The 2011 race also augured some of the next decade’s personalities and conflicts. Pence was at the track, and he had just recently announced he wouldn’t run for president in 2012 but would pursue the governor’s residence instead. Pete Buttigieg, then a candidate for South Bend mayor, attended the race for the first time that year. The two Hoosier foes met that day. “We exchanged some pleasantries, and I didn’t think much of it or expect to see him anytime soon,” Buttigieg wrote in his memoir, Shortest Way Home.
Trump’s looming presence, though, had cast a shadow over the race. After news broke that Trump would drive the pace car, Wallack created a Facebook page calling on the IMS to “Bump Trump.” “I have no problem if Trump dislikes President Obama or his policies,” Wallack wrote on the page. “But to step over the line into the realm of conspiracy-mongering is not good for politics or for America. And it should not be rewarded with the honor of driving the pace car at the Indianapolis 500.”
Within days, the page had garnered more than 17,000 “likes.”
Reporters peppered IMS officials with questions about how they would respond to the controversy Trump had created. “We are certainly aware of the Facebook page, and we have certainly received complaints,” Boles, then the IMS vice president of communications, told reporters. “But we have also received comments from other folks in support of Donald Trump driving the pace car.”
Meanwhile, the Indianapolis Baptist Ministers’ Alliance called on IMS to rescind its invitation to Trump. Organizers of the 500 Festival, which hosts race-adjacent events such as the Indy 500 Festival Parade, weighed whether to have Trump featured in the parade through downtown Indianapolis. “We’ve always traditionally extended this invitation” to the pace car driver, said Megan Bulla, who was in charge of public relations for the parade at the time. “At what point do you kind of step in and say, ‘no,’ because of politics, or ‘no,’ because of people’s stances? It was kind of this uncomfortable, like, well, we’ve never said ‘no’ in the past, so at what point do we draw the line or make a statement?”
Jane Jankowski, spokesperson for then-Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, told reporters that Daniels was in favor of “whatever sells tickets.” Pence, who would stay quiet through most of Trump’s biggest controversies as vice president, doesn’t appear to have made any public comments about Trump at the time.
“You could see and hear and feel how divisive this was even in our town,” recalled Bulla, referencing the blue city’s overall somewhat buttoned-down and conservative bent. “Maybe it was the start of cancel culture.”
The controversy even made it into the pages of POLITICO. Ben Smith, himself a one-time reporter for the Indianapolis Star, published a May 4 item headlined “Indy 500 weighs dumping Trump.” “The reason many of us started to take the notion that Donald Trump would actually run seriously is that he’s begun doing real harm to his brand, which is his main asset,” Smith wrote, with a hat tip to his colleague Maggie Haberman. “No cautious corporation is going to pay for rights to his name if there’s a headache attached.”