A political history of the Indy 500 🏁
Plus: What's keeping the Indiana GOP up at night right now.
Ronald Reagan at the 1976 Indy 500. Courtesy Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The Indy 500 is the largest single-day spectator sporting event globally, drawing in some years more than hundreds of thousands of fans — politicians and politicos among them. Ronald Reagan visited the track in 1976, and drove a pace car around the track (though he was not the official pace car driver that year). President Gerald Ford attended the race in 1979. Bill Clinton paid homage to the track with a post-presidential visit here in 2003. In the lead-up to Indiana’s decisive 2008 May Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton visited the track to take in some practice laps.
One of the 500’s biggest fans is Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who has attended the race roughly 20 times, last in 2019. Last year, as the nation found itself still beset by the pandemic, he recorded a special video message on Twitter hailing the race and thanking frontline health workers for turning the place into a mass vaccination site last spring, where I got my first dose of Moderna. Klain once told me his perfect day back in his hometown of Indianapolis would include a trip to the race. “It’s the greatest spectacle in racing and then some,” he told me this week in an email sent by an aide. “I love the traditions. I love the technology and the courage of the drivers.” (According to the aide, he will not be in attendance this year.)
Klain’s fandom might be rivaled by that of fellow Hoosier and former Vice President Mike Pence, who has been to the race more than 30 times. As sitting vice president, Pence attended the race in 2017, his motorcade holding up traffic. (A Pence aide told me to expect the former veep at the track again this year.)
Despite this high-profile political fan base, the Indy 500 has largely — and surprisingly — avoided becoming a political pawn for either side of the aisle, even as other sports have gotten caught up in political controversies. “That’s our internal desire,” said Doug Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president. “It’s a statewide asset, and it’s an asset for everyone.
Indy 500 officials even avoided any negative blowback from encouraging fans to get vaccinated. “The thing that I saw the most from our vaccination clinic is, I heard a lot from people who are on the fence or who are maybe leaning towards not getting it, that when they had an opportunity to get it at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it was the thing that pushed them over the edge and helps them to get the vaccine,” Doug Boles said. “We really have focused on not getting involved in some of the political conversation.”
Good morning, it’s race day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Gov. Eric Holcomb, wearing a black and white checkered blazer, in an interview with Fox 59, offered these thoughts this morning:
“I would say I’m the No. 1 fan, but there are 325,000 other No. 1 fans here today, and nothing feels better than that. And just to know the racing growth that’s occurred around, not just Indianapolis, the racing capital of the world, but around the whole state of Indiana. It’s unlike anywhere else in the world. Just stop and think about Dallara and McLaren. Let’s not forget about Rahal’s big announcement—and more coming, by the way.”
On his favorite driver: “I have a good friend [Tim Cindric] that calls the race strategy for Joseph Newgarden. So I’m all in for whoever Tim Cindric is calling, and Joseph is a great human being and easy to root for.”
INSIDE THE GOP STATE SECRETARY OF STATE NOMINATION BATTLE
It’s the other big, bitterly contested race Hoosier insiders are chattering about.
In a matchup between incumbent Secretary of State Holli Sullivan and her top challenger: far-right candidate Diego Morales, Morales has built an out-state coalition of support that could rival Sullivan in a multiple-ballot convention battle.
The party will choose its candidate at its June 17-18 convention.
OpenSecrets.org called it “one of the most expensive [Indiana Secretary of State races] in more than two decades.” As of February, Morales had raised more than $477,000, while Sullivan raised approximately $396,000.
Morales has flirted if not outright endorsed 2020 election denialism, appearing on the show of former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon and calling for increased county-by-county, post-vote audits.
Inside the Indiana GOP, card-carrying members of the establishment are growing increasingly concerned that Morales could win.
“I think Holli is still the favorite but her team better not get comfortable,” an influential Indianapolis Republican told me. “They’re going to have to work hard and run through the tape. It’s closer than it should be.”
Is there concern at Indiana GOP headquarters about having Morales on the statewide ticket?
“Our delegates will select our statewide nominees and the party will work to elect those nominees in November,” said Luke Thomas, a state party spokesman.
WHAT REP. JIM BANKS IS READING: “Trump Jr. allies issue warning to Stefanik camp: Don’t go after Tucker’s kid,” by Olivia Beavers and Meridith McGraw in Politico
Those Trump Jr. allies were recently told that Stefanik’s camp was behind an effort to plant negative stories about Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), a potential Stefanik competitor in House GOP leadership. It was also relayed to them that part of the effort involved bringing up Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s son, Buckley — an aide to Banks — according to three Republicans familiar with the conversations.
POLITICO was unable to confirm the veracity of the pro-Stefanik whisper campaign against Banks. But whether real or rumor, the pushback from allies of the former president’s eldest son could imperil the New York Republican’s hopes of elevating to a bigger party post. One year after deposing anti-Trump Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from the No. 3 House Republican post, Stefanik is now considered a contender for the whip’s role in a potential GOP majority next year.
“Will Helio Castroneves Make History This May?” By Tony Rehagen in Indianapolis Monthly
Last May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, after holding off a driver almost half his age for the final two laps, Helio Castroneves climbed out of the cockpit and revived his signature Spider-Man ascent up the fence along the front straightaway. He pumped his gloved fist to his pit crew and to the fans shouting his name. He climbed down and curled up on top of the wall for a brief moment to let the gravity of the achievement wash over him. Then, after embracing his new boss and team, Helio unsnapped his neck harness and removed his helmet to unleash his omnipresent smile.
That smile is the Brazilian’s defining characteristic. And to be fair, it’s a hell of a smile, much more than a pair of upturned lips. Rather it’s an expression in the fullest sense that involves the entire face. It’s a kid’s grin, honest and effortless, framed by midlife character lines, crow’s feet streaking across his temples like fireworks. From competitive go-karting at the age of 10 on the tracks of South America to achieving the highest measure of success on the world’s most famous oval at 46, Helio has never hidden his passion for racing.
But on this day, there was something else in that smile. Something behind those straight-but-not-too-straight rows of white-but-not-too-white teeth that went beyond mere passion or joy. As Helio accepted the Borg-Warner Trophy, the sterling silver cup that carries the sculpted faces of everyone who has ever won the 500, including three younger miniature happy Helios, he beamed with hard-won gratification, as if he had answered the question of whether Helio had anything left in the tank with a question of his own: How do you like me now?
“Pence, Tiptoeing Away From Trump, Lays Groundwork for ’24 Run,” by Jonathan Martin in The New York Times
For months, former Vice President Mike Pence has been edging away from his alliance of convenience with former President Donald J. Trump.
After four years of service bordering on subservience, the increasingly emboldened Mr. Pence is seeking to reintroduce himself to Republican voters ahead of a potential presidential bid by setting himself apart from what many in the G.O.P. see as the worst impulses of Mr. Trump. He’s among a small group in his party considering a run in 2024 no matter what Mr. Trump decides.
Mr. Pence first used high-profile speeches to criticize the former president’s push to overturn the 2020 election results, stating flatly that Mr. Trump was “wrong” in his assertion that Mr. Pence could have blocked the Electoral College ratification on Jan. 6, 2021. Mr. Pence then unsubtly visited the Charlottesville, Va., memorial to Heather Heyer, who was killed in the 2017 white supremacist riot there that Mr. Trump sought to rationalize by faulting “both sides.”
That’s all for today. Thanks for reading. Enjoy the race, and Memorial Day weekend.