Tony George: Life in the fast lane
Monday, May 18, 2009
SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Tony George can be forgiven for being in a hurry. As CEO of family-run Indianapolis Motor Speedway, speed is in his blood.
So it’s no surprise that George is still putting on his shoes in the cart as he arrives for our round at Brickyard Crossing, the golf course that runs along, and inside, the track.
Throughout this month, the speedway will be filled with the man-made thunder of engines as race teams prepare for the Indianapolis 500. On May 24, some 400,000 race fans will crowd into the 2.5-mile oval to watch “the greatest spectacle in racing,” ensuring that Speedway, Ind., will, at least for one day, be the state’s second-largest city. But on this fall afternoon, the track is quiet.
George’s office is just a short cart ride from Brickyard Crossing’s first tee, and friends say he has a tidy golf game when he has time to play. But that’s rare; our round together would be just his second of the year at Brickyard Crossing.
His time is consumed by his business interests. Those include the Indy Racing League, which he founded, and Vision Racing, the IRL team he owns and for which his stepson, Ed Carpenter, drives. He’s also CEO of the track’s parent company, Hulman & Co.
The marshals at Brickyard Crossing know George by name – he grew up around the speedway – and direct us to the 14th tee, our first of the day. It’s open, and George is in a hurry.
He pulls his driver on No. 14, a drivable, 298-yard par 4. With no warm-up, he snap-hooks his opening tee ball out of bounds. Unflustered, he pulls another ball from his pocket, tees it up and rips another hook, though this one stays in play.
“Tony looks at golf like racing,” says Eddie White, host of an afternoon show on ESPN’s Indianapolis radio affiliate. “His approach is very calculated. He’s not going to throw a club if he misses a shot, and you’re not going to get a high-five or a fist-pump if he makes a long putt.”
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Anton H. “Tony” George, 49, is the third generation of the Hulman family to run the famed racetrack. In George’s world, speed is king. But when he speaks, he does so deliberately, if at all.
“He’s quiet . . . doesn’t say a whole lot,” says architect Pete Dye. “I had him and Larry Bird down to Kiawah Island (S.C.) one time, and the two of them didn’t say five words the whole round.”
When George was looking to upgrade Brickyard Crossing in the early 1990s, he turned to Dye, who is nearly as much of an institution in these parts as the speedway. Dye is a longtime resident of Carmel, just north of Indianapolis, and George occasionally can be found beating balls on the range at Dye’s Crooked Stick Golf Club.
“Arthur Hills did a full-blown presentation, with slides and everything,” George recalls of his search for a designer. Dye, famously independent, presented “sketches on both sides of a legal pad. I liked what Pete wanted to do with the course.”
Dye put four holes, Nos. 7-10, inside the oval, replacing a par-3 course that George grew up playing, with the remaining 14 holes east of the speedway.
“He’s done a wonderful job of running that place,” Dye says. “We totally tore up that old place. Really, nothing is similar.”
In 1960, Dye was chairman of the 500 Festival Open Invitation, the first PGA Tour event in the Midwest with a $50,000 purse. The Tour’s top players would show up, play for three days, take a day off to watch the race, then play the final round the next day.
“But they parked race spectator cars on the golf course, so the last day would have the course full of beer cans and chicken bones,” Dye recalls. “It didn’t matter, because they were playing for $50,000.”
These days, Brickyard Crossing, a Champions Tour site in the 1990s, is pampered, benefiting from the speedway’s considerable resources.
“The best thing about Tony’s golf game is his golf course,” says Curt Cavin, the motorsports writer for The Indianapolis Star and one of George’s occasional playing partners. “The Brickyard Crossing is not only immaculate, it’s fair.”
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George’s rhythmic swing and the equipment he carries – Mizuno MP-60 muscle-back irons and a Bettinardi blade putter – attest to his talents, which nevertheless are rusty. Aside from a weeklong trip to Ireland with friends, his golf outings are limited mostly to charity events, and he admits he has trouble playing to his single-digit handicap.
“I don’t like to play scrambles, but those are usually the opportunities I get to play,” George says. “I prefer to play in some kind of competition, but usually don’t get to play enough before to be competitive.”
During this round, a persistent hook confounds him – not something for which he usually would have much patience.
“I don’t think people realize what a good athlete Tony is, and he’s a tremendous golfer,” Cavin says. “But sometimes I wonder if he enjoys the game. He’s such a perfectionist that every ‘miss’ draws a look of exasperation. I know that look well, having asked him my share of stupid questions over the years.”
But on this day, George adopts a Zen approach, savoring the still-warm fall weather and his course’s pristine conditions.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “Getting out and enjoying the game.”
– Roger Hart is managing editor at Autoweek