MARTIN: Remembering Mari Hulman George

Bruce Martin

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — She grew up as the only child to one of Indiana’s wealthiest families, but Mari Hulman George was no debutante.

The daughter of Tony Hulman and Mary Fenderich Hulman was more a free spirit by nature, than someone who lived the “society life.”

When Tony Hulman was sought out by three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Wilbur Shaw in 1945 to purchase what was left of Indianapolis Motor Speedway from Eddie Rickenbacker, young Mari had a new playground.

It was a place where lifetime friendships would be forged.

She became a trailblazer in motorsports as one of the first female team owners in Indy car history when she created HOW Racing in 1956 that featured her husband, Elmer George, as the driver. Although the “H” stood for Hulman and the “W” stood for Wolcott, for team co-owner and longtime family friend Roger Wolcott, Mari joked that HOW actually stood for “Hell of Wheels.”
Mari was the team owner for George’s entries in the Indianapolis 500 in 1962 and ’63. Despite the fact her father owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Mari was not allowed in Gasoline Alley or the pit area because at that time, no women were allowed in those areas.

Later in life, though, Mari would own the place and left her own indelible mark on international racing history.

After her father died on Oct. 27, 1977, her mother became chairman of the board of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, leaving the running of the operation up to longtime Hulman family friend Joe Cloutier. When he died in 1989, Mari turned to her only son, Tony, to take over the reins of the Hulman & Co. fortune and Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Mari became chairman of the board of Hulman & Co. and Indianapolis Motor Speedway and during her time as the leader of the family, some dramatic changes were made. Those include the arrival of NASCAR and the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 and the creation of the Indy Racing League in 1994 that began competition in 1996. A Formula One race was added in 2000 with the United States Grand Prix.

It was Tony George who had the grand vision to utilize the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than one race a year on Memorial Day weekend, but none of these dramatic changes would have happened without Mari’s approval.

Indy car racing was unified  in February 2008 when Champ Car ceased operation and its teams joined the Indy Racing League to create the IndyCar Series. But one year later, Tony George was stripped of his power by his sisters, Nancy, Josie and Kathi.

It was Mari Hulman George whose steady hand guided the family through this difficult time and kept it from unraveling.

“In the sense that among the family, the people that own it, I don’t think she has ever gotten enough credit for her ability to keep the family members together on most issues for most of the time,” said Fred Nation, who served as executive vice president of corporate communications for Hulman & Co. and IMS from 1997 to 2012. “When Tony got the boot, she wasn’t abandoning him, it was more the sisters ganged up on him at the time. But that didn’t last a long time.

“Mari always believed that Tony always belonged there. And I believe it was her decision to make Tony chairman of the board in 2016.”

By then, time was catching up with Mari. She was beginning to fade away and relinquished her control to a new board of directors that included the family and some of the top business and political leaders in Indiana.

Mari was a tremendous philanthropist who was essential in raising money for many charities throughout the state, including the Special Olympics and Save the Greyhounds. She also loved her horses and preferred to be known as an “Old Horsewoman.”

At her farm in Terre Haute, a visitor once noticed there were steaks on the grill and asked Mari, “How long are you going to cook them? I like mine a little more rare.”

Mari replied, “Those steaks aren’t for us. They are for the dogs.

“We’re having spaghetti.”

Mari Hulman George died peacefully on Nov. 3  surrounded by her family and grandchildren. Her funeral service was held on Nov. 7 at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Terre Haute.

St. Benedict Catholic Church was built by Mari’s great-grandfather, Herman Hulman, 150 years ago.

Racing royalty came to pay their respects, including the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history Roger Penske and his wife, Kathy; legendary four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt and his wife, Lucy; the great Mario Andretti along with daughter Barbie and her husband, Giuseppe; two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr.; and 1986 Indy 500 winner and team owner Bobby Rahal, to name a few.

Even Wilbur Shaw’s son, Bill, was in attendance. It was Wilbur Shaw who convinced Tony Hulman to save Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1945.

Mari was remembered and revered for her generosity and her philanthropy. Grandson Jarrod Krisiloff, gave an excellent eulogy, remembering how close he was to his grandmother.

The Catholic ceremony concluded with the rendition of “How Great Thou Art” followed by a surprise that was fitting for this day and this family.

A member of the Indianapolis Police Department Choir ended the service by singing “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

It was a fitting tribute.