No ducking The Donald: Trump to drive Indy pace car

IMS president Jeff Belskus (L) and Donald Trump (R) pose beside the 2011 Indy 500 pace car at a media event on April 5, 2011. (Photo: IndyCar.com)

I suppose that by saying I don't want Donald Trump to drive the Indianapolis 500 pace car, I am setting myself up for some backlash.

The poorly-toupeed, filthy rich mogul whose most recent efforts have been his series of Apprentice shows and, it appears, a run for the United States presidency, met with the media today to accept his good fortune - it was like watching a king accepting tribute from lowly serfs - leading with this classic Trump question: "How much am I going to get paid for this?"

It was a joke, but then again it wasn't. Putting Donald Trump behind the wheel of the Indy 500 pace car is done for a specific purpose, and it's not to honor a "great American."

No, this is a naked grab for attention from IMS - and a pretty desperate-looking one at that. On a scale of appropriateness, it probably ranks up there with asking Charlie Sheen to take over Tom Carnegie's microphone.

People will say, "If this gets one mention on Celebrity Apprentice, then IndyCar wins." To which I would respond, "I guess you have pretty lenient standards for victory."

Trump is a polarizing figure. If you want to read his rationale for running for POTUS, here's a pretty good summary.  Some folks love the way he talks about getting "an admiral and a couple of ships" to wipe out Somali pirates, as if it would really be that easy. It speaks of the desperation that the economy and current events have inspired that people will grasp at any semblance of breezy, unaffected confidence as if it was a thing of substance. The same atmosphere got Ronald Reagan elected in 1980, so Trump should feel pretty optimistic.

Trump as a symbol of unabashed capitalist greed and opportunism might be a jarring presence in a depressed economy, particularly given that those traits are what were behind the recession in the first place. But again, when people get tired of having to face difficult realities, a little fantasy and languidly-wielded power can seem very appetitizing.

So Trump has the fame. He has the money. He has the name recognition. He has a huge audience. Why not put him behind the wheel of the pace car?

This is where the traditionalist in me comes out. I believe the Indy 500 pace car drive is a perk that should be offered to someone deserving of the honor. It's the Memorial Day weekend - why not give the honor to a returning veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan? Or maybe a philanthropist who has done outstanding work to help others?

If your counterargument is that none of those people will increase ratings and interest, don't bother. I don't believe Donald Trump's turn behind the pace car will increase ratings and interest one iota in IndyCar as a sport. It might give the race itself a brief curiosity bump, but the next weekend's race will be devoid of The Donald's presence, and gone too will be those who tuned in for his sake.

Maybe you will say, then, that an attitude like mine is too traditionalist. And yes, a case could be made that preaching to the choir is not generally advisable when you are trying to expand and grow. But remember what event we're talking about. Without tradition, without the often-sappy nods to history and heritage, what would the Indianapolis 500 be? A largely boring single-file parade at a track with terrible sightlines and troughs to pee in.

"But remember the Spectacle," you might exhort. And yes, Donald Trump is a walking and talking treasure trove of spectacle. But isn't the spectacle supposed to be about the race?

I suppose I should comfort myself with the knowledge that, like all other races, the 2011 Indy 500 will be remembered for what happened at the end of the race and not the beginning. Five years from now, people will barely recall that the toupeed real estate mogul ever sat his immaculately-tailored backside behind the wheel of the pace car (Trump himself included).

At any rate, it's a fait accompli. I hope that the optimists are correct and that somehow The Donald's influence will help the series in the long run. But to my optics, it just looks silly and desperate. Stunt-casting is an iffy proposition at best, and if it's not done right the downside can be brutal.

Just ask Gene Simmons.

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