Donald Trump has decided to pull out of driving the official pace car at the start of the centennial running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, with AJ Foyt favourite to step in.
The billionaire real estate developer and star of the US version of The Apprentice
on NBC informed the organisers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday of his decision to withdraw, ahead of a possible announcement that he will be standing as a candidate in the Republican primaries for the 2012 US presidential elections. TV network rules have strict limits on appearances by declared candidates in television shows.
"I very much appreciate the honor, but time and business constraints make my appearance there, especially with the necessary practice sessions, impossible to fulfill," said Trump confirming his withdrawal. "I look forward to watching the race from New York."
"Donald Trump has been very enthusiastic about the 500 from the beginning of our conversations, and I have appreciated the interaction we have had with him and his staff," said Jeff Belskus, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president and chief executive officer. "From my first conversation, I was impressed by his deep understanding of the event and history, and I thank him for being a true fan."
Trump has recently been at the centre of controversy in the US, having led a campaign to get President Obama to publish his original longform birth certificate to prove that he was born in the American state of Hawaii and therefore eligible to be president under the constitution. Obama subsequently did so, but ridiculed the so-called "birther" campaign - and Trump - for a waste of time.
Trump's campaign led to a backlash from IndyCar fans, and IMS officials were inundated by complaints on the internet including a Facebook page calling on them to "Dump the Donald".
"To me, when they first named Donald Trump, it just felt wrong," said IndyCar fan Michael Wallack, who started the Facebook page even before the "birther" controversy. "He has no relationship to the track, to the race, to racing, to Indianapolis, and I think I would have been bothered anytime with something like that. But to do that on the 100th anniversary, it made no sense."
As recently as Thursday morning, an aide for Trump had still been insisting that Trump would not step down from driving the pace car at Indianapolis despite the growing protests, dismissing the Facebook campaigns as just being a collection of Obama supporters getting their own back. "They have 11,000 followers, right? There are over 300,000 people coming to the Indy 500," Michael Cohen, an executive vice president and special counsel to Trump, had told the Indianapolis Star
. "That sounds like a very small number of people who are probably not even Indy 500 fans."
"Forget the politics, he is a divisive guy," said Wallack succinctly.
No replacement driver for the Chevrolet Camaro pace car has been selected, but fans would prefer a former 500 winner. Since 2000 the race has developed a trend of asking non-racing celebrities to drive the pace car, including actors Anthony Edwards, Jim Caviezel, Morgan Freeman and Josh Duhamel, Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, and former Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2005.
"As far as I know, the speedway has not changed a pace car driver [once announced]," said track spokesman Doug Boles. "But there's been a pace car since 1911, so I don't know if anybody could definitively say it's not been changed."
Boles conceded that the public's reaction had been "a factor" in the discussions with Trump, and made it clear the fans' wishes would now be heard and taken into account. "Our fans want a former winner or they want a military person," agreed Boles. "When the [selection] group gets together, it will probably be a former winner." The selection group is chaired by Jeff Belskus and includes representatives from General Motors, series sponsors IZOD, and IndyCar itself.
Favourite to get the nod is four-time Indy 500 winner AJ Foyt who recently had emergency heart surgery
in March. Foyt said he had not yet been approached - "Maybe they want Mario!" he quipped - but his IndyCar team hinted he would be honoured to perform the role if asked.
Since Foyt won the 50th anniversary Indy 500, his driving the pace car for the 100th anniversary would have particular resonance for fans.