A prominent businessman and civic leader, Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr. (February 11, 1901 – October 27, 1977) in Terre Haute, Indiana, saved the Indianapolis Motor Speedway from extinction when he purchased the shuttered property on November 14, 1945, from former race-car driver, World War I flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient Eddie Rickenbacker.
But more than that, Hulman returned the Indianapolis 500 to the heights of global recognition with the simple thought of keeping it as a grand and spectacular public sporting event in the same manner as with which the Kentucky Derby was regarded by horse racing.
Born into a well-to-do family and benefiting from the education and other advantages such a situation provided, Hulman was an excellent prep-school high-hurdler and pole-vaulter who at age 17 served with the American Red Cross Ambulance Corps during World War One.
After graduating from Yale University in 1924 he returned to Terre Haute and went to work at the family’s Hulman & Company provisions business – which included manufacturing Clabber Girl, the top-selling baking powder in the United States. Then, after learning every management position, he took over the company’s operation from his father in 1931 and continued with his long history of extensive community involvement and philanthropy.
But Hulman’s involvement with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn’t begin until three-time (1937 & 1939-1940) Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw approached him about buying it during his long quest to find its savior. Closed during World War II, Shaw found the iconic track in great disrepair while performing a special government-approved tire test there on November 29, 1944, and he was anxious to find a buyer who would keep it and the 500-Mile Race alive.
Hulman saw this as a chance to save a place that meant a great deal to the people of Indiana and he purchased the 2.5-mile Speedway for $750,000 – virtually what Rickenbacker had paid for it in 1927. And upon taking ownership, he insisted that all of the profits from what would become “the largest single-day sporting event in the world” be put back into the historic race track so as to keep it as modern, safe and comfortable as possible for the fans and the racers.
Shaw was hired immediately to be IMS president and the two astute businessmen did all they could to return the Speedway and the Indy 500 to its rightful place of prominence. And that work began right away as the first race under Hulman’s ownership took place on May 30, 1946.
After Shaw died in a plane crash just one day before his 52nd birthday on October 30, 1954, the normally-shy Hulman became the popular “face” of the Speedway and he quickly relished that job. He really did know just about everyone who worked there, he was well-liked by all of the drivers, owners and crew members, and he was truly famous for his enthusiastic “GENNNNNTLEMENNNNN, STARRRRRT YOURRRRRR ENNNNNNNGINES!” command before the 500 – something that he always read from a file card that he had in his suit pocket.
He was also genuinely proud of every winner of the famous Borg-Warner Trophy. And when the American Automobile Association stopped sanctioning National Championship Races after 1955, he was instrumental in forming the United States Auto Club that took over that role.
The last Indy 500 under Tony Hulman’s stewardship was a special one as fellow EMPA Hall of Famer A.J. Foyt Jr. – a dear family friend who always credited the Speedway for his enviable career – asked Hulman to join him in the Pace Car during his victory tour around the “Brickyard” after he won his record fourth race (1961, 1964, 1967 & 1977). It was the only time that the track’s owner had ever done that and it was a memorable moment for everyone in racing.
Some five months later, the beloved gentleman died of heart failure in Indianapolis. But his grand legacy lives on as the Speedway is still owned and run by the Hulman-George Family.