I don't know who calls the shots at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but whoever thought of asking Donald Trump to drive the pace car at this year's 500 needs a new set of spark plugs.
Here we are in the centennial year (sort of) of the greatest spectacle in racing. The protracted feud between the Indy Racing League and CART is (practically) a thing of the past. Tony George has even returned from family exile (or so it seems).
But the brain trust out there on 16th Street can't stand all that prosperity.
In case the folks at the IMS haven't noticed, the Donald isn't a feel-good guy. In fact, Trump is an increasingly polarizing media hog with an almost Tourettes-like penchant for making ludicrously clueless public statements as a way, he says, of trying to determine whether he wants to run for president.
And thanks to a rather dowdy Republican field, he appears to be competitive.
That Trump is talking about potential candidacy should have disqualified him from driving the pace car out of hand. Like most sporting events, the 500 has always tried to distance itself from politics — and for good reason. Fans go to the track to cheer drivers, not boo candidates.
That's why, over the years, the people chosen to take that ritualistic drive have tended to be automotive icons like Barney Oldfield and Parnelli Jones, or bona fide celebrity gearheads like James Garner and Jay Leno.
What we get with Trump is a loudmouth who takes a brat's pleasure in questioning Barack Obama's citizenship — a cynical ploy to rile dyspeptic white people who still can't get over having an African-American president. This is a tactic that's been disavowed by other Republican presidential hopefuls, but never mind — the Donald has rushed in where his fellow elephants fear to tread.
Trump has unaccountably reversed himself on a number of other positions he's taken over the years. He used to be for universal health care. Now he wants to repeal health care reform legislation. He used to be pro-choice. Not any more. He's also for guns and against same-sex marriage.
I have no idea where Barney Oldfield stood on any of these issues, or whether or not he favored our entering World War I for that matter. That's fine with me.
Like a lot of people, I feel as if I grew up with the Indianapolis 500. I remember listening to the radio broadcasts on Memorial Day afternoons, the crackly growl of engines mixing with the aromas of backyard barbeque.
When my family and I moved to Indy, I got a kick out of seeing the checkered banners in peoples' yards. I liked the way people said they were "going racing" when they talked about heading out to the track. And on particularly still afternoons, being able to hear the distant sound of engines in the air during time trials made the race seem more like a force of nature than any sport I knew.
This was all reinforced during my first visit to the track. Time trials had begun and I was on my way into the stadium. Just then I heard something that sounded like the sky being cracked open. In a split second, a streaming smear of color crossed my eyes.
I'd just glimpsed my first Indy car.
I'm not sure why, but hearing and seeing this made me want to hurry up and find a seat as fast as I could. I wasn't disappointed. To this day I find going to the track, pardon the expression, a gas. It's like rock and roll. The volume and the speed make for a thrilling full-body experience.
I once interviewed Tony George. I knew lots of people thought he wrecked the 500 but I was impressed with his vision, how he saw the race contributing to cutting-edge automotive research and development. He thought it could be a proving ground for better, more efficient fuels, and hoped to refurbish the neighborhood around the Speedway in order to make it more of a year-round destination.
After we were done talking, George took me down to the track to take some photographs. I got to stand on the band of bricks that serves as the 500's starting point and finish line. People had done amazing things here — traveled at incredible speeds, broken records, even died. It felt like hallowed ground.
So I want to root for the Indianapolis 500. I think it's a vital part of this city's culture — a big, loud, profane and dashing piece of what makes this place unique.
I realize these same words — save the last one — might also describe Donald Trump. But I think giving him the race to use as a platform for his cynical ambition is not just tone-deaf public relations - it's the heedless besmirching of a community trust.
Donald Trump has no business being in the pace car at this year's race. Besides, he'll probably need a chauffeur.
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