By Bruce Martin
July 06, 2009

TORONTO -- Tony George's ouster as the President and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation by his own sisters is every bit as significant as last year's unification that brought rival factions together when Champ Car was absorbed into the IndyCar Series.

Team owners in the IndyCar paddock are hoping it doesn't become as much a disruption to the sport as the original split in 1996.

At that time, it appeared that George -- the grandson Tony Hulman, the man who saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he purchased it from Eddie Rickenbacker in 1945 -- was willing to gamble the popularity of the "World's Most Famous Race Course" in an effort to gain control of the sport.

That gamble led many to believe George was either going to ruin it all or own it all.

And when George's IndyCar Series finally wore down CART and later Champ Car, the white flag of surrender was waved last February when he reached agreement with Champ Car Series co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven to make IndyCar whole again.

It was estimated that George spent $22 million to unify the sport. That investment also yielded a positive buzz.

Crowds were up at most of its venues and the Indianapolis 500 was once again a hot ticket as the biggest crowd in years filled the joint at 16th and Georgetown.

It appeared that after 13 years of negativity, IndyCar could begin to build itself back into a mainstream sport.

But when the economy tanked in September 2008, every sport in the United States felt the burden. And that is when George's three sisters -- Josie, Nancy and Kathi Conforti -- began to look at how the wealth of the company had diminished over the years.

Unable to blame Wall Street for investments that lost value, they took out their frustrations on Tony George.

A family-controlled board of directors overseas the ownership and operation of all of its properties, which includes Hulman and Company, the makers of Clabber Girl Baking Powder, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy Racing League, the sanctioning body of the IndyCar Series.

Since last October, George's leadership was under attack by his own sisters who wanted him removed as CEO. They wanted to make the IndyCar Series his sole responsibility where he would no longer have the ability to funnel money from the highly-profitable Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the money-losing IndyCar Series.

Rumors spread through Gasoline Alley during May as teams prepared for the Indianapolis 500 that George was under attack by his sisters. Just two days after Helio Castroneves notched his latest Indy win, the board met and told George he would no longer be the CEO of the company. They told him to focus on a plan of where he could utilize his services the most and told him that would be running the IndyCar Series.

George was told to report back to the board at another board meeting with his decision.

But George had one final surprise for the family. Rather than accept his removal as CEO of the IMS Corporation, he was not going to agree to stay on as the CEO of IndyCar. When he essentially told the family last Tuesday that if he wasn't good enough to run the entire company, he wouldn't be in charge of any of its holdings, he walked away.

Last Wednesday, George went from ruler of the IndyCar world to just a member of the board of the directors. His vote is now the same as Josie's or Nancy's or Kathi's.

George will focus on the Vision Racing IndyCar Series team he owns.

As he arrived at Watkins Glen International for Sunday's Camping World Grand Prix at The Glen, George refused to make a public statement on his ouster. He will make that later this week before the series heads to Toronto for next Sunday's Honda Indy Toronto. After that, he will begin to consider interview requests.

Sources indicate the week of silence is at the request of George's attorney as they work out a settlement for George's termination as CEO.

George did speak to fellow IndyCar team owners at an owner's meeting held late Saturday afternoon at Watkins Glen, and he assured them that he will continue to support the series as a team owner and would fully support the growth of the sport.

"He also thanked us for all of the support that we have given him over the years in IndyCar," said Team Penske president Tim Cindric. "It was a very heartfelt statement on Tony's part."

George finally broke his silence on Friday when he issued a statement on the Vision Racing website. It said in part:

"At a board meeting last week, I was asked to continue as CEO of the Indy Racing League, reporting to a new President and CEO of IMS. In my view, this would have created an unnecessary bureaucratic layer between the people in the operations of the IRL and the CEO of IMS that had not previously existed. From the perspective of my experience as President and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, I am acutely aware that the interests of IndyCar racing as a sport, the IRL as a league, and the most important motorsports race in the world, are mutually dependant and inter-connected, both now and in the future. I did not feel that a subordinate position as `CEO of the IRL' was a management vehicle which would allow me to accomplish the objectives that the family and the board requested me to pursue. I declined that position.

"Since our May board meeting, as requested, I have offered my advice to the board on management reorganization, but also and perhaps more importantly, a reorganization of our board, which would provide a structure for better governance for generations to come. It is my belief that, with the recent unification of open-wheel racing, the focus should be on the future rather than the past."

The end of his nearly 20-year reign as CEO seems almost unimaginable considering that he survived so many attacks during the IndyCar Series war from team owners in CART, from the legions of sponsors who left the sport and refused to be part of the IRL, to disgruntled spectators who refused to attend IRL races in the early years, to the fact that IndyCar diminished and floundered for many years.

In the end, the man who survived so many challenges was eventually brought down from within, by his own family.

But in a brief conversation with George before the start of Sunday's race, he looked like a man who had the weight of the world removed from his shoulders. He was relaxed, smiled, seemed comfortable in his own skin and was relieved that the heavy lifting is now up to others.

He talked about fireworks shows and the beautiful weather on Sunday.

Now, the tough tasks go to Jeffrey Belskus, who becomes the new president and CEO of IMS, and Curtis Brighton, the president and CEO of Hulman and Company.

Both are longtime members of the executive level of management in the corporate division and have been heavily involved in many of the major decisions that shaped and formed the IndyCar Series. They are expected to steer the course that was charted by George.

Belskus is in Toronto to meet with IndyCar Series team owners, sponsors and drivers to assure them that the company is fully committed to the growth of the IndyCar Series. Although Belskus is not prepared to do a sit-down interview, he told me he believes in the product and understands the value of the series to the success of the Indianapolis 500 -- the biggest race in the world which and biggest money-maker of the three races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Belskus has been a high-ranking employee of the corporation for over 25 years and was the chief operating officer at IMS Corporation from 1997-2000. Since that time, he has been the chief financial officer.

It's safe to say George's imprint will forever be a part of the organization. He remains a "substantial owner" of the company along with his mother and sisters.

It was Tony George's vision that guided him through one of the most difficult periods in the sport's history. While his critics in CART accused him of having "fatal vision" he endured, undaunted.

While George's vision for the sport included having IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500 under the same corporate umbrella -- an accomplishment that should not be overlooked -- he didn't see trouble brewing within in the family.

So the man who created the IndyCar Series is now just a mere participant, yielding control of the sport that he had fought so long to have.

"We still need to figure out who is going to pay the bills," Cindric said. "IndyCar hasn't had a series sponsor since Northern Light in 2001 and we need a series sponsor to move this sport forward.

"But because of the support and commitment of the owners, IndyCar racing will move on."

Except now, it moves on without George as its leader.

Tony Stewart victory at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway was one he didn't want to celebrate.

Stewart dominated the race before Kyle Busch passed him on the final lap, but he was set to make a final attempt dash for victory heading into the third turn. As Stewart closed in on Busch's car, Busch began to block.

The unwritten rule in NASCAR is a driver is entitled to pick a lane and protect his position in that lane; so Busch decided to block low, thwarting Stewart's attempt. But when Stewart then attempted to go high, Busch made a second block.

Stewart kept his car straight, did not turn into Busch, but the two cars made contact because Busch was trying to block.

What happened afterwards was every bit as devastating as the end of the previous restrictor-plate race at Talladega, when the cars driven by Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards touched heading toward the checkered flag, sending Edwards airborne into the catch fence.

On Saturday night, Busch's Toyota slammed hard into the outside wall with a vicious impact, triggering a multi-car crash. Kasey Kahne's Dodge slammed hard into the rear of Busch's Toyota sending the rear of the car into the air with the rear wheels briefly riding the front window and roof of Kahne's car.

But there was one last hard lick to come, and that was delivered by rookie Joey Logano, whose Toyota T-boned Busch on the driver's side.

Thanks to the safety innovations of NASCAR's current car, as well as the HANS-Device and other safety features, none of the drivers was injured in the calamity, but Busch was obviously upset over the outcome.

He was marching towards victory lane before NASCAR officials grabbed him by the arm and forced him into a safety vehicle for the mandatory checkup in the infield care center.

Busch refused comment afterwards, but the lack of joy in Stewart's face in victory lane showed that once again, restrictor-plate racing is out of hand.

The fans love to see finishes like Talladega and Daytona but the drivers are forced into a position where they have little choice but to approach the end of the race in a reckless fashion.

The leader either has to block or prepare to get passed. But if a driver is going to use blocking as a way to get into victory lane then they also must accept the consequence that follows if they end up driving down on another driver like Edwards did to Keselowski at Talladega and Busch did to Stewart at Daytona.

"I don't know if I was real proud of that, but I don't know what else I could have I done there," Stewart said in victory lane. "I went where I had to go and he went where he had to go. You just hate seeing a guy who's been up front all day, especially a guy that helped me the whole race, get wrecked like that. I don't like winning them like that.

"I made my move to the outside, got up to his right rear tire and when he went to block us and we were already there. It still doesn't mean you like it; you don't want to win that way. That's not the way you want to win these things. If I did something wrong, I'm sorry. I don't think I did but I was out there when he moved so you just feel bad about it. It's not the way you want to win these things."

Even after leaving victory lane and having time to think about what happened, Stewart was still upset at the course of events.

"I just don't feel as much gratification from winning this race as I probably should just because I don't like the way the outcome happened," Stewart said. "If we didn't win the race, we didn't earn it. But I don't want any part of earning a race because the guy that was leading the race got wrecked."

Because of the last-lap smash-up, Jimmie Johnson was able to finish second, and was asked what can be done to prevent last-lap incidents on restrictor-plate tracks.

"There is nothing to do to stop it," Johnson said. "If you think about the position that the sport is in, one race, it's boring, there's no racing, there's no excitement. And then a couple races there is an exciting finish and we're worried about the exciting finish.

"It's plate racing. We're damned if we do, damned if we don't."

When it comes to weirdness in auto racing, Formula One czar Bernie Ecclestone can't be topped, especially after his most recent comments where he said Adolf Hitler "Got things done."

Ecclestone, a 78-year-old billionaire who has been in control of F1 for several decades, made the controversial comment to London newspaper The Times.

Ecclestone criticized modern-day politicians for their weakness and extolled the virtues of strong leadership.

"In a lot of ways, terrible to say this I suppose, but apart from the fact that Hitler got taken away and persuaded to do things that I have no idea whether he wanted to do or not, he was in the way that he could command a lot of people, able to get things done," Ecclestone told The Times. "In the end he got lost, so he wasn't a very good dictator because either he had all these things and knew what was going on and insisted, or he just went along with it . . . so either way he wasn't a dictator." He also rounded on democracy, claiming that "it hasn't done a lot of good for many countries - including this one [Britain]."

Ecclestone endorsed the concept of a government based on tyranny.

"Politicians are too worried about elections," Ecclestone told The Times. "We did a terrible thing when we supported the idea of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. He was the only one who could control that country. It was the same [with the Taliban]. We move into countries and we have no idea of the culture. The Americans probably thought Bosnia was a town in Miami. There are people starving in Africa and we sit back and do nothing but we get involved in things we should leave alone."

Think the Hitler endorsement is strange?

Just last month he said Formula One needed a "black, Jewish woman who, if possible, wins some races".

Ecclestone suggested that Max Mosley, his close friend, the president of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), would make a good Prime Minister.

Mosley is the son of Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, and was recently accused by F1 racing teams of being a "dictator."

A spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews said: "Mr. Ecclestone's comments regarding Hitler, female, black and Jewish racing drivers, and dictatorships are quite bizarre. He says [in the interview], 'Politics is not for me', and we are inclined to agree."

Stephen Pollard, Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, said: "Mr. Ecclestone is either an idiot or morally repulsive. Either he has no idea how stupid and offensive his views are or he does and deserves to be held in contempt by all decent people."

Denis MacShane, the Labour MP and chairman of the all-party inquiry into anti-Semitism, condemned Mr. Ecclestone's decision to align himself to a "growing" anti-democracy movement.

"Of course democracy and the politicians are imperfect and full of fault," he said. "But this fashionable contempt for the right of people to elect their own leaders is frankly frightening.

"If Mr. Ecclestone seriously thinks Hitler had to be persuaded to kill six million Jews, invade every European country and bomb London then he knows neither history and shows a complete lack of judgment."

Ecclestone and F1 just continue to get weirder and weirder. Imagine what would happen in the United States if the head of a professional sports league made such comments?

This year, the antics of Ecclestone and Mosley have overshadowed what has actually happened on the race track. Two weeks ago, a dangerous split between FOTA teams and F1 over Mosley's financial caps was averted when Mosley finally backed down.

Now comes the Hitler comments from Ecclestone.

No wonder Formula One can't make it in the United States.

"God, let's hope not. I don't want to disappoint you guys that much. I want to try to help out with as many good articles as I can." -- NASCAR driver Tony Stewart when asked if he is "mellowing" with age.

"I slipped out and she said, 'how many laps are you going to make?' That's what she was worried about. She said as long as I don't make but one lap I'll be able to come home tonight." -- Richard Petty, who climbed back into the No. 43 Pontiac that he drove to his 200th Cup win on July 4, 1984, as he was honored on the 25th anniversary of that accomplishment before Saturday night's race at Daytona.

"I'm too fat to be climbing fences. It was fun to do that, but it's a lot tougher than it looks, let me tell you. The first time I did it when we won the July Fourth race, I got to the top and I thought, 'man, what was I doing?' But it was such a cool view that I did it again the next week. But man, it's a lot harder than it looks, I can promise you that." -- Tony Stewart on why he no longer climbs the fence after a victory.

"That didn't take long, did it?" -- IndyCar Series team owner Dale Coyne after his driver, Justin Wilson, won Sunday's IndyCar Series race at Watkins Glen International. It was the first victory for Coyne in 558 attempts.

While NASCAR Sprint Cup has its second-straight Saturday Night Shootout when the series heads to Chicagoland Speedway, the IndyCar Series heads north of the border for the Honda Indy Toronto. This was one of the most popular events on the old CART and Champ Car schedules as throngs of Canadian race fans turn out to watch cars race through the streets. Thanks to unification, the IndyCar Series gets to hit the streets of Toronto for the first time this weekend.

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