A Conflict of Interest

LAGUNA BEACH – It was little more than a decade ago that Anton Hulman George proposed the Indy Racing League as a major open wheel alternative for the small racing businessman.

The IRL was intended to be a secular organization in which owners did not make the rules and rulers did not own the teams. That idea was diametrically opposed to the manner in which [then] successful Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) operated.

The Indy Racing League will embark upon its tenth season of competition in Homestead, Florida early next month and, you guessed it! League founder Tony George will be among those fielding teams in his IndyCar and Menards Infiniti Pro Series.

The cars in question will each be numbered #20 and driven by stepson Ed Carpenter and USAC National sprint car champion Jay Drake, respectively. The team is named Vision Racing LLC. 20/20 Vision?

Carpenter gets the IndyCar Series nod in a Dallara/Toyota/Firestone combination. But isn’t that due to nepotism, after Ed crashed out of six of the 16 2004 races and finished 16th in the title chase? Neither his previous team owner Eddie Cheever nor any other proprietor in the paddock was willing to pay for more chassis repairs.

Drake, who did a fabulous job at the Futaba Freedom 100 on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s historic 2.5-mile Brickyard oval last May got the Pro series ride because of his talent and the fact that he did all the right stuff on “The Road to Indy.”

In the early days of IRL, USAC midgets and sprints were designated the proper avenues to make it to the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately, that road has more often led to NASCAR NEXTEL Cup racing than to Indy or Champ cars.

Strangest of all about Tony George’s plans, and not to get off the subject at hand, was his choice of team manager. George picked the man who bilked John Menard, an Indy Racing League team owner and continuing supporter out of seven figures while purporting to manage his racing affairs.

Yes, Larry Curry is back in the game after being in jail, ostensibly paying his dues and being released to head up former IRL champion (courtesy of his affiliation with Menard) and former NASCAR NEXTEL Cup titleholder Tony Stewart’s USAC and WOO attacks.

Claiming it was a recent opportunity and a challenge he was up to taking, George purchased the assets of Kelley Racing, in order to build Vision Racing in a short time frame. Tom Kelley withdrew from the series after a final, dismal 2004 season.

Trying to sell his equipment and property to one entity, Kelley encountered resistance over the winter solstice. Then George stepped in and bought the entire thing, lock, stock and Toyota contract for engines. So now, in addition to owning the League, Tony George owns a two-car team.

Wasn’t that where we came in?

Tony George claims he’s left his family’s Indy Racing League and Indianapolis Motor Speedway concerns in good hands. Brian Barnhart now heads the League; Joie Chitwood handles the race track.

In announcing his status as a “front man” for this project, which is headed by Curry and augmented by Butler grad Carpenter, George implied it was his job to solicit sponsors – while still serving to benefit the greater flock of Indy Racing League supporters already in the paddock.

He was asked whether his competitors in the IRL had anything to say to him about this new state of affairs. George said they had not.

But can’t you just hear the comments though, from people who came to the Indy Racing League because they thought it was going to be an open-wheel, despot-run and tightly harnessed version of NASCAR?

Among the rationales for his decision to own a two-car team is car count. Despite the competitive nature and the addition of three street/road races this season for an IRL-high 17 races in the IndyCar Series’ 2005 campaign folks just don’t seem to be lining up to play.

Claiming to want new challenges in his life, Tony George believes his acquisition of Kelley Racing’s facility and physical assets is the right thing to do at this time. It benefits his family and his businesses, or so this man believes.

Whether Tony George’s ownership of the League, IMS and two racing teams is a conflict of interest remains to be seen.

George has, for the most part kept his nose out of day-to-day League and IMS projects, preferring to take the blanket approach. Like many a good manager, he has hired people he feels are qualified to take care of minutiae.

That would include Curry and Carpenter now as managers of Vision Racing, wouldn’t it? And who can trust a man that has served time for gross thievery, even if he were the most proficient, sweetest team manager in the entire racing world?

With this new event, the Indy Racing League is channeling more and more of the old CART regimen, if not regime into its flanks. What’s old is new again and we have seen all of this before, haven’t we?

Welcome to the new Indy Racing League, where the ruler owns teams and nothing is really quite what it seems.