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By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
The IndyCar Series, we've been told three times in three weeks, is not for sale.
Maybe it's time the Hulman-George family reconsiders that position.
No, IndyCar should not be sold to founder Tony George, who cited the conflict of interest in his recent attempt to reacquire the series in his Friday resignation from the Hulman & Co. board of directors. But if there is a buyer out there willing to step in and put an end to the drama and put the focus instead on growth, stability and IndyCar's strong on-track product, then by all means, open the bidding.
Wasn't it just five weeks ago that Ryan Hunter-Reay became the first American to win the IndyCar title since 2006? And Chevrolet wrapped up the manufacturer championship in its first year back in the series after a six-year absence? That capped a season that saw the debut of IndyCar's first new car in nine years, eight different on-track winners, parity down the grid and a thrilling Indianapolis 500.
It was one of the most exciting IndyCar seasons in history, and some might even argue the racing is the best on-track product in any current motorsports series.
Why isn't anyone talking about any of that? Because every single bit of it has been overshadowed again and again by off-track nonsense.
Something has got to give in IndyCar. Now. Before it's too late for the series to ever get any solid footing in this country again.
Formula One will be broadcast on NBC and NBC Sports Network - IndyCar's current cable partner - beginning next season. And sports car racing in the U.S. will be under one NASCAR-owned banner in 2014 when Grand-Am and ALMS merge, and that series will also be looking for a television contract. If IndyCar doesn't get its act together quickly, the series could be in serious danger of becoming irrelevant when it comes to advertising and sponsorship dollars, the money that fuels the sport.
Maybe the now 10 members on the Hulman & Co. board see the writing on the wall, and that's what drove Friday's short-notice executive meeting.
Unfortunately, as is often the case in IndyCar, it's impossible to be sure.
George's resignation was announced late Friday in a news release in which Hulman & Co. president and CEO Jeff Belskus said - for a third time now - that IndyCar is not for sale. But his wording left open the possibility that George resigned to move forward with the purchase.
"Tony George has made the difficult decision to resign from the board because of his involvement with a group that has recently expressed an interest in purchasing the Hulman & Co.-owned IndyCar organization," Belskus said. "While the business is not for sale and no offers to sell it have been considered or are being considered, we applaud Tony's efforts to resolve the appearance of a conflict and appreciate the gravity of this decision."
George's statement didn't exactly say he was halting his quest.
"I realize that my recent efforts to explore the possibility of acquiring IndyCar represent the appearance of a conflict, and it is in everyone's best interest that I resign," George said. "It goes without saying that I want to do what is best for this organization."
So while it's possible a board furious with George's actions gave him the option of resigning before being stripped of his seat, it's also possible he stepped down to clean up the conflict issue so he could proceed with the purchase.
It's assumed all of this is a bid by George to reclaim the control he was stripped of by his mother and three sisters in 2009, and to oust current CEO Randy Bernard. George has never said that publicly, and he did not respond to an interview request from The Associated Press.
It's no secret, though, that several team owners - unhappy with Bernard's leadership style, the cost of parts on the new car and a competition ruling that went in favor of Honda over Chevrolet before the Indy 500 - had been scheming since late April to overthrow the CEO. It swirled all through May during the buildup to the Indy 500, and boiled over when Bernard basically confirmed it all in a tweet two days after the race.
Suddenly, the plot had gone public and the euphoria of the 500 came to a screeching halt.
It didn't stop George, though.
Multiple people familiar with George's plans say he quietly went to work behind the scenes approaching owners about a new plan to pool their resources and band together to buy the series. The people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because George's offer to the Hulman & Co. has not been accepted.
George received several verbal commitments, including some from team owners. His plan also called for the inclusion of Zak Brown, founder and CEO of the motorsports marketing agency Just Marketing International.
Multiple people familiar with George's proposal to the board said the offer made clear that Brown would have a heavy role in the day-to-day leadership of the series, a role Brown has repeatedly told The AP he does not want. Brown has maintained he's willing to offer assistance in an advisory or board position - to IndyCar or any other racing series - but is not looking to replace Bernard.
"I'm married to JMI and not looking for a divorce, so I don't want to run any racing series on a full-time basis," he told AP last week, just one day before George's resignation was announced.
It's hard to believe George can proceed without finding someone else to run the series. Still, rumors continue to swirl that regardless of what happens with George's offer, Bernard's job is in jeopardy, some say before the end of the year.
Why? Who knows? The board does not to discuss its business publicly.
Bernard has certainly made mistakes in his three years on the job, and he's a promoter who had no experience in racing who has been miscast as the head of a motorsports series. But he has certainly tried to clean up the mess he inherited from George all while keeping a close eye on the knives being aimed squarely at his back.
And that's why the family should entertain selling the series.
The board has to be willing to publicly support the CEO - something it hasn't done once in the past year with Bernard left publicly twisting in the wind, first in the fallout from Dan Wheldon's fatal accident, and then from the attempted mutiny from the team owners. It has to also empower the CEO to crack down on disruptive team owners because actions detrimental to IndyCar are harming the struggling teams who need to find sponsorship dollars.
Yes, the Hulman-George family has spent a tremendous amount of money and done more than its part to prop up open-wheel racing in America. But IndyCar needs some serious help to grow, and cash can do it: from leasing ovals to beefing up the marketing strategy or even buying the series out of its current television contract.
It's unfair to expect the family to continue to fund those endeavors and not grow weary of never turning a profit. But there's never going to be a profit if the series is a constant amateur hour of owners running amok.
It's time to take charge of the series and make a commitment to making IndyCar as good off the track as it is on the track. Or let someone else have a chance before it's too late.
Follow AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer at http://twitter.com/JennaFryer