Tony George has been vilified by most anyone with an opinion on the Great Open-Wheel Schism of 1996-2008. He had irreparably broken open-wheel racing. He didn't know what he was doing. He was draining the Hulman family trust, as if that was any of their business. Those were among the civil comments.
But thumbing through newspaper coverage of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and indulging on M&Ms as race cars screamed outside his transporter, the founder and chief executive of the Indy Racing League was focused ahead. He doesn't really think he broke open-wheel racing, and he's not taking credit for fixing it after the rival Champ Car series went out of business and some of its teams and race dates were folded into the IRL.
It's just time to get on with the future, he said.
What's the next step for the IRL?
It's just a matter of continuing to assimilate all the teams into one series and try to each week improve and build on the product, try to get everything stable on a platform we can build on. We had a good race last week (at Homestead). I don't know if we could have expected anything more, but I know everyone did an outstanding job under very difficult circumstances. I think this week feels good, and it's building the way we'd like to see it. I think it's still going to be a little challenging as we leave here, but by May, hopefully things will really have found its level and we'll be able to start building.
With open-wheel racing not truly unified since 1979, did you need to see the signatures on paper to believe this was a done deal?
I don't think it required seeing dry ink, but once I got the sense it was going to happen, I found some relief. I actually started sleeping well and for about a week, I had about six or seven nights of uninterrupted sleep, which is something I haven't had in a long time.
I think just knowing that we have a chance to all work together now, to build open-wheel racing back to where it needs to be is exciting. … This week again, looking at this spotter card with all those cars on it, I think everyone is feeling pretty good about it, including myself.
How different will May and the Indianapolis 500 feel this year?
We'll have to wait and see. I think the fans will give us a sense of feel. I think it will be competitive and there's all likelihood we'll see 36 to 40 entries potentially. … These teams will have had an opportunity to get more familiar with the equipment, they'll have the whole month of May — weather permitting — to really get comfortable with the package at the speedway, and I think it'll only get more competitive as the weeks go by.
Did you celebrate once the deal was done?
I had a couple of people send me bottles of champagne and (I) received a couple of cigars, and, to be honest, I haven't enjoyed any of them at this point. I intend to at some point. It's just been pretty hectic.
Do you feel like you've vindicated yourself in your detractors' opinions by making the moves — many financial — to reunify the discipline?
I'm not sure I broke anything, so I'm not sure I fixed anything. Collectively, we broke open-wheel racing and collectively, we fixed it. But for the decision Champ Car ownership made to not continue, we wouldn't be unified, would we? They basically made that decision.
We hear future schedules referred to as a "clean sheet of paper." Is St. Petersburg on that sheet?
This is one of the great events. You've got the support of the community, an engaged promoter with a very supportive cast of supporters as far as sponsors for the event, great ambience. I can't imagine that it wouldn't be back. I think we do have them on the schedule already because their contract is through next year. I can't imagine it wouldn't be part of it going forward.