'Godspeed Mari': Remembering Indianapolis racing icon Mari Hulman George

Mari Hulman George was laid to rest on November 8. The funeral service at St. Benedict Catholic Church in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana was impressive as a list of motorsports, business and political royalty came to pay their last respects to a woman who truly was a pioneer, a trendsetter, a trailblazer and a maverick.

To fully understand the significance of her life, one must step back and see the tremendous impact her family has had on this western Indiana city, on the entire state of Indiana and on international motorsports.

Terre Haute is a little more than a one-hour drive down Interstate 70 from Indianapolis. Upon arriving near Terre Haute, one begins to understand the importance of the Hulman family. The stretch of I-70 from Indianapolis is known as “Anton ‘Tony’ Hulman Memorial Way.”

The Terre Haute airport is Hulman Field. To get to funeral home for the visitation, requires a drive down Hulman Street. Not far away is one of the top engineering schools in the United States, Rose-Hulman Institute. A drive into downtown Terre Haute, the headquarters of Hulman & Company and its primary product, Clabber Girl Baking Powder, takes up nearly two city blocks at 9th Street and Wabash.

Kitty-corner from Hulman & Company, down “Bayh Way” — named after Terre Haute’s other famous family that included former Indiana Senator Birch Bayh and his son, former Indiana Governor and later Indiana Senator Even Bayh – is the Hulman Center on the edge of Indiana State University.

Forty years ago, the Hulman Center was the “Epicenter of College Basketball.” It’s where Larry Bird was already a legend at Indiana State. Prior to Bird’s arrival at ISU, the school’s athletic department was more famous for its Men’s Gymnastics team. 

But with Bird, the ISU Sycamores soared to an undefeated season before losing in the 1979 NCAA Championship Game to Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans. That final game remains the most-watched college basketball game in history.

But long before the Bird’s and the Bayh’s, Terre Haute, Indiana was the home of the Hulman’s.

 Herman Hulman was Tony Hulman’s grandfather. Tony Hulman’s father was Anton Hulman, Sr. Tony Hulman was an only child, however he had an uncle, Herman Hulman, Jr. and an aunt, Mary Hulman. Herman Hulman was born in 1831 in Lingen, Lower Saxony, a city of about 50,000 in Germany. His brother, Francis, was the first to emigrate to the United States and set up a grocery business in Terre Haute in 1841. Herman Hulman followed his brother’s command and moved to Terre Haute in 1854. Four years later, Francis, his wife and daughter were killed in a fire at sea in a ship that was returning to Germany. Herman Hulman was now in charge of the business and began to build an empire known as Hulman & Company. Herman’s two sons were Anton Hulman and Herman Hulman, Jr. His daughter was Mary Hulman.


Anton Hulman’s only child was a son, Anton Hulman, Jr., born on February 11, 1901. After serving in World War I as a 17-year-old with the American Red Cross, the younger Hulman would become a collegiate All-American in Track and Field at Yale University.

He came back to Terre Haute to work in the family business and when the elder Hulman died in 1942, the man known as “Tony” was in charge of Hulman & Company.

Tony Hulman married Mary Fenderich, an heiress to the famed cigar manufacturer, in 1926. The day after Christmas in 1934, the couple had their only child, a daughter named Mary Antonia Hulman, later known as “Mari.” 

They were already one of Indiana’s wealthiest families, but soon they would become one of the most important families in auto racing history.

Wilbur Shaw was one of auto racing’s biggest names in 1930s and 1940s. A charismatic man from Shelbyville, Indiana, Shaw was the second three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 when he drove to victory in 1937, 1939 and 1940. Although Louis Meyer was the first three-time winner of the “500 Mile Race,” Shaw was the first to win it two years in a row.

At that time, Eddie Rickenbacker, the famed World War I flying ace, owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But after Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked on December 7, 1941, the United States entered World War II the following day. 

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was shut down, Rickenbacker padlocked the gates and the facility began to rapidly deteriorate. When Shaw attempted to perform a tire test for Firestone, he was dismayed at the dilapidated condition of the famed facility. He met with Rickenbacker, who told him the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be demolished, the land would be sold as a housing subdivision.

Shaw set out to save the track but needed a major investor.

Ultimately, Shaw arrived in Terre Haute and met with Tony Hulman. On November 14, 1945, Hulman purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for $750,00. Shaw would serve as the President of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was the public face of the race course.

The Indianapolis 500 was not only saved but would go on to become the goliath of all sporting events in the world in the following years. 

Hulman enjoyed staying in the background and letting Shaw promote “The World’s Greatest Race Course.” That’s because Hulman was shy and a bit uncomfortable with attention.

All of that ended tragically, however, on October 30, 1945 when Shaw was killed in a private plane crash near Decatur, Indiana. He was just 52 years old.


Suddenly, Hulman had become the public face of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Ably assisted by Joe Cloutier, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 continued to grow by extraordinary measures in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.

His daughter, Mari, became interested in racing and ultimately married race driver Elmer George in 1956. She would later become the team owner of HOW Racing, which she jokingly referred to as “Hell on Wheels.”

Although she was a team owner of an Indianapolis 500 entry, young Mari was not allowed in the pits or the garages in Gasoline Alley in the 1950s into the 1970s. At that time, no females were allowed in the pits or garages.

On a cold day on October 27, 1977, just a few months after his favorite driver, AJ Foyt, became the first four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Tony Hulman died at the age of 76. His funeral was held at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Terre Haute, same as his father and his grandfather, Herman.


Mary Fenderich Hulman was now the owner of the company but depend on Joe Cloutier to run the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the family’s long-time friend and business associate.

Mari Hulman George was raising a family of her own, including son Tony, daughters Nancy, Josie and Kathi. But Mary’s health began to decline throughout the 1990s and she passed away on April 10, 1998. Her funeral was also held at St. Benedict.

Mari Hulman George was now the leader of the Hulman Family.

As Chairman of the Board of Directors, Mari had already broken with tradition. After Cloutier died in 1989, she was essential in installing her son, Tony, as President and CEO of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Tony George sought to unify the warring factions of the sport in the early 1990s but was promptly rebuffed by the CART owners. 

CART was formed in the late 1970s over dissatisfaction with the way the United States Auto Club (USAC) conducted the sport. The Indianapolis 500 remained sanctioned by USAC. George hoped by bringing both sides together, the sport would benefit.

CART was more interested in maintaining its own control of the sport. When George announced a new series known as the Indy Racing League in 1994 that would begin competition in 1996, it was the start of a war that lasted until unification in February 2008. George also wanted to utilize the fixed assets of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for more than just one race a year with the Indianapolis 500. He invited NASCAR to conduct a “tire test” in 1992. Nine stock cars tested that day and the path to the Inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994 began. Many traditionalists were infuriated that NASCAR was now racing on the “hallowed grounds.” But wait, there’s more. George successfully brought Formula 1 to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the United States Grand Prix in 2000. Close to 200,000 spectators were at that first USGP making it the largest crowd in Formula 1 history.


But it was a tremendous clash of cultures with Formula One’s hierarchy. Because of its restrictive access policies to get in and out of the paddock, Mari Hulman George forgot her credential the morning of the race and was denied access to the paddock.

“Who do you think you are?” bellowed one of the Formula One security staff.

Mari Hulman George, quietly said, “Well, I do own the place.”

In the early years, it appeared the relationship between IMS and Formula 1 would work, but it quickly deteriorated. When only six cars took the starting grid for the 2005 USGP after Michelin pulled all of its cars off the grid because of “safety concerns” in Turn 12, the relationship was broken for good. The final Formula One race at IMS was in 2007.

While Tony George was the man in charge of these bold breaks with tradition, his decisions were supported by his mother, who was the Chairman of the Board, according to Fred J. Nation, the Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications from 1997 to 2012.


“Just agreeing that Tony should take over was a rather bold decision,” Nation told Autoweek. “That could be an arguable decision, but it was certainly a bold decision. It had to do with keeping it in the family. She believed Tony was ready to do that. “The Brickyard 400, she supported that, and we all know that was a big break with tradition right there. The formation of the IndyCar Series and the risks that that meant but it was worth the risks in the long run because it was seen as a struggle not only for the control of open wheel racing, but specifically a struggle for the control of the Indy 500. There were fears that the family would be put in a place where the CART folks would force them into a position, they didn’t want to be in. “Those were important decisions and those were decisions that were made by Tony George; those were decisions made by Tony and Mari and his sisters. And of course, Formula 1.

“Formula One coming wasn’t like NASCAR coming because by that time there were already two races, but the investment it took to bring F1 there, it was time to do a lot of renovation and rebuilding of the track. She backed Tony.

“Tony always went to his mother and his sisters, but his mother was the most important influence on getting those decisions made.”


George remained steadfast on the Indy Racing League, but believed it was best to unify with CART. The CART Series had actually gone bankrupt and was resurrected as the Champ Car Series in 2004. It continued to operate through the 2007 season, but Champ Car Series principle Kevin Kalkhoven was tired of propping up the series.

Through meetings with George in 2007 and early 2008, he agreed to end the Champ Car Series for $22 million. The Champ Car Series teams would then join the new IndyCar Series. George would give each team cars and engines for free, so they could participate.

On a warm February day in 2008 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the first unified IndyCar Series since USAC in 1978, was introduced.

But the harmony would not last.

Just two days after Helio Castroneves became a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, Tony George was stripped of his power by sisters Nancy, Josie and Kathi. He could remain as CEO of the IndyCar Series, but George resigned from the family board instead. 


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,” Nation said. “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 belong there. And, I believe it was her decision to make Tony Chairman of the Board in 2016.”

Mari Hulman George loved animals very much. She was an old “Horsewoman” who loved her stable of horses and rescued thoroughbreds. She also rescued Greyhounds that had been used up by the Greyhound Racing industry.

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.”

At the Speedway, she enjoyed giving the command, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Engines.” But over time, her health began to decline. The final time she gave the command, she had to be assisted by her eldest daughter, Nancy.

The sons, daughters and grandchildren issued the command before the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016. Beginning with the 2016 Brickyard 400, the command has been given by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chairman of the Board, her son Tony.

With her family and grandchildren at her side, Mari Hulman George died peacefully on November 3, 2018. She was able to pass away in her sleep. 

Tony, Nancy, Josie and Kathi all realized their mother had a peaceful death, but all struggled with the reality that she was gone. For those who have lost a Mother, it’s the realization that for the first time in our lives, our greatest source of protection and comfort is gone; that we are now all on our own.

As for the racing community, this matriarch of motorsports was also gone, and it was time to pay her the respect that she deserved.

On the morning of her funeral, Josie and Kathi talked about St. Benedict Catholic Church and where they sat every Sunday for Catholic Mass.

Then, came the reality of being “Hulman.”

“You know the story of this church?” Josie said to Autoweek. “My great, great grandfather, Herman Hulman, built this church 150 years ago.”

“Wow,” I thought. “My Dad built a breezeway on our house when I was 12.”

Catholic Mass on Wednesday begins at 12:05 p.m., not 12 noon.

“Do you know why it starts at 12:05?” Josie asked. “Herman Hulman never wanted to extend his lunch hour, so that gave him the five minutes he needed to walk the two blocks from the Hulman & Company office.

One of the early arrivals on the day of the funeral was AJ Foyt and his wife Lucy. Foyt is the same age as Mari Hulman and the two had become very close friends.

“It’s just a sad day,” Foyt told Autoweek. “Mari and I were great friends and our families were great friends. We spent so much time with each other in our younger years.

“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.”  

A few moments later, another member of motorsports royalty arrived. It was Mario Andretti along with his daughter, Barbie, and her husband, Giuseppe.

“This has been a very bad year for me,” Mario told Autoweek. “My wife, Dee Anne, died in July and Dan Gurney in January and now Mari.

“She was such a nice lady. We were close in age and she was always warm and friendly and caring and generous. When I first started racing at Indianapolis, I got to know her family very well. Tony Hulman would ask me to travel around to all of these PTA and Conservation Club and Lions Club Meetings and talk about the Indianapolis 500. Tony was a man who didn’t like to give speeches, so he brought me along to talk to the audience.

“And when we were back at Indianapolis in May, Mari always made sure we were taken care of and would invite us to all of her parties and private dinners that she would host. Even the night before the race when the family would have a private gathering, she always invited me and my family.

“She was such a dear friend and I’m really going to miss her.”

Through the doors came more and more including Roger Penske, the winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history, and his wife Kathy. Then there was Bobby Rahal, the 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and currently IndyCar team owner. And two-time winner Al Unser, Jr. and former drivers such as Davey Hamilton and even the obscure, such as Stephan Gregoire.

Current and past members of IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway staffs were there as were other business leaders, members of the racing industry and friends and family.

And then there was a gentleman, with the well-combed hair and well-trimmed mustache.

“Hi, I’m Bill Shaw,” he said.

It was Wilbur Shaw’s son. His father is the man who brought Tony Hulman into the sport and began a family dynasty that continues today.

“I was only nine years old when my father passed away,” Shaw told Autoweek. “Mari was about six years older. We were both only children and Mari always said she wanted to adopt me as her ‘Little Brother.’

“Every time I saw her, she always called me, her “Little Brother.’ 

“I’ve been lucky enough to see how this sport has grown and how the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 has continued.”

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