Who owns Chicagoland Speedway? It’s a question the racing world is asking themselves as they mourn the passing of one of motoring’s most storied venues. The 3.5-mile flat track held its last NASCAR race on March 29, and the track’s owner, Tony George, died the following day at the age of 79. George was an influential figure in motorsport, with a storied career in which he competed in six 24-hour events, won the 1969 Grand Prix of Nations, and sold the legendary track he co-owned with his brother. George had a hand in almost every facet of car racing history, from organizing the Indianapolis 500 to creating the Daytona Prototype, a combination of Corvette and Porsche that set the standard for sports car racing for decades. We take a look at the amazing life of Tony George.
A Renaissance Man
Tony George was born in New York City on April 8, 1935. He moved out west with his family at a young age, living in Los Angeles, where he attended college. After graduating, Tony co-founded a talent agency and began working on behalf of some of the biggest names in entertainment. He represented some of the biggest names in the industry, from Judy Garland to Shirley Temple, and was responsible for discovering the biggest stars of all time, including Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, and Ava Gardner. He was also an accomplished musician, and played guitar in a band with Wayne Newton and Mickey Dolenz.
In 1958, George founded the International Speedway Corporation, which owned the Indianapolis 500, the longest-running annual sporting event in the world, and the brand-new 3.5-mile track in Nogales, Arizona. This was the brainchild of George, who wanted to combine the prestige of the Indianapolis 500 with that of a World’s Fair. The name of the track was changed to Chicagoland Speedway.
His other projects included the creation of an auto racing league, the NASCAR Grand National Championship, and the Daytona International Speedway, an annual winter sporting event that is now considered the Super Bowl of racing. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1982. In 2017, Tony George was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as an inaugural member of the Modern Day Wing.
A Self-Made Man
It’s safe to say that without Tony George and his many accomplishments, there would be no NASCAR as we know it today. He created the sport as we know it, and will forever be remembered for that. As an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and designer, it’s no wonder that the Motorcycle Hall of Fame called Tony George one of the greatest showmen of all time.
But it’s not only about George’s influence on the sporting world. He co-founded the American Cancer Society, and designed the Tony George Foundation’s iconic pink ribbon to encourage women and girls to get involved in sports.
A Life Lesson From The Past
When George passed away, his family released the following statement about why he had to leave us so soon:
“It is with a heavy heart that we recall our dear friend Tony George, who passed away last week from complications of bladder cancer. He was a great businessman, wonderful husband, father, and friend. He was also a pioneer in bringing NASCAR to life by creating the International Speedway Corporation. The track he built in his native city of Indianapolis is considered one of the great sporting venues of all time. We will miss him dearly.”
And from the Motorcycle Hall of Fame:
“It is with great sadness that we report the passing of one of motorsport’s greatest pioneers. Throughout his life, Tony George made history time and time again, whether he was an accomplished songwriter, record producer, talent agent, race car builder, or team owner. His legacy will live on for years to come. Our thoughts and condolences are with Tony’s family and friends.”
Racing Was All In All
The Motorcycle Hall of Fame’s president, Chris Bangle, said of George: “He changed everything. He was the man who brought us the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR. He was behind the scenes and in front of the cameras. He invented professional racing. He was larger than life and an amazing pioneer who had an enormous impact on sports and entertainment. There’s a lot to be said for a man who had so much success and left such an impression on everyone who knew him.”
One of George’s closest friends, actor William H. Macy, shared a similar sentiment. “He was such a colorful character, and had such a charisma about him,” said Macy. “You got to remember, this was back in the days when men still worked and women stayed at home. He would come back from the track, and there would be cigar smoke and whiskey on his breath, and he would still go to work. He just had a tremendous work ethic. I can’t think of a better man to have had a hand in creating sports, because he was so instrumental in making them popular.”
A Monumental Life
It is fair to say Tony George’s life was eventful, to say the least. He had such a unique perspective on the world, and was always eager to share his opinions on current events with anyone who would listen. If you had the privilege of knowing Tony George or chatting with him briefly, you would know that he cared passionately about many things, including motor racing, music, and the fine arts. He was a collector of both art and music, and had an extensive vinyl record collection that he cherished. He also attended the theater and the opera with his wife, Ann, especially in later life when his health started to decline. This passion will live on in the form of the art exhibitions and musical events he supported throughout his life, as well as the Tony George Foundation, which promotes physical activity and sportsmanship in children.