "Derby City" I can understand his rational. Sports like the IRL and Horse racing have to walk that fine between tradition and innovation. what makes it harder is that these two sports are in decline, and are having a hard time competing for air time and dollars. If you change to much you could lose the fans you do have. If you don't change you may never attract the new audience you desperately need.

    I was surprised that the 500 had problems selling out. I'm also surprised that Indy really doesn't embrace the 500 like Louisville embraces the Derby. Even with horse racing being on life support the Derby is the Derby. It will sell out and sell out quickly. The only real question is how many people can you pack in the infield. For two weeks Louisville is a completely different city.

    Indy doesn't need the 500 as much as Louisville needs the Derby. Indy has pro football and basketball. Which are more popular in the US than IRL. All Louisville has is the Derby and college sports. However, I still think Indy can get a lot more mileage out of the 500 that they do. They may not have to go overboard like Louisville does, but they could take it up a notch.

  2. David says:

    I have been to the 500 a couple times and to the Derby 34 times. Both events are something everyone should have on their 'bucket list'.

    I think these observations/comments are related.

    "Indy doesn't need the 500 as much as Louisville needs the Derby. Indy has pro football and basketball. Which are more popular in the US than IRL. All Louisville has is the Derby and college sports."

    "(the 500 by Indy)…it's treated almost with a certain degree of embarrassment in the way that a college freshman no longer wants to be seen wearing a high school letter jacket."

    Perhaps Indy does not embrace the 500 as it once did because the NBA and the NFL have taken some of those hugs/kisses?

    Part of the brand identity of Indy should definitely include the 500, otherwise it ends up being another one of the 30+ metro's with an NFL team (which is great with the Colts) and not so great with the Pacers. Those teams records' and their support will ebb and flow with their performance and the stability or lack thereof with players and coaches; the 500 will always (hopefully) be there. (and as the writer points out, the Speedway has not visited to the public trough for support…which can not be said for either of the pro teams who's facilities would not exist without that support).

    To the commenter from Louisville "All Louisville has is the Derby and college sports"…for someone who has a sports talk radio show that comment is understandable as am sure you and/or your audience laments the fact that Louisville has no major league teams from time to time. That said, I would far prefer Louisville continue its support of UL Basketball vs any possible NBA expansion opportunity that has come along (Grizzlies, Hornets among them); hope Cards football will turnaround successfully under Coach K and may the community support/embrace of the Derby never be weakened because that is what makes Louisville very different!

    (PS I would love to see an NFL team in Louisville one of these days and think it would be well supported)

  3. pete-rock says:

    Yet another wonderful article. I've never been to the 500, but I did live in Indiana through much of the '80s and I have friends that live very close to the Speedway in Indy.

    I've seen from afar how Indy's views on the race have changed since the early '80s. I think it started with the city's emphasis on becoming the "Amateur Sports Capital of the World" some 25+ years ago, and the Colts bringing major league sports to Indy. The city got a bump in prestige from those, and in some ways the 500 became a relic of a simpler past. I think the college freshman/high school letter jacket analogy is right on target.

    Lastly, I started reading your blog because it was about Midwestern cities, but I now see it as much more than that. I'm a native Midwesterner (born in Michigan, lived in Indiana, currently in Illinois) who has long believed that Midwestern culture is what has been holding the region back from economic success. Your posts continue to highlight the spectacular and mundane things that define Midwestern culture and values, and its impact on our economy and built environment. Thanks so much for being an outlet for this kind of discussion.

    One more thing. If you're looking for another possible example of conflict between Midwest culture and contemporary America, and you like college football, I suggest looking at the University of Michigan's transition in football. Parallels abound.

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    pete, thanks a ton for the comment. People like you are why I write this. Do you have any pointers on where I might study the Michigan football example?

    Harrington, one reason it is harder to sell out the 500 is that the capacity is far higher than that of the Kentucky Derby. Supposedly the IMS has 238,000 permanent seats and around a race day capacity of 400,000. IIRC the Derby draws about 150K.

    The Kentucky Derby also draws celebrity attendees and guests such as the Queen of England. IT cultivates a refined, upscale, genteel image quite at odds wit the traditional auto racing fan base in the US. That is probably one reason the city continues to view it as a primary branding vehicle.

  5. Robert Gable says:

    Two comments:

    – The CART/IRL split was a debacle and was the primary cause in the 90s of my no longer caring about the race after 30 years of following it. I blame this on Tony George.

    – Here in California, the race gets almost no notice and certainly has no reputation for being the spectacular event it can be. I don't blame this on Tony George. We had an IRL race in San Jose for several years. While only mildly entertaining compared to the Indy 500, it also never captured public attention in the greater Bay Area.

  6. hharrington says:

    Coming from a major sports perspective the Derby and UL sports is pretty much all the city has at the moment. With that said, MMA is making a strong push to become a major sports force in Louisville and boxing is trying to make a comeback.

    The NFL would do great in Louisville, but they will never come. Louisville is to small and we are surrounded by NFL teams. Louisville's only hope for a major pro sports franchise is either the NBA or Arena Football 1 when it comes back next year.

    On a side note. I spoke to the Hornets owner when he wanted to move the team here. He really wanted to come to Louisville, we are a great basketball town with a history of support a pro team (ABA Colonels). New Orleans was a distant second on the list.

    The IMS is huge. I was struck by it's size and I can imagine it would be more difficult to sell out, but I still think that Indy can/should embrace the 500 with everything it has. There is no reason why the 500 can't draw the celebs like the derby, and the after parties and such.

    Car racing does have different fans, but IRl is different. It doesn't have the southern redneck roots of NASCAR. It's kinda a kin to Formula 1. I think the 500 should be a tremendous international draw with the upper crust from all over europe coming to Indy.

  7. Ironwood says:


    Great post on a theme that is becoming almost a lietmotif of this blog: the debilitating "Midwest attitude," which you and a lot of your commentators allude to, and innately understand, but which we all seem to have difficulty articulating, other than through anecdote.

    I think you're on to something here, by finding examples outside the template of local governments and typical voters, that break – or fit — the mold of Midwestern mindset.

    When focusing on local governments, it's all too easy to avoid the heart of the matter, by talking about sleep-walking voters, the foibles of public officials, beleaguered bureaucrats, tax-driven spending limitations, etc. But I think we all recognize that these factors are not the source of the Midwest mindset. They just reflect it.

    Your taking the search for the Midwest mindset to the private sector is an important step, because it keeps the focus on what is the essence of innovation — or lack thereof. You came up with a great positive example in Tony George. He breaks the mold. On the other hand, here’s the grand-daddy of the Midwest mindset: GM.

    Looking at the collective mindset of a local business community takes us much closer to predicting and understanding the overall mindset of a given city. This is more than a correlation in many cases; it’s often a cause-and-effect relationship.

    But we can take it even a step further. The local business community itself is still only a component of where the power really lies in a community.

    And, while I have more to say on that, I'm going to exceed my word limit, so, if anyone's still interested, please read my Part Deux.

  8. Ironwood says:

    Okay, for those who haven't given up, here's Part Deux:

    Continuing on the issue of where power really resides — which is where we'll find the source of the Midwest mindset:

    Don't know if anyone still reads it in urban studies programs today, but some of your readers probably know the book Middletown, which was a ground-breaking study of the power elite in an unnamed Midwestern industrial city [Muncie, IN] in the 50s. (Was de rigour reading in Poli Sci depts. in the 60s and early 70s.) The author, through a chain of interviews with social, civic, church and business “leaders” there (and with other persons those interviewees identified as influential), isolated a small, interconnected, culturally and economically homogeneous inner circle of, if I recall, fewer than 200 people tied together through interlocking relationships (business, inter-marriage, neighborhoods, college fraternities, country clubs, civic and business boards, churches, elected officials, etc.). At the heart of this web was an unnamed extended family [the Ball family of Ball Glass fame]. This tight, insulated, self-satisfied crew pretty much set the agenda for every aspect of life in Muncie, from the grade school curriculum to zoning to what played at the movie theaters, and that agenda was carried out by the mayor, hand-picked from among its ranks.

    Every city has some type of power elite, and who’s in it and what they think and value is what’s going to set the agenda for that city. That power elite can be open, fluid, diverse, innovative, pro-active. It can be closed, homogeneous, self-protective and conservative. It can be controlled by one or a few dynasty families or companies, or it can have competing (or cooperating) power bases.

    In the search to articulate and find the source of the Midwest mindset, and ultimately how to change it, the Middletown methodology seems as useful today as it was fifty years ago. (In fact, not only does Middletown provide a good methodology, the characteristics of the Muncie power elite a half century ago probably still fit to a depressing degree the power elites in some other Midwestern cities today. [Why do I keep thinking about country clubs?])

    Finding and analyzing the true power elite in a given Midwestern city, understanding who’s in it – and who’s not — its biases, hot buttons, blind spots, culture, values, shared assumptions, knowledge base, fears, motivations, points of resistance, etc. – that’s the key to developing a strategy for transformation – a marketing strategy, basically.

    [Yikes, ran out of space again. Look for Part III, and Urb, please don't ban me from this site.]

  9. Ironwood says:

    Part III

    Back again … and this is it, I swear.

    This puts the local business community front-and-center. For a city to move forward in addressing its future in a positive enlightened way, it's essential to have an involved, enlightened, forward-looking business community to be actively involved in making and carrying out urban policy on an ongoing basis. Think, for example, about the Chicago Economic Club and its role in getting O'Hare built and taking the lead on countless other key projects that have given Chi its world-city status). It sure as hell wasn’t the aldermen.

    Another example: the enormous positive influence exerted on the Twin Cities by the Dayton-Hudson, 3M and Pillsbury dynasties. Without them, Minneapolis/St. Paul would just be a slightly larger, warmer Duluth with a federal reserve bank and a state capital.

    Another critical place to look: the local eleemosynary community. The well-endowed, professionally staffed Haas (Levis jeans) family foundation in San Francisco, with a progressive, city-oriented agenda, incubates numerous non-profits, helps set the civic agenda, sponsors studies and takes on projects (such as restoring the former Army base to tidal beachfront near Golden Gate bridge). Who’s filling that role in, say, Cleveland? [Maybe somebody is, I don’t know … excuse my ignorance, Clevelanders …, and, if so, is it mainly shoring up the venerable fine arts dinosaurs or funding a major study on revisioning the lakefront for 2030?]


    So, Urb, I’d encourage you to follow the direction of your Indy 500 post, and spend more and more time on your blog looking OUTSIDE local governments for the sources of problems and the sources of solutions. And I’d love to see your commentators pool their information about the power elites in their own cities.

    If it turns out – and I believe it will – that the true points of leverage in shaping local policy debates are in a city’s corporations, civic groups, churches and country clubs, then, my friend, that’s the audience to continue to cultivate for this blog.

    As you’ve pointed out in an earlier post, the visionary Burnham Plan was not commissioned by the city, but by the Civic Club. Hmmm.

    If anyone’s still reading this, I apologize for the length of this three-part comment, but this blog sort of gets a guy’s juices flowing. Keep up the good work!

  10. David says:


    – I have heard the "Louisville will never get NFL because it is too small and surrounded etc" many times.
    NFL looks at TV market etc.

    a) JAX, BUF, NASH, NEW ORLEANS, INDY, CINCI are not that much larger or a bit smaller than Louisville metro
    b) State of Ky has 4.2M people
    c) An NFL team would be successful in Louisville

    NBA – unless the franchise is a good one it would not be supported. see Memphis: Tigers outdraw the Grizzlies.

    One can hope…

    Derby, UL, the occassional Breeders Cup and PGA/RYDER event and da Ville does pretty well.

  11. pete-rock says:

    OMG, Ironwood, your trilogy of posts zeroed right in on the source of the "Midwest Mindset"! I also read Middletown (I even lived in Muncie for several years) and never made the connection until I read this.


    The only thing I might add is that the "ruling elite" of Midwestern communities very closely aligned themselves with the manufacturing economy more than a century ago, and were very invested in its survival, both from an economic standpoint and a social/cultural one. Maybe that pairing is what limits innovation here.

  12. thundermutt says:

    The "ruling elite" didn't "align" itself with manufacturing in the 20th century…its wealth and power CAME from manufacturing.

    If you did a Middletown study on Indy, you'd find a dozen or two overlapping "elites" of about 100-200 people who are all one degree of separation apart.

    Some of those elites are (or were, when Hudnut was in office) centered on a particular church (Tab and 2nd Pres come to mind). Some are centered on Woodstock or Meridian Hills CC, or the venerable Columbia Club. But some of them are around an issue cluster, such as environmental issues, community development issues, schools, arts, etc.

    And of course there's the irreplaceable Lilly Endowment.

    That by itself might suggest stagnation…but those elites are penetrable by newcomers. It is possible to grow up and be educated elsewhere, and to penetrate the Indianapolis elites. No one asks you in Indianapolis "where did you go to school?" unless they mean college or grad school, and no one is surprised if the answer isn't IU, Purdue, or Ball State.

    I think this might (at least) be one of the elements that pushes cities like Indianapolis and Columbus and MSP to the top of the list in the Midwest: every city has elites, but the successful ones do seem to be more amenable to absorbing new ideas and new people.

    But, as Aaron pointed out with his sewer-inlet post, that's not enough to make a GREAT city. Just a good one. Or a "good-enough" one.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Yawn. Anything involving racing cars (aka: wasting fuel) makes me tired.

  14. The Urbanophile says:

    Ironwood, you need to have your own blog. You're a fountain of great information.

    The "power elite" method of analysis is alive and well. The study I alluded to called "Why the Garden Club Couldn't Save Youngtown" uses it to compare Youngstown with Allentown.

    This piece of agitprop called "Who Rules Cincinnati?" does the same.

    I agree completely that the character of the elite leadership in a city says a huge amount about whether it is successful or not. The business elite in places like Nashville and Charlotte are huge boosters of those cities and really stand behind and rally to take them to the next level.

    A key question to consider: is improving the city's stature and level of success a key motivation for the elite? Or is preserving or enhancing their own positions? Looking at the "balance of trade" in terms of what they are giving versus what they are getting is very instructive.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Pittsburgh seems to be a bit on the rebound. I would be curious if its ruling elite has turned over as the previous manufacturing economy collapsed.

  16. Ironwood says:


    Thanks for nice words and not balling me out for taking up so much comment space. Sorry I missed your previous posts on this topic — your archives are getting crowded — but I will today.

    Meanwhile, you wrote:

    "A key question to consider: is improving the city's stature and level of success a key motivation for the elite? Or is preserving or enhancing their own positions? Looking at the "balance of trade" in terms of what they are giving versus what they are getting is very instructive."

    Would love to see you attempt to answer your own question. Probably can only be done in the context of a specific place, but go for it.

    But biggest question to me, to keep things from getting academic: Once you've id'd the elite, how do you penetrate and market progressive ideas to it, given its biases, points of resistance, etc.?


  17. thundermutt says:

    Ironwood: How? You write a blog well and comment extensively and thoughtfully on one city (or a group of cities).

  18. John M says:

    I don't want to get bogged down in the details here, because your point is that George is willing to take risks and isn't willing to sit back and rely on tradition. The decisions to invite NASCAR, F-1, and the motorcycles to the track, while galling to some, seem like the right decisions–a way to increase revenue and use of the track without watering down the special nature of the brand. And the upgrades of the facility itself are outstanding. On the other hand, I think you are too easy on him concerning the CART-IRL split. The purpose of founding the IRL was 1) to avoid the dominance of the wealthiest teams; 2) to give opportunity to young American-born drivers; and 3) to race on oval tracks. Fifteen years later, the IndyCar Series is dominated by former CART teams Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti-Green; the best drivers are mostly foreign born (I happen to think this is a good thing, but I didn't start the IRL to avoid this); and a substantial minority of IndyCar Series races are on oval courses. Since the CART teams returned on a part time basis in 2000, every single race has been won by former CART teams (5 by Penske, 2 by Ganassi, 2 by Andretti-Green, and 1 by Rahal-Letterman).

    Further, while the non-disclosure of attendance figures makes this difficult to track, I think if you reviewed news footage of qualifying and race day in 1994 and compared it to similar footage from, say, 1997, you would find that the CART-IRL split that George caused was the single biggest factor in the attendance decline. That's not to say that other issues, such as the popularity of NASCAR and the change of Indianapolis into a pro sports town with the arrival of the Colts and the Pacers' playoff success in the 1990s, didn't contribute. They did. But 15 years later, George is the head honcho of a much less prominent league that looks much like what he broke away from in the mid 1990s. By the way, the 500 qualifying is now back to the traditional 4 days on two weekends, although it was reduced to a single weekend and two weeks of activity from 1998-2000 after the attendance cratered following the split). But there was a severe decline that directly corresponded to the split. Again, I agree with much of what you say, but I think you underestimate the degree to which George was causing, rather than responding, to the problems in "open wheel racing" (a term that was invented in the mid 1990s when "Indy car" was no longer an appropriate generic term because there were two series.

  19. Alon Levy says:

    The sort of risk-aversion that underlies the Midwest attitude is at its worst in the Northeast. Neighborhood communities in cities like New York and Philadelphia justifiably feel under attack from gentrification, developers, and business-oriented reformers; this leads them to oppose any change, usually on nebulous grounds like affordable housing and infrastructure overload.

    Conversely, the business-oriented reformers aren't even trying to change much, and when they are, it's usually based on some fad, like smart growth (We'll plant trees! We'll pedestrianize some streets! We'll do transit-oriented urban renewal!). Michael Bloomberg is a good example. His main approach to education is in principle based on results, but in practice based on the idea that schools should be run like independent, union-free businesses. This leads to some gaping inefficiencies. A friend of my girlfriend's came up with a computerized system that would match substitute teachers to schools that need them, saving the public school system $20 million a year in searching for subs and lost school days. The system was rejected because it violates the businesslike mentality the schools should embody. $20 million is small change compared to the city's education budget, but it's one of many cost-saving measures that would work in a city that were willing to embrace change.

    In both the Northeast and the Midwest, this attitude comes from the fact that historically these regions were very successful. The Northeast was and to some extent still is the economic center of the country; why change formulas that (used to) work? Once you've accepted that fact, it's easy to gloss over the relative decline of the region, or its excessive dependence on New York finance. The Midwest is really just Northeast-lite in this regard.

  20. Ironwood says:


    I value and am stimulated by the contrarian perspective you often offer in your comments, but on this one, I think you're not going to get many people to agree that the mindset of various sick-or-dying Midwestern cities is no different — in fact not as bad — as the mindset of leadership in NYC or Philly.

    Sure we can find some parallels in thinking, but the dominant mindset in the country's more successful cities (and I'll go out on a limb and include NYC among them) really shares very little with the cities that this blog focuses on.

    Now, if you want to go down a few rungs on the ladder from NYC to some backwater New England, upper New York state or New Jersey manufacturing communities, I'm sure these's a better match.

    One difference, however, between the Northeast and the Midwest, is that so many of these communities, backwards or not, share in the general wealth of the BosWash megalopolitan area, and as we all know, everybody rises on a high tide.

    In the Midwest, the ChiPitts megalopolis does not include many of the cities Urb blogs about.

    I also feel, however, that there is a distinctive quality to the Midwestern mindset that is more akin to the uber-propriety one used to encounter in the British colonies and outer provinces — an upper class trying way too hard to prove to itself that its culture and manners were not inferior to those in the "capital," to the point of being more trapped by convention in, say, 1890s Melbourne than in London. This mixture of social isolation, inferiority complex and conservatism is really what defines provincialism. And this deep-rooted provincialism is, I believe, in much greater abundance in the Midwest than in the Northeast.

  21. thundermutt says:

    Ironwood: I'd call your attention to the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia and the shadow cities of outstate PA. They embody the "castle" mentality: we are here, and we have conquered the frontier (never mind that we did it 250 years ago), and we don't need to change a damn thing. And we hate outsiders so much that we don't even put up road signs so newcomers and visitors can find their way around.

    I think that a "castle" mentality is just as damaging as a "provincial" one. That attitude (or in their local dialect, "atty-tood") held Philadelphia back for decades. Recall Frank Rizzo and his dire warnings of grave consequences of a gazillion visitors descending upon Philadelphia for the Bicentennial celebrations. That was not out of character for the city or region.

    Stretching "Chi-Pitts" into a megalopolis is a far stretch. "Mil-Chi-Bend", sure. "Cleve-ACY-Pitt", yeah. "Det-Ann-ledo" also. All cross state lines. But the I-80 and I-94 corridors connecting them through Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio all have long and broad rural/small town swaths, several hundred miles in aggregate, that are not now (and are not likely to become within a lifetime) highly urbanized, suburbanized, or exurbanized.

    The situations are different, but urban problems are pretty much the same regardless of region: Leadership that "gets it" moves things forward, whether governmental or private.

  22. thundermutt says:

    JohnM, who runs US open wheel racing today? Right: the leader of its most significant venue. When all else is said and done, TG controls the series that supports his crown jewel.

    Aaron pointed out that TG is willing to change his business. 15 years ago, the low-cost oval-track American-driver series probably was designed to compete with the obvious threat, NASCAR. (Ironically, it was IMS that helped NASCAR become that huge threat.)

    Now, with F-1 and CART gone from these shores, IRL needs to slide over and fill the road-and-street-course foreign-driver niche. Flexibility and pragmatism in action: in Aaron's terms, TG is simply filling the "whitespace" in motorsports again today. Things have changed in 15 years.

  23. thundermutt says:

    Now, if Tony would just stage a Labor Day Weekend Indy-car or NASCAR road-course race…

  24. Alon Levy says:

    Ironwood: your point about the upper class's mentality captures New York perfectly. The educated class in Manhattan and Brooklyn still adopts the mannerisms of its counterparts in London and Paris, and looks down on American rubes. It's so large that authors (e.g. Jonathan Franzen) can and do become bestsellers publishing provincial books that make no sense outside New York and cities that imitate it like Boston and San Francisco.

    Random example: in 2004, a New York Magazine article mooted the idea of secession from Bush's America. That in itself wasn't so bad as the article's description of New York as the perfect place. The telling quote is:

    New Yorkers may live in isolation from the rest of the United States, but not the world. We would never think, for example, to refer to multinational corporations as “greedy motherfuckers” (this city loves and lionizes no one if not its greedy motherfuckers). Because so many of us are rich and crime-fearing, or immigrants craving unconstrained capitalism, we also have a much finer appreciation of Republican politics than do other liberal enclaves. In 1993, we chose a Republican mayor who helped transform this city from a jungle into a manicured suburb—and then showed us what real leaders are made of at a time it counted most.

    All of those things are true for the Upper East Side and Staten Island, and false almost everywhere else in the city. In Harlem and the Bronx, the above description of the city would be unrecognizable. In truth, the only New Yorkers who lionize Donald Trump and his ilk are the business class wannabes; the most pressing issue in most neighborhoods is affordable housing rather than crime; and Giuliani was deeply unpopular in 2001, and the city revolted after 9/11 when he proposed to abolish term limits so he could run for a third term.

    The same mentality that the non-gentrified areas don't exist also crops up in Boston, Philly, Washington, and San Francisco. Sometimes, those cities are even worse. A friend who moved from New York to Washington temporarily was aghast at how isolated the hipsters and political elites were from everything outside the gentrified downtown core. Boston, which has convinced everyone it's a rich city rather than a collection of slums neighboring some very rich suburbs, is no better.

  25. John M says:

    Yes, TM, he controls it, but he controls a series that is much weaker than it was 15 years ago. We will never know what open wheel racing would look like if Tony had handled things differently in the mid-1990s–perhaps giving the big boys like Penske and Ganassi and Andretti some sort of a minority stake would have been a possibility. Again, I don't want to sound change-averse or risk-averse. I'm not. I support the decision to add NASCAR and F-1 and the bikes. But I think it's factually incorrect to point to Tony's IRL power grab as a response to the forces that led to billboards hawking Indy 500 tickets. While there may have been a modest decline afoot in the mid-1990s, attendance and interest (particularly in qualifying) cratered in the immediate aftermath of the split and haven't come close to recovering. I don't dispute that Tony got what he wanted, but I think it was a pyrrhic victory in many respects.

  26. thundermutt says:

    So, John, would you rather control your own fate, or leave it to others?

    That's one of Aaron's points: seize the moment, do what you have to do. If you don't, the moment is lost and someone else will jump on it.

    TG was right 15 years ago: CART's model was flawed and it was going to die. So he followed the France/Ecclestone model. That it took three tries for CART to finally expire proves only that auto racing (for most) is the way to turn a large fortune into a small fortune.

    I'll say it once more: TG was doing what he needed to do to insure the long-run stability of the IMS. He didn't count on the stubbornness and folly of Kalkoven and Forsythe and their predecessors, who continued to throw good money after bad. It's just like racing: some people on the track are just rolling speedbumps.

  27. Crizzle says:

    Thundermutt: As cool as either one of those ideas would be out at IMS, I feel that there is another market/series that is untapped here, and already has some ties w/ the IRL due to staging combined event weekends.

    That would be the American le Mans Series. On the weekend of one of the few events that can be easily described as more of a spectacle than the 500 I think that Indianapolis would be a receptive host of a sprtscar event on the road course at IMS. I would love to see an endurance event similar to Petit Le mans with a race time of about 10 hours.

    I'm not sure the Speedway town council would be happy w/ a 12 hour event a la Sebring, but a 4 or 10 hour event would be amazing IMHO.

    Make it happen IMS!

  28. thundermutt says:

    The Indy Enduro. Love it! Are you reading, Joie Chitwood?

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