IMS matriarch Mari Hulman George passes away at 83

Photo courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway
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Mary “Mari” Hulman George, matriarch of the Hulman George racing family and Chairman of the Board Emeritus of Hulman & Company, which owns and operates the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, passed away early Saturday morning. She was 83.

Hulman George passed away surrounded by family members, according to an Indianapolis Motor Speedway statement.

“Racing is filled with passionate people, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone more passionate than Mari Hulman George,” retired IndyCar and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, an Indiana native who grew up idolizing the Indy 500 and the speedway, told The Associated Press.

Hulman George oversaw stewardship of IMS – known as the Racing Capital of the World – as its chairman for nearly 30 years, from 1988 until her retirement from active involvement in day-to-day operations in 2016. However, even in retirement, she still remained active in IMS oversight.

Noted for her quiet yet firm control of the company – which included Hulman & Company, IMS and the IMS Foundation – Hulman George also was well known for her philanthropic efforts in Indianapolis and the state of Indiana for numerous groups, including Special Olympics, of which she was involved with until her death.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Hulman & Company matriarch Mary “Mari” Hulman George, who passed away early Saturday at the age of 83. (Photo: Getty Images)

Hulman George spent her entire adult life in and around IMS, which was purchased in November 1945 by her father, Anton “Tony” Hulman Jr., who saved the facility from almost certain demolition following the conclusion of World War II.

Hulman George was one of the most respected individuals in motorsports, and was one of the first women to be involved in operations and management of such a major facility as IMS in the 1950s and 1960s.

Mary Antonia Hulman – who adopted the nickname “Mari” in her youth – was born to Anton Herman Jr. and Mary Fendrich Hulman on December 26, 1934 in Evansville, Indiana.

While Hulman was involved in helping her family run IMS as a teenager, it was after attending Purdue University that she became immersed in greater involvement in assisting her father in operating IMS.

In 1954, Hulman George, who had not even turned 21 yet, joined with family friend Roger Wolcott to form the HOW racing team, which became successful in both the American Automobile Association (AAA) and United States Auto Club (USAC) Sprint and National Championship series.

Among drivers that piloted cars for the HOW team were Jerry Hoyt, Eddie Sachs, Tony Bettenhausen, Roger McCluskey and Elmer George, whom she married in April 1957. Elmer George subsequently won the Midwest Sprint Car title the same year after finishing third in 1956. Elmer George would also finish third in 1958. In addition, Sachs was runner-up in the Midwest Sprint Car rankings in 1954.

Mari Hulman George and her husband co-owned an Indianapolis 500 entry in 1962 and 1963 that Elmer George drove, finishing a career-best 17th in 1962. Elmer George received relief help from Paul Russo and A.J. Foyt during that race.

Jeff Gordon with Mari Hulman George after winning the Brickyard 400 on August 8, 2004 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Photo By Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

Foyt and Hulman George first met in 1958, forming a relationship that evolved into a lifelong friendship. Foyt was one of Hulman George’s closest friends and most trusted advisors, and vice-versa Hulman George was the same for Foyt.

Hulman also maintained close relationships with numerous drivers, team owners, sponsors, Indianapolis and Indiana politicians, business leaders, charitable group officials and more.

Hulman George was a private person who rarely sought out the public spotlight. But she did assume the role of issuing the famous “Gentleman (and Lady or Ladies, if females were entered in the race), Start Your Engines” command to start races for more than 15 years, from the late 1990s until 2015, in both the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR’s Brickyard 400.

She also became close with stars of TV and the silver screen, including her beloved friend Jim Nabors, who sang “Back Home Again In Indiana” at IMS for nearly 30 years, and Florence Henderson, who also performed for numerous years during Indy 500 pre-race activities.

Hulman George will be long remembered for her oversight of IMS and taking the facility and related events to unprecedented heights of notoriety and popularity.

It was under Hulman George’s watch that IMS not only further solidified the Indy 500 as the greatest motorsports racing event in the world, but also played host to NASCAR and the Brickyard 400, Formula One (2002 through 2007), the FIM MotoGP World Championship, began the Indianapolis Grand Prix for IndyCar in 2014, and more recently, the Red Bull Air Race.

One of Hulman George’s greatest achievements – and one the racing world globally has her to thank for especially – was her determination to constantly enhance safety. She led the move for IMS to become the first major racing facility in the world to install the energy-absorbing SAFER Barrier in 2002.

In addition to her philanthropic involvement, Hulman George was also a tireless advocate for animals, particularly horses and dogs, particularly retired racing Greyhounds.

Hulman George is survived by three daughters, Nancy George, Josie George and Kathi George-Conforti; a son, Anton H. “Tony” George; a stepdaughter, Carolyn Coffey; seven grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and her longtime companion, Guy Trollinger. She was predeceased by her husband, Elmer, and a stepson, Joseph George.

Funeral arrangements are pending and have been entrusted to Callahan & Hughes Funeral Home in Terre Haute, Indiana.

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STATEMENTS ON THE PASSING OF MARY HULMAN GEORGE:

* AJ Foyt, President, Foyt Enterprises: I was really sorry to hear that Mari passed on. My wife Lucy and I were close friends with Mari and Elmer George, we spent a lot of time together. When I was coming up through the ranks we lived with them two or three summers. We’ve been close for over 60 years. We spent many a Christmas together, our kids are about the same age so we had a lot of wonderful times together. She is the one who got me in the horse racing business. She had quarter horses and talked me into buying a horse. I’m still in the horse business. We did a lot of things together and had a lot of fun. She’s going to be dearly missed, especially by me.

* Son Anton “Tony” George, Chairman of the Board of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in a statement for the entire Hulman George family: “Our mother was such a unique, wonderful person,” her son, Tony George, said in a family-issued statement. “She loved her family, friends, auto racing and animals with equal passion. She was a quiet pioneer in so many ways, from owning a race team in the 1950s and 1960s to overseeing a period of tremendous growth and evolution while chairman of the board at IMS. She was known by millions as the woman who gave the command to start engines for the Indianapolis 500 and other events at the Speedway, but her true legacy will be the generous and kind philanthropy she learned from her parents. That compassion and desire to help people and animals every day are the true hallmarks of her incredible life. We love her deeply and will miss her every day, while ensuring that her spirit and generosity live forever at IMS.”

* Mark D. Miles, President and Chief Executive Officer, Hulman & Company: “Mari Hulman George was one of the nicest, most gentle people you would ever meet, but she also was an incredibly influential leader in American motorsports and the state of Indiana for the last 60 years. She combined a true passion for auto racing with a common, human touch toward all, especially drivers and fans. Generations of Hoosiers have benefited from her tireless charitable work, and her commitment to animal care is exemplary and a mirror of her kindness. We extend our sincere condolences to the entire Hulman-George family and will miss her greatly.”

* J. Douglas Boles, President, Indianapolis Motor Speedway: “The Hulman family’s legacy will be felt for generations across Indiana. And, Mari Hulman George’s continuation of the family’s community leadership, giving spirit and compassion defines well the family and its Hoosier heritage. Mrs. George was committed to the long-term health of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a treasured Indiana asset, and her stewardship as chairman set the tone for staff and others involved with IMS. We were most impacted by her charitable heart and dedication to causes and organizations that made a difference to our community. While she will be missed deeply by fans, staff, friends and family, her presence and impact will be felt at IMS and across Indiana for years to come.”

* Roger Penske, Owner, Team Penske: Mari Hulman George was a leader and an inspiration to so many, not only in motorsports but throughout the state of Indiana and beyond. Her vision and guiding hand has been a driving force at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and her love of motorsports, along with her compassion for everyone associated with racing, was unrivaled. We will all miss her leadership and her spirit. Our thoughts are with the Hulman George family.

* Jim France, NASCAR Chairman and Chief Executive Officer: “Mari’s devotion to Indianapolis Motor Speedway was only surpassed by her kindness. Her tireless philanthropy and her passion for auto racing leave a legacy that touches the lives of millions. Mari was a true inspiration to us and her leadership and grace impacted us all. From the France family, all of NASCAR, ISC and IMSA, we send our deepest condolences to the Hulman George family as we mourn her loss.”

* Parnelli Jones – 1963 Indianapolis 500 winner: “Mari loved racing and I remember her as a car owner back in the 1960’s. I even drove for Mari at Trenton in April of 1963 and finished second – (A.J.) Foyt won and Herk (Jim Hurtubise) was third. I drove Mari’s #21 HOW Special Champ Dirt car after I broke a driveshaft on my car in practice. That’s when the dirt cars ran as well as the roadsters at Trenton. Mari was always very friendly and very charitable just like her father, Tony. She didn’t like the spotlight and preferred to let others do the talking. Mari respected and admired the hard work of the teams, mechanics, owners and drivers; she was a racer. I’ll miss seeing her in May, she was a very special lady.”

* Bobby Unser – 1968, 1975 and 1981 Indianapolis 500 winner: “I remember Mari going back to my first Indianapolis 500 in 1963, actually I remember her before that – she loved racing and would come to USAC Sprint Car races and other races around the Midwest before I raced in the 500. She was a good friend to me and she was a good friend to all of us in racing, just like her father Tony Hulman. Mari truly had fun and enjoyed being part of the Indy 500 and other events. She also very, very into horses and Greyhounds, her passion away from the track. She was a good person and always had others in mind – her charity work benefited lots and lots of people, something we all admired her for. Basically over the years we all grew up together at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and shared a lot of fun times and great memories there. We will miss Mari as a racer and true friend.”

* Alice Hanks – wife of 1957 Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hanks: “I knew Mari as a teenage girl and saw her blossom into a fine young lady and then a lovely woman that always cared for others. She always looked out for everyone and was especially kind to Sam and I when we were at the track. She’d check in with us and if we needed help she would drive us from the Speedway Motel to the garage area and suites. Mari was very generous and shared her time with everyone. I’ll miss Mari. I enjoyed seeing her and speaking with her each May.”

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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”