During an astonishing financial and sporting career, Anton Hulman Jr., the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, has increased an originally tidy family fortune 10-or 20-fold by always demonstrating a genius for knowing what people want. People, of course, want a lot of things, and Hulman supplies them. Though the nucleus of the business is still a 108-year-old general wholesale firm, Hulman and Company, which sells everything from baking powder (Clabber Girl) to catcher's mitts, he now owns so many other properties, from midwestern gas companies and breweries to refineries and real estate, that no one, some say not even Hulman himself, has a clear idea of just what the total embraces, physically or financially.
Hulman has always been as reticent about his business affairs as he has about his private life. Except for those who work with him on it, and the tax authorities, no one ever gets to see a profit or loss statement on the Speedway, for instance, which is why exact attendance figures are never given out. In making a great public show out of it, however, he admits to having spent more than $3 million to date, and this is as much of a tribute to his knowledge of people as of profits, for by providing that much pleasure the profits seem to take care of themselves. For the last several years, though he still puts more back into it than he takes out, the Speedway has been solidly in the black.
Contrary to the claim of a group of Texans, who bid against him for the Speedway in 1945, that Hulman had never seen a "500" before he took it over from Eddie Rickenbacker, his interest in racing goes back a long way. In fact, he was fully aware of what an enduring attraction the Speedway was when he was still in knee pants. Hulman saw his first race in 1914, and by 1941, when the track closed for the duration of the war, he had witnessed a dozen or more contests. Furthermore, his main reason for wanting the Speedway was one that ought to be appreciated deep in the heart of chauvinism—he thought it should remain a home-grown Indiana enterprise.
When I first went out to visit him last year in his colonial-style home in Terre Haute, where he and his wife, Mary, have lived for three decades, Hulman explained to me, in carefully nurtured homespun lingua franca, why he felt he had to get into the big race. "Ever since I remember, I knew about Indy," he said. "Race day was always a big day for us kids in Terre Haute. Even if we weren't goin', we'd stand at the bridge on the side of town—it was the Old National Road then, dirt, before it got to be U.S. 40—and we'd watch the cars go by to Indianapolis, 70 miles away. Foreign makes and all. It was pretty darn impressive. Golly, you get to have an identification with somethin' that's been around that long. Anyway, I've always loved racin'. Sure, I wanted to be a race driver. I guess all of us out here did. Father had an old Pierce-Arrow and we used to go out into the country to fetch a batch of fresh eggs and maybe we'd meet up with a Stutz Bearcat. The old man never minded havin' a little skirmish."
"I remember that Pierce," Mary Hulman broke in. "It was dark green and had wire wheels, and your Uncle Herman had one, too, with the first fender lights in town."
"Another year we had a Cadillac," Hulman continued. "Brass gaskets on the cylinders. We drove to Indianapolis in two hours and nine minutes once. That was speed, boy! We had to back off from the hills to take a run at 'em."
"You always drove like the wind," Mary Hulman said. "You were a regular Barney Oldfield."
"I recollect Oldfield," Hulman said, nodding. "I was only 13 when I saw my first race, but I can still see Barney tearin' around in a Stutz, with that famous cigar in his mouth. He finished fifth that year and that was the best he ever did at Indianapolis."
I asked him what he thought of today's drivers.
"Maybe the old drivers were a more colorful crowd," Hulman conceded, "but that's not the whole story. People talk about these engines nowadays bein' so much alike that they're peas in a pod. They say the mechanics make the difference. Let me tell you somethin'—the driver counts more than ever. Indy's a funny track and a funny race. Just because a man's a champ on some dirt track around the country is no sign he'll be champ out here. You see a really good driver, though, and you'll know right away that the son of a gun is gonna be a contender. Like Vukovich [Bill Vukovich, who won the big race in 1953 and 1954 and was killed on the 57th lap in 1955 when he appeared to be on his way to a unique third straight victory]. Vukie always kept himself in tip-top shape. Used to trot around the track every day before he got in his car."