Upon his graduation from Yale in 1924, the young Hulman returned to Terre Haute to take his place in the family business, a place he would have to earn. His father, Anton Hulman, Sr., instructed the people of Hulman & Co., "Don't give Tony a place in the business. Let him work for it."
By 1926, Tony was the company's sales manager, and by 1931, at the age of 30, management of the whole company passed from father to son.
Never one to rest on his laurels, and never satisfied with the status quo, Tony's first project was the Clabber Girl ad campaign, which he instigated as a ten-year plan to take the company's top product to national prominence. Salesmen crisscrossed the country, nailing signs to roadside posts and going to individual homes across the country, invariably inviting the lady of each house to try Clabber Girl. It worked, and despite the deepening Great Depression, Clabber Girl sales continued to climb. Even today, more than 70 years after the first ads of the campaign saw the light of day, Clabber Girl is a top-selling baking powder (if not the top seller) in the U.S.
One remnant of Tony's original sales push, a well-known billboard, is still visible along U.S. Highway 40 east of Terre Haute. It reads, "Five Minutes to Terre Haute, Home Of Clabber Girl Baking Powder," and has a clock at the top. It is considered a landmark in the area.
Hulman is probably best known for buying the dilapidated Indianapolis Motor Speedway from a group led by World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker immediately after World War II. Influenced by three-time Indy 500 winner Wilbur Shaw (who became the track's president in the early years of the Hulman regime), Hulman made numerous improvements to the track in time for the race to be held in 1946.
Following Shaw's death in a plane crash on October 30, 1954, Hulman stepped into his soon-to-be-familiar role as the "face" of the Speedway. Ever popular with drivers and fans alike, the normally shy Tony relished the job.
He is famous for starting the tradition of launching the Indianapolis 500 with the command, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" Into the 1970s, despite the fact he'd given the command so many times before, he would always practice it extensively beforehand, and on race day, he would invariably pull a card from the pocket of his suit as he stepped to the microphone. Over the years, many have wondered what was written on that card. On it were the words of the starting command written in the following manner: "GENNNNNTLEMENNNNN, STARRRRRT YOURRRRRR ENNNNNNNGINES!" Luke Walton, who was the Speedway's announcer during Hulman's early years at the helm, had previously been a radio announcer and worked extensively with Tony to make sure he got it "just right," thus the card with its "stretches" to ensure each word was delivered with the proper emphasis!
Hulman married Mary Fendrich, the daughter of Evansville, Indiana cigar factory owner John H. Fendrich, in 1926. Their first child, a daughter named Mary, died just hours after her birth in 1930. In 1934, the couple's second daughter, also named Mary, but better known as "Mari", was born. Mari would later give Tony and Mary four grandchildren. Their sole grandson, Anton Hulman "Tony" George, would carry on the family's racing and business traditions.
The Hulmans were well-known in Indiana for their philanthropy and dedication to higher education; Terre Haute's Rose Polytechnic Institute and Indiana State University each received gifts of millions of dollars over the years. The Hulmans' generosity led the board of Rose Polytechnic to rename the school Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in the couple's honor in 1971. Indiana State would later name the Hulman Center arena (opened in 1973) and Hulman Memorial Student Union (completed in the mid-1990s) for the couple. Mari Hulman George established a Center for Equine Studies at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, west of Terre Haute.
Terre Haute's Hulman Links public golf course is situated on over 200 acres of land donated by Hulman in the early 1970s; however, the course was not completed until after his death.
The 1977 "500" would be memorable for many for two reasons. A.J. Foyt won his fourth "500" that day, and Foyt asked Tony Hulman to accompany him in the pace car for the victory lap. The pair were photographed smiling and waving to the fans. It was the first time Hulman had ever taken a victory lap with the winner, and, sadly, he would not live to do so again.
At 76 years old, Tony appeared to be in good health, strikingly fit and trim for a man of his age. He was always busy, maintaining his business interests in Indianapolis and Terre Haute. In mid-October 1977, he hosted the annual Speedway press dinner and was, by all accounts, he seemed to be fine. A few days later, he and his close friend, Hoosier sportscaster Chris Schenkel, were the grand marshals for the Fall Festival parade in nearby Martinsville, Indiana, where the always-smiling, always comfortable Tony refused Schenkel's offer of his coat in the cool autumn weather. On the night of October 27, 1977, Hulman died of heart failure on the operating table in St. Vincent's Hospital in Indianapolis.
The general reaction to Hulman's sudden passing was, at first, shock. No one knew what the future held, particularly the citizens of Terre Haute, where he owned so much land and ran one of the city's oldest businesses. Hulman's funeral remains today perhaps the largest in the history of Terre Haute. Hundreds - perhaps thousands - of mourners packed the funeral home and the city's St. Benedict's Catholic Church, which Tony's grandfather, Herman Hulman, had donated the funds to build. He is buried in Calvary Cemetery along with other members of his family.
Ever the shrewd businessman, Tony Hulman went on a buying spree beginning in the 1930s, all the while adding to the family's fortune. At various times, a string of Coca-Cola bottling plants across Indiana (which were later consolidated to Indianapolis), utility companies, newspapers, radio and television stations including Terre Haute's WTHI AM, FM and TV stations, and a great deal of real estate, much of which is still held by family-controlled interests, became part of the Hulman empire.
In recent years, however, as the family has concentrated primarily on the Speedway and racing-related businesses, they have slowly begun to divest themselves of some of Tony's real estate holdings and "non-core" businesses, such as Wabash Valley Broadcasting, their radio and television holding company, which was sold to Emmis Communications in 1997. Emmis sold WTHI-TV and several of their other television stations to LIN TV Corporation in 2005.
One such property that the family owned for years that became the subject of much speculation and scorn was the land occupied by the former Terre Haute House hotel, which stood at the northeast corner of Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue in Terre Haute (the historic former "Crossroads of America" junction of U.S. Highways 40 and 41). Tony purchased the hotel in 1959 and closed it to the public in 1970. Noted for the rich and famous (as well as infamous) who stayed there during the hotel's early years, the hotel was the target of numerous attempts at revitalization between 1970 and 2005, with the city of Terre Haute taking a purchase option on the property in 2004 in an effort to finally make something happen. None came to fruition, and in the fall of 2005, the Hulman family (through Terre Haute Realty Corp.) sold the hotel and two other historic buildings to a limited liability corporation, Seventh & Wabash, LLC, owned by Terre Haute developer, Greg Gibson, who demolished the structures for redevelopment. A new hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn - Terre Haute House, opened in the fall of 2007.