With this Sunday’s running of the Indianapolis 500 comes the memory of when Donald Trump was chosen to be the famed event’s pace car driver.
The April 5, 2011 announcement that the honor had been bestowed on The Donald initially roused little more controversy than had the appointment of newscaster Robin Roberts the year before. Trump noted in his acceptance that this was a special year for such a distinction.
“It's a great honor to be selected as the pace car driver for such an American institution as the 100th anniversary of the Indianapolis 500,” he said.
But Trump had also entered another race that year, the race for president. He engaged in verbal attacks on President Obama that disturbed a good number of Indy 500 fans who feel that racing and racism are incompatible. Nobody could have imagined that such intemperate talk would subsequently help make him the presumptive Republican candidate in the 2016 race for president.
The astonishing height of Trump’s present ascension is also a measure of the sorry depths to which we have fallen since that time just five years back when Trump was ultimately deemed unfit to drive a pace car, never mind to lead the nation.
When Indy 500 officials made the PACE CAR appointment, they were almost certainly aware that Trump had been at the fore of those who were questioning President Obama’s national origin and therefore his eligibility to hold office.
“I have people that have been studying it and they cannot believe what they're finding,” Trump had said.
Trump added that he wished Obama would just settle the matter.
“If he doesn't, it's one of the greatest scams in the history of politics and in the history, period,” Trump continued. “You are not allowed to be a president if you're not born in this country. Right now, I have real doubts.”
But that had all seemed just some ridiculousness arising from a presidential bid that appeared to be not so much a serious effort to garner votes as to rouse attention in advance of the next season of “The Apprentice.” The reality show had imparted Trump with the very celebrity that had attracted the Indy 500 officials to him in the first place.
What the officials did not likely expect was that Trump would continue with the birther nonsense after the White House released Obama’s long form birth certificate on April 27. Trump also called Obama’s academic record into question.
“The word is, according to what I've read, is that he was a terrible student when he went to Occidental,” he said at a press conference the same day Obama released his birth certificate. “He then gets to Columbia and then gets to Harvard. I heard at Columbia he was not a very good student, and then he then he gets into Harvard. How do you get into Harvard if you are not a good student? Maybe that's right, maybe that's wrong, but I don't know why he doesn't he release his records. Why doesn't he release his Occidental records?”
More than a few people felt Trump was saying in obvious code that Obama must have needed some kind of undeserved boost because he is black. Trump seemed to be suggesting that Obama lacked the brains and discipline to be President.
And the continued birther blather in the face of documentary proof to the contrary made Trump’s talk seem all the more a way of saying that Obama was an Other who does not belong in the White House.
At the time of the announcement, an Indianapolis lawyer named Michael Wallack had created a Facebook page called “We Don’t Want Donald Trump to Drive the Indy 500 Pace Car.”
“Bump Trump!” the page declared, employing the verb used when a car is removed from the Indy 500 line-up to make room for another entrant among a maximum of 33.
But Wallack’s initial objections were more those of a lifelong Indy 500 fan who believes that the pace car should not be driven by somebody who has no apparent connection to Indianapolis or the Indy 500 or to car racing itself. Trump did not even drive his own car, preferring a chauffeured limo.
“It just didn’t feel right,” Wallack told the Daily Beast on Friday.
For the first two weeks, or so, the response to the Bump Trump page had been hardly overwhelming.
“I think I had like 24 likes,” Wallack recalled. “A couple of my cousins had liked it.”
Then what Wallack terms Trump’s “birther tangent” was joined by the Donald’s intimations regarding Obama’s academic record. The page witnessed a Facebook frenzy.
“It just skyrocketed,” Wallack remembered. “A week or 10 days, 17,000 likes.”
Folks on the page were encouraged to express their displeasure to race officials and the event’s sponsors. They did so and posted the responses. All of it came to the attention of the media.
“A lot of articles were all of a sudden being written,” Wallack remembered. “We still joke within my family that I’m the first person in the family that got mentioned in Sports Illustrated.”
TV and radio also took interest, including BBC and NPR.
“A lot of press focused on this little tiny issue,” Wallack said.
On May 3, the Indianapolis Star reported, “A groundswell of pressure is starting to build on Indianapolis 500 officials to dump Donald Trump as pace car driver at this month's race."
Two days later, Trump announced that he was simply too busy to go ahead with what he had previously described as a “great honor” from “an American institution.” He spun it just as a politician might.
"Business constraints make my appearance there, especially with the necessary practice sessions, impossible to fulfill," Trump told the Indianapolis Star "I look forward to watching the race from New York."
If the guy so famous for telling it like it is had really told it like it was, he would have admitted this: he had been fired as surely as if he had been an unsuitable apprentice on his show.
The Star took note when Trump’s withdrawal was discussed the next day on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. The transcript shows that a caller raised the subject. The caller suggested Trump’s priority was his presidential run that year.
Caller: “He is not gonna drive the pace car because he has another race he's interested in running.”
Limbaugh: “But that's not why he's not gonna drive the pace car.”
Caller: “That's what it says in the paper.”
Limbaugh: “Well, okay. (chuckles) Case closed. I rest my case. But what does it matter? Do you like or not like Trump? That's what I can't figure out.”
Caller: “I love Trump.”
Limbaugh: “You do?”
Caller: “Yes, I do…I think he talks straight, he talks square.”
Limbaugh: “I get it. So when you hear him say he's got a more important race to run, you're happy?”
Caller: “I am.”
Limbaugh: “Gotcha. Well, let me give you the rundown. Let me tell you what really happened here. The race officials of the Indy 500 asked Trump to drive the pace car. Trump says, ‘Yeah, I'll drive the pace car,’ and then two Democrats in Indianapolis started raising holy hell about Trump being a divisive figure and a racist, and all of this because of what he's done with Obama and the birth certificate and stuff. They said it was impugning the reputation of the Indianapolis 500. They didn't need to make it partisan. You know, this was some local lawyer who's a Democrat fundraiser, operative, hack, or what have you.”
The “local lawyer” is no doubt Wallack, though he is in fact neither a fundraiser nor an operative, just a race fan. The other Democrat may be Stephen Clay of the Baptist Ministers Alliance of Indianapolis, which expressed its displeasure to the Indy 500 officials, saying there was indeed no place for racism in racing or anything else.
Nobody could rightly object when Trump was replaced by legendary driver A.J. Foyt, four time winner of the Indy 500. Trump continued pursuing his 2011 race for president for just 11 days after quitting the car race.
"After considerable deliberation and reflection, I have decided not to pursue the office of the presidency,” Trump said in a May 16 statement. “This decision does not come easily or without regret, especially when my potential candidacy continues to be validated by ranking at the top of the Republican contenders in polls across the country."
Trump added, "I maintain the strong conviction that if I were to run, I would be able to win the primary and, ultimately, the general election."
At the time, polls showed that more than 70 per cent of Americans thought Trump could never become president. His estimation of his chances seemed as loony as the birther talk that he continued even after abandoning his campaign. He also offered $5 million for Obama’s college transcripts.
Of course, none of that stopped Romney from courting Trump and securing The Donald's endorsement the following May.
“Being in Donald Trump’s magnificent hotel and having his endorsement is a delight,” Romney said at a press conference. “I’m so honored and pleased to have his endorsement.”
Six days after Romney lost to Obama, Trump applied to trademark an old Ronald Regan slogan as his own: “Make America Great Again.” That move suggests that Trump must have already been contemplating not only another run, but also how he might appeal to folks who continued to believe that he “talks straight, talks square.” Those credulous souls grew in number even as Trump refused to release his own college transcripts, as he told lie after lie after lie, the more minor of which include why he quit the 2011 Indy 500.
Voters have grown so weary of the likes of Romney and Hillary Clinton and all the other professional politicians that Trump really might win this latest presidential race. Romney’s newfound indication regarding Trump now that Mitt no longer needs him only serves to heighten popular disgust with traditional pols.
Meanwhile, the 2016 Indy 500 pace car will be driven by Roger Penske, a car owner whose entries have won the race 16 times. Penske is a billionaire who really is self-made. He first saw the Indy 500 when he was 14. He was brought by his father, who taught him a maxim that would make a pretty good slogan if the younger Penske were ever to run for office.
“Effort Equals Results.”
Penske does not endorse candidates, much less contemplate becoming one himself. But he has said that he was not at all bothered when NASCAR chairman Brian France endorsed Trump.
“I applaud him if that’s his interest to support a candidate,” Penske told reporters. “I don’t think any less of him, for sure.”
Penske added with a laugh, “That’s the great thing about this country. You can put your arm around anyone you want. You just better be sure of the outcome.”
On Sunday, some 350,000 people will pack into the Indianapolis Speedway. The usual singing of “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” will be followed by “The Star Spangled Banner. Michael Wallack will be there with an outsized checkered flag bearing the lyrics to “Back Home Again In Indiana,” the song that traditionally signals the big moment is near.
“We all sing along loudly and badly,” Wallack reported to the Daily Beast.
An announcer will then call out the famous starting command.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!”
The white Camaro SS 2017 that serves as this year’s pace car will lead the 33 competing cars around the track with Penske at the wheel. His understanding of what really does make America great causes you to wish that he set the pace not just for the big car race, but also for that bigger one.
The slogan of every candidate should be “Effort Equals Results.”