SI Vault
Robert Shaplen
May 26, 1958
Tony Hulman has emerged from self-imposed obscurity as a millionaire sportsman to lead man's fastest, dizziest merry-go-round
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May 26, 1958

Part I: Hoosier Pied Piper

Tony Hulman has emerged from self-imposed obscurity as a millionaire sportsman to lead man's fastest, dizziest merry-go-round

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One of the least known yet most versatile and accomplished sportsmen in America, and one of the richest men in this rich country, is a 57-year-old, boyishly handsome Hoosier from Terre Haute named Anton Hulman Jr. Unlike a lot of men with a lot of money—the best guess is that his various ventures are worth as much as $100 million—Hulman not only has always lived unostentatiously, but until relatively recently was self-effacing to the point of self-obliteration. In fact, he was a sort of Walter Mitty in reverse, doing his best to live down a glamorous past. If he was privately proud of having played end on the famous undefeated Yale football team of 1923, of receiving All-America mention from Walter Camp, of having won nearly a hundred medals at prep school and at college as an all-round track and field star, of rating as one of the finest deep-sea fishermen ever to throw a line out for marlin, tuna or bonefish, or being almost as adept at big-game hunting and skeet shooting, of swimming like a champion, and, on rainy days, of playing a crackerjack game of bridge or billiards, his public attitude was summed up in the sort of Indiana idiom he likes to use: "Shucks, man, that was a dang long time ago."

What has prompted Hulman to emerge from his shell of anonymity is, of all things, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He bought the Brickyard in 1945 from a nonanonymous man named Eddie Rickenbacker, a sometime war hero and oldtime racing driver, who had shut it down when the last war started and, along with a lot of others, had his doubts that the famous "500" ever would be resumed. Hulman paid $750,000 for the track, which was $50,000 more than Rickenbacker had paid for it in the gaudy days of 1927. He has since put another $3 million into it, which is considerably more than it has earned, though a cozy profit has been coming in regularly over the past five years.

There's nothing else cozy about Indy. The annual Memorial Day race draws between 175,000 and 200,000 spectators, and it would be pretty hard for any man who owns and operates such a mammoth enterprise to remain unknown. As things have turned out, Tony Hulman and the Speedway not only go well together but he loves every last brick in its body. Even though Indy is a one-day event, or, if one includes the time trials and qualification runs during May, a one-month affair at best, Hulman joyously spends about 25% of his busy working hours on the track. There are certain psychological reasons for his absorption. As a combination of a great big national picnic and the very quintessence of speed, the "500" satisfies a number of solid Hulman inner drives, among which are having fun going fast and playing the role of an automotive Pied Piper.

In reviving more than a race, in refashioning a genuine folk festival, Hulman, despite an innate shyness, had seemed to me to be a rather unique, almost old-fashioned kind of sports promoter of the Tex Rickard stripe, or perhaps a combination of Rickard and P. T. Barnum in his less cynical moments. At any rate, aware that he had succeeded admirably in putting across the single biggest paid-attendance sports festival in the world, I eagerly accepted his invitation to attend last year's "500" and at the same time to get to know him better. Had I been aware of what a physical ordeal he was to put me through, my anticipatory pleasure might have been slightly tempered.

Wanting to see the great throng slowly gather, I went to Indianapolis the day before the big race, arriving just as Hulman was about to make his customary talk to the drivers at the track. "I haven't had a thing to eat since yesterday and I'm starting to get a headache," he said as he greeted me. "I managed to grab three hours' sleep last night but there wasn't time to eat breakfast." He looked, I thought, a pretty happy flagellant.

In view of the recent spate of racing accidents, I was anxious to hear Hulman's cautionary words to the drivers, who sat in rows of three in the new infield grandstand exactly in the order in which they were to start the race. "I know how much you all want to win, but there are a lot of hazards, and let's have a little heart for each other," Hulman said. He especially warned them about not racing for the first turn when the green starting flag went down and, heavy with a full load of fuel, they were still all bunched up—a moment he and other racing men consider the most dangerous of the whole contest.

Hulman's schedule the rest of that day kept him shuttling from one big prerace celebration to another. In the late afternoon he managed to nibble on some spareribs at the Firestone party, held under a large tent on the side of the track. An hour or so later he was leading a big parade of floats through downtown Indianapolis. Then he rushed to a private dinner party given by Mrs. William Atkins, widow of a wealthy saw manufacturer. He arrived when the meal was almost over and turned down proffers of a special plate, but listened to the Duke of Manchester, here on a visit, praise him as "the finest sportsman I have ever met" before he dashed off to a huge public dance on the roof of a local theater. Finally, around midnight, he turned up at a party being given by F. C. (Jack) Reith, then general manager of the Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Company, who was to drive the pace car in the big race.

While Hulman was so engaged, I had wandered around the carnival area across the street from the Speedway for a few hours and had watched the cars begin to line up in 21 traffic lanes around the track. After that I went back to the Indianapolis Athletic Club for dinner and what I thought would be a good night's sleep. At about one a.m., however, I found a note in my box. "Meet me in the lobby at 2:30 a.m.," it said, and it was signed "Tony." It was a question whether it was worthwhile going to sleep at all, but I compromised on about an hour's worth. When I met Hulman downstairs in the lobby at the appointed hour, he said he had managed about the same. He was wearing a somewhat mussed tan gabardine suit and a pair of scuffed brown shoes. "How do you feel?" I asked him. He paused, gulped, smiled and said, "Great, just great," as if he really meant it.

With June Swango, Hulman's comely and efficient secretary, we had some scrambled eggs and coffee at an all-night restaurant down the block and then drove six miles out to the track in Speedway City. Now the cars were lined up four abreast for blocks around. Most of the excursionists were still sleeping, many of them on mattresses on the ground. A few all-night revelers were still reveling. (Since no liquor is sold on Memorial Day, practically everyone who comes to Indy is well armed with tins, containers, bottles and even small iceboxes of beer and other liquid refreshment. There are some drunks by racetime but surprisingly few and, all in all, the tremendous crowd is very well behaved.)

The Ferris wheel at the carnival was still slowly dipping across the nocturnal sky as we moved along, past five truckloads of screaming newsboys. As the time for the race drew closer, it seemed to me the tension could be felt in the nerve ends, and yet there was something oddly quiet and controlled about it, something that transcended the burgeoning excitement of a dangerous contest. Beyond its attributes of a circus, a clambake and a county fair as well as a race, there was a quality that was typically American to this early-morning scene, these thousands of cars with their multifarious license plates lined up and waiting for the signal to enter the huge enclosure. It was, I thought, an immutable tribute to that insatiable desire to move, to roll on wheels, to go somewhere, if only for a day or two, that makes an American think nothing of climbing into his car and taking it 500 miles or more to see a 500-mile race and then 500 miles home again.

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