IndyCar: Tony George reunited with IRL friends in victory lane
JUN 09, 2014 2:38p ET
FORT WORTH, Texas – At one time Tony George was one of the most powerful men in racing. As the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the founder of the Indy Racing League he took the sport down a path he thought was the right one to reconnect the sport of IndyCar Racing with the grassroots of America.
He did not like the direction the old CART Series was taking and, with the Indianapolis 500 as the cornerstone event of George’s Indy Racing League, it began a divisive period of American Open-Wheel racing in 1996. CART teams stayed away from the Indianapolis 500 until team owner Chip Ganassi returned in 2000 and Roger Penske came back in 2001.
The early days of the IRL featured homegrown talent, including a young driver from Columbus, Indiana that was the first to win all three major USAC open-wheel series in the same season in 1995. That talented racer was Tony Stewart, a star of George’s series before he left to become a three-time champion in waiting in NASCAR Sprint Cup in 1999.
The IRL got off to a rocky and controversial start and George needed another bedrock to give the series a foundation. He found it at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997 as SMI Chairman Bruton Smith and TMS president and general manager Eddie Gossage believed in George’s vision.
Over time, the IRL would wear down CART and later Champ Car. Teams began to move over to George’s series and, without the Indianapolis 500, Champ Car found it much more difficult to continue.
Finally, in 2008 George and Champ Car Series owner Kevin Kalkhoven were able to broker an agreement where Champ Car would cease operation and its teams would join the IRL to form what is now INDYCAR.
For the first time in years there was finally a unified series, but George’s leadership would end abruptly when his three sisters would remove him as CEO of both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR just a few days after the 2009 Indianapolis 500.
Since that time, three different men have held that position: Jeff Belskus, Randy Bernard and currently Mark Miles.
As for George, instead of running the series he is now a team member for his stepson's Verizon IndyCar Series team – Ed Carpenter Racing.
In the moments after Carpenter scored an impressive victory in Saturday night’s Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, there was George reunited with Gossage as both were smiling in victory lane. It’s been 17 years since the two men first started doing business together and George is ever mindful that without Texas Motor Speedway joining the series in 1997, the IRL may have never made it.
And during that time there are only two tracks that have hosted an IndyCar race each of the past 17 years – the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.
“Well, and until this year, Texas was the only one who had hosted two races in a year,” George said, referring to the addition of the Grand Prix of Indianapolis at IMS this past May. “I always enjoy coming here for the same reasons Ed (Carpenter) has mentioned. Eddie does a great job. He is very much a part of the IndyCar Series, the Indy Racing League from its very beginning, and the track is very challenging, so it's a big kudos to this team for being able to be the best car this evening.
“Over the time the track has changed. It's got more difficult to come here and be good over the course of however many laps the race happens to be, and tonight was our longest, and this team did a great job, Ed did a great job actually. A lot of credit goes to him for managing the whole race. I wasn't sure the strategy kind of kept changing and weren't sure where we were going to go, but we did have to pit early once but that kind of caused some other dominos to fall, and it was a big win for us here at Texas. I'm glad Ed finally was able to post a win here.”
Originally, the old IRL was created to showcase drivers such as Carpenter, who came up through the ranks of USAC and raced against some of the top names that are now part of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series.
Texas Motor Speedway has established itself as an icon of IndyCar racing. It was the first track to have an IndyCar race at night in 1997 and is the track where extremely close finishes are the norm; not the exception.
Because of a change in cars, rules and regulation “Pack Racing” is no longer featured at TMS and the racing the past three years have been put back in the driver’s hands where they have to manage the significant drop-off in tires and control a car that begins to slide in the turns as the grip level goes away.
Carpenter has become an “oval ace” of the series with all three of his IndyCar wins coming on ovals (Kentucky Speedway in 2011, Auto Club Speedway in 2012 and Saturday night’s win at Texas).
He was on target for a possible victory in the 98th Indianapolis 500 before James Hinchcliffe pushed the issue on a late restart and went three-wide with Carpenter and Townsend Bell, which resulted in a crash that took both Hinchcliffe and Carpenter out of the race.
Saturday night was Carpenter’s first race since the Indy 500.
“There's no denying the fact that I was really mad after Indy,” Carpenter said. “It's not that I'm still mad at Hinch, but I'm still mad at the situation and that we lost an opportunity. I want to try to win every session, every race that we go to, whether I'm driving or Mike (Conway) is driving.
“It's just good to bounce back. Nothing really totally makes up for a missed opportunity at the Speedway, but at the same time it always feels good to win, especially at a place like this. I've enjoyed coming to this racetrack for a long time and appreciate the job that Eddie does here for our series and the drivers. This is a big win for us.
“We've been pretty fast here the past couple years. I've always liked this place and ran okay, just haven't had good luck here to be honest, so it was nice to finally break through tonight. The team gave me a great car. They've been giving us great cars all year for myself and Mike, so it's nice to be able to deliver, just really proud of the whole team and the effort and proud to be able to represent Fuzzy's and do a good job for them with how much they've supported us the past two‑and‑a‑half years. It's good for everyone involved.”
Even when pole-winner Will Power of Team Penske was blistering the field, leading by as much as 17 seconds in the first half of the race, Carpenter remained unconcerned and focused on what he needed to do.
“Well, most of the race Will had the benefit of clean air,” Carpenter said. “It seemed like throughout the race he would kind of get a bit of a lead and then, when he would get into lapped traffic, the group would close in on him, so I felt like maybe he was struggling a little bit in dirty air, and that's when I was finally able to get by him.
“His car may have been a little bit quicker than ours, but I don't think it was as good as ours all around through a whole stint in clean air, dirty air.
“When I crossed the line I was just trying to get every bit of speed out of my car as I could the last couple laps. I felt okay about it after the first lap because I got a big enough gap on Montoya on the restart. Yeah, it's hard to say how many laps it would have taken for Will. Certainly new tires are a pretty big advantage when we were about 30 some laps into mine. They definitely drop off quite a bit right around the halfway point. Certainly wouldn't have been able to hold him off much longer, but there were only four laps to go, three to go when we took the start, so the guys made the right call.”
Carpenter is one of the last drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series that represents what the sport was originally intended back when George was in charge – to give drivers with a grass-roots background in the United States an opportunity to drive IndyCars.
The series has changed significantly since George’s vision in 1996. It is no longer an all-oval series and has many more street and road course contests compared to ovals.
As far as that goes, USAC has also changed and it is increasingly more difficult for a driver to advance from that series into IndyCar. In fact, USAC probably prepares those drivers better for a career in NASCAR.
Carpenter, however, knows he wouldn’t be in victory lane if it hadn’t been for his USAC background.
“I learned a lot, driving in all three divisions -- Midget, Sprint Cars, Silver Crown. It has changed a lot from when I ran there. There were a lot of pavement races, a lot of dirt races in all three divisions, and there are no pavement Sprint car races anymore, which I think is a travesty. I think they need to have some pavement races back on, too. The Silver Crown races were great for learning how to manage tires. You're running one set of tires, one tank of fuel for 100 miles, I think I learned more about patience and managing a car and dealing with something that's not perfect all the time in the Silver Crown races, and those have kind of all gone away as far as pavement racing goes.
“I'd like to see them get into more of a schedule like when I was there and Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart and those guys were there, it's just their schedule has changed and it's going to make it harder for those guys to go anywhere.”
Times have changed since the mid-1990s when George had a vision. As recently as two years ago, George was attempting to put an ownership group together to buy INDYCAR away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but was turned down by his own family.
These days George gets quiet satisfaction as a member of Ed Carpenter Racing. To finally win a race at Texas Motor Speedway – loyal to George and the IRL from the very beginning – gave George reason for a satisfied smile.
“Well, I'm very proud of Ed, obviously, and this whole team led by Tim Broyles and Bret Schmitt and Matt Barnes,” George said. “They're a great group of people, and our plan this year was to be competitive every week we showed up at the racetrack. This is a great win for Ed in 2014, and we think we can win more with Mike and Ed, and our intent was to show up this year prepared to contend every weekend and try to win the (entrant) championship.”
Be sure to catch Bruce Martin's Honda IndyCar Report on RACEDAY on FOX Sports Radio every Sunday from 6-8 a.m. Eastern Time.