Mari Hulman George, the "quiet pioneer" of auto racing who ordered drivers to start their engines and was instrumental in the expansion of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, died Saturday. She was 83.
Hulman George, the speedway's chairman of the board emeritus, died in Indianapolis with her family at her side, the speedway said in a statement.
"Our mother was such a unique, wonderful person," Tony George said in a 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."
Heartbroken at the passing of Mari Hulman George, who touched the lives of millions through her passion for auto racing, stewardship of IMS and decades of compassionate philanthropy.— Indianapolis Motor Speedway (@IMS) November 3, 2018
Rest in peace, Mari. We love you and will miss you.https://t.co/II0IvRk03D
Hulman George was IMS chairman from 1988 through 2016. Her father, Anton "Tony" Hulman Jr., purchased the speedway in 1945 and saved it from demolition after World War II. Racing and the facility became a staple of Mari Hulman George's life.
Indianapolis fans recognized Hulman George as the individual who gave the command to start engines for the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 from the late 1990s until 2015.
Hulman George was immersed in auto racing and became friends with many drivers during her teenage and early adult years. She joined with longtime family friend Roger Wolcott to form the HOW racing team, which fielded American Automobile Association (AAA) and United States Auto Club (USAC) Sprint and National Championship cars for several drivers, including Jerry Hoyt, Eddie Sachs, Tony Bettenhausen, Roger McCluskey and Elmer George, whom she married in 1957.
George won the Midwest Sprint Car title in 1957 and finished third in 1956 and 1958.
Mari Hulman George co-owned an Indianapolis 500 entry in 1962 and 1963 that her husband drove. He finished a career-best 17th in 1962 and received relief help from Paul Russo and A.J. Foyt during that race.
Tony Stewart, who has raced at Indy under both the IndyCar and NASCAR banners, lauded Hulman George for her "passionate" persona.
Racing is filled with passionate people, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone more passionate than Mari Hulman George. She did so much for motorsports and her community. My heart goes out to the entire Hulman-George family. https://t.co/eWBT492nPl— Tony Stewart (@TonyStewart) November 3, 2018
Born Dec. 26, 1934 in Evansville as Mary Antonia Hulman, she never ventured far from Indiana. Hulman George attended Purdue University and was an Indianapolis community leader with her stewardship of the speedway.
She launched numerous philanthropic efforts, including benefits for Indiana Special Olympics and complimentary field trips for Indiana's schoolchildren. She focused on the arts, health care and, in particular, animal care. She served on the board for Hulman & Company, IMS and the IMS Foundation, as well as First Financial Bank, a publicly traded company headquartered in Terre Haute.
"Mari's devotion to Indianapolis Motor Speedway was only surpassed by her kindness," NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a statement. "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."
Hulman George was especially close to four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Foyt, whom she met a year before his 1958 Indianapolis 500 debut. She and Foyt placed a commemorative "golden brick" into the famous "Yard of Bricks" start-finish line in May 2011 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the inaugural Indianapolis 500 and the 50th anniversary of Foyt's 1961 victory.
"I was really sorry to hear that Mari passed on," Foyt said in a statement. "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 did a lot of things together and had a lot of fun. She's going to be dearly missed, especially by me."
She hosted for years two events during the lead-in to the Indianapolis 500. The "Racers Party" took place annually on the opening weekend of the "Month of May" for the entrants of the Indy 500, and a "Friends of the 50s and 60s" event was held the week between qualifying and the race to celebrate with racing veterans.
She welcomed all drivers to the parties, setting a standard for providing red carpet treatment to all past and present Indianapolis 500 competitors when they came to the track regardless of their stature with the public.
"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," said J. Douglas Boles, president of IMS.
In addition to son Tony George, she is survived by three daughters, a stepdaughter, seven grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and longtime companion Guy Trollinger. She was predeceased in death by her husband, Elmer, and a stepson.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.