INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - A.J. Foyt doesn’t mind being The Replacement as long as he gets to lead the Indianapolis 500.
On Friday, the four-time race winner accepted an invitation to step in for Donald Trump as the celebrity pace-car driver, ending a controversy before the May 29 race.
It was an obvious choice.
“I never knew officially who was going to drive it. I knew they said Donald Trump, but, you know No. 2 can wind up winning the race and I’ve done that before,” Foyt said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press while attending festivities at the Kentucky Derby. “So if I outdueled him, I’m very happy about it.”
Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser are the only four-time winners in race history and this year marks the 50th anniversary of Foyt’s first win at Indy. He made a record 35 consecutive starts in the 500, and this will be the 54th consecutive year he’s competed at the track as a driver or an owner.
Plus, Foyt was one of the most vocal supporters of the Indy Racing League following the split from the rival and now defunct Champ Car series.
Once Trump withdrew Thursday, that opened the door for Foyt.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president and CEO Jeff Belskus said he consulted with IndyCar officials, representatives of Chevrolet, manufacturer of the 2011 Camaro Convertible that will lead the cars, and the speedway’s board of directors before making a formal invitation.
“A.J. is the perfect choice.” Belskus said. “There’s a whole lot of considerations that go into it. Saying he’s the perfect choice that’s Jeff Belskus’ perspective on this and what I think is the perfect choice.”
The decision allows race organizers to switch the focus from Trump’s potential presidential aspirations back to the centennial celebration of the first Indy 500. Trump was chosen as the pace-car driver last month, but backed out after opponents called him too divisive and too much of a distraction.
Those that wanted The Donald out included Indiana Rep. Jeb Bardon, a Democrat who represents the area around the historic 2.5-mile oval. He gave a floor speech last week in the Indiana Legislature calling for a change. A Facebook page dedicated to dumping Trump drew more than 18,000 followers.
Trump drew criticism for questioning whether President Obama was born outside the United States. He also has questioned whether Obama was qualified to attend two Ivy League schools.
Belskus said he never anticipated the backlash _ or Trump’s political views _ becoming an issue leading up to next Sunday’s opening day.
“Mr. Trump is a remarkable person and people seem to either just love him or hate him, but it’s very passionate in both directions,” Belskus said. “He has a lot of supporters. Part of it is with the things he’s been doing over the past month, six weeks with the potential presidential bid that has brought a lot of attention to it and that, frankly, we didn’t expect.”
It’s the first time the speedway has changed pace-car drivers since 2001, when injured golfer Greg Norman could not drive. Race organizers then put Elaine Irwin Mellencamp in the car as the first female to drive the car.
When Foyt finishes the honorary pace laps, he will likely get out of the car, walk back to his spot on pit row and put on his headset so he can talk to his two drivers _ Vitor Meira and Bruno Junqueira, both Brazilians.
By picking Foyt, race organizers are also bringing back the tradition of using former winners in the pace car.
While Foyt joked Friday that he still expected to be racing 50 years after his first Indy win, there was no question one of the most recognizable people in motorsports took the job seriously.
“I’ll be leading the race again is all I can say,” he said. “It’ll probably be pretty nerve-racking. I’m just very honored I can do something back for the speedway because the speedway is what made A.J. Foyt and my whole racing career.”
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