AJ Foyt has been confirmed as the driver of the pace car at the centennial Indianapolis 500 race to be held on May 29.
Foyt replaces original choice Donald Trump, who withdrew yesterday
citing "time and business constraints [that] make my appearance there, especially with the necessary practice sessions, impossible to fulfil."
Trump's selection had always been controversial, and after the tycoon's role in the recent "birther" campaign to get President Obama to publish his longform birth certificate, motor sports fans had been increasingly protesting Trump's participation in the Indy 500, to the point of launching "Drop the Donald" social media campaigns online.
Once Trump bowed out, the fan favourite for pace car driver was most definitely AJ Foyt, who was the first four-time winner of the race (a feat only subsequently equalled by Rick Mears and Al Unser.) Foyt's first win at Indianapolis was 1961 in the 50th anniversary of the event, making his selection as pace car driver for the 100th especially compelling.
"Since I won my first Indy 500 50 years ago, I had hoped to still be racing in it, but driving the Pace Car is the next best thing!" Foyt said. "Seriously, racing has always been very important in my life - it's been my life - and the Indianapolis 500 is the most important race in the world. I lived for that race. When I got hurt in race cars, I always made it back for Indy because it is that important. That's where people know me from - Indy."
Foyt's name litters the Indy record books: in his 35 consecutive starts as a driver from 1958-92 he led 13 races and completed 12,272.5 miles. As a driver, he won in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977 and as a car owner he put Kenny Brack on victory lane in 1999. His total Indy career - spanning his time as both driver and car owner - now extends to an astonishing 54 consecutive races
"AJ is one of the greatest and most beloved drivers in the 100-year history of the race, a true icon," said Jeff Belskus, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corporation president and chief executive officer. "I'm one of the millions of Foyt fans worldwide who can't wait to see A.J. back where he belongs, out in front of the '500' and leading the field to the start."
The day before the race - Saturday May 28 - had already been designated AJ Foyt Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. A series of events will see him engage in a question-and-answer and autograph session with fans, while visitors to the speedway will be able to watch his career highlights on the video screens around IMS.
The selection of Foyt to drive the pace car is even more poignant coming so close to his emergency heart surgery
in March that saw him miss the opening IndyCar race at St Petersburg. His absence from pit lane was keenly felt and reminded everyone involved in the sport what a big presence and personality he is - more than a match for Trump when it comes to leading the field to the green flag for the Indy 500 on May 29.
"Being asked by my good friend Mari George to drive the Chevy Pace Car for the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500 - well, I couldn't have a bigger honour come from the Speedway," said Foyt, although the more sentimental fans might argue that it's long overdue and that the honour is all theirs.