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INDIANAPOLIS – It was 1945 and the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway was in disrepair. Already in desperate need of improvements, a third of Gasoline Alley had burned four years earlier. Then came World War II and a four-year hiatus for the Indianapolis 500.
The track had been virtually abandoned during the war and many believed it would be sold to make way for a housing development.
Enter Anton "Tony" Hulman.
A businessman from Terre Haute, Hulman was recruited by three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw to purchase the track. For a purchase price reported to be $750,000, Hulman took over the speedway and began major renovations and repairs that allowed the Indy 500 to resume just six months after Hulman acquired the property.
When it comes to the most important non-driver in the history of the Indy 500, Hulman edged team owner Roger Penske, according to a survey by The Associated Press of the 27 race winners still alive today.
"Tony Hulman, without him it's unlikely there would have been, or currently is, an Indy 500," said Bobby Rahal, the 1986 winner.
Lauded as "a phenomenal man" by Mario Andretti, Hulman is widely considered to be the sole reason the speedway and the race have made it to its 100th running this Sunday.
Hulman initially stayed behind the scenes and allowed Shaw to be the face of the speedway. After Shaw's death in a 1954 plane crash, Hulman then moved into a more prolific role. He took over the tradition of giving the command, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" and always practiced it extensively beforehand. He would pull a card from his suit pocket that contained the famous words as he stepped to the microphone on race days.
All the while, Hulman continued to pour money into the facility. He increased the prize money, built a Hall of Fame museum and ensured his event became one of the most prestigious in the world.
"Tony Hulman saved the speedway from probably terminal decline and was a dynamic leader for the track and the event," said Dario Franchitti, a three-time 500 winner.
Penske, a 16-time winning team owner, received plenty of recognition for the standard of excellence he brought to the speedway. Sam Hornish Jr., who won the 500 driving for Penske, made a case for both men before giving his vote to Hulman.
"It was basically destitute, it was shortly after WWII, so the argument is obviously Roger is tremendous to the speedway, but would it have been there if it wasn't for Anton?" asked Hornish.
Others felt strongly that Penske is the class of the speedway.
"Roger Penske has brought so much to the sport and I know how much the speedway means to him," said Rick Mears, one of the four-time winners. "He loves that place and I think he's helped raise the bar, not just at Indy but motorsports in general. There's nobody more passionate than he is about racing."
The speedway is still owned by the Hulman/George family, and Hulman's daughter, Mari, now gives the command. His grandson, Tony George, ran the speedway for many years and created the IndyCar Series, but he's now just part of an overall family connection to the storied property.
For that, Hulman is credited for his commitment.
"If the place was never built, we'd have never gotten to where we're at," said Buddy Rice, the 2004 victor. "His vision and what he wanted it to be and what it became — it's the biggest sporting event in the world, the biggest motor race in America. A lot of people talk about it. A lot of people mimic different traditions, but nothing has stood the test of time."