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by John Gunnell  More from Author

Indy Pace Cars Get The Richest Race Rolling

When the Indy 500 roars to life on May 29, 2011, it will mark the 100th running of the best known and oldest continuous race in America. However, the car leading the drivers around their first lap of the famed “Brickyard” will be only the 95th Indy Pace Car. That because there were no races in 1917-1918 due to World War I and none in 1942-1945, due to World War II.

There has been a pace car for every race, however. Some had no lettering. Some said “Official Pace Car” and some said “Official Pacemaker.” The term Pacemaker was not used after World War II.

Chevrolets have paced the race 21 times, more than any other brand and have had the honor the past nine years in a row. Oldsmobile is second and has paced 11 Indy 500s. Ford is third with seven, but appears to be adding an eighth this year. Buick and Chrysler are tied for fourth place with six each. Fifth is a three-way tie between Dodge, Pontiac and Studebaker with four each. Five automakers have provided three pace cars: Cadillac, Mercury and Stoddard-Dayton, with the latter providing cars three of the first four years.

Two is a fairly lonely number in the Indy Pace Car world claimed by only Marmon and Lincoln. A dozen companies did the pace car thing only once: Cole, Cord, De Soto, Duesenberg, HCS, Hudson, Nash, National, Plymouth, Premier, Rickenbacker (whose owner owned Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and Stutz The wildest pacecar-actually the last called a Pacemaker-was the 1941 Chrysler Newport Parade Phaeton, that was actually a factory built “car-of-the-future.”

In most years—we think 79—the Pace Cars have been open body styles, most often convertible coupes. However, even when the pacer is a ragtop, it’s common to see other models, as well as trucks, running around with pace car lettering and badges. For instance, in 1974, when the Official Pace Car was a Hurst-Olds Cutlass convertible, a unique four-door Hurst-Olds was supplied to track owner Tony Hulman and Hurst’s well-known “First Lady of Motorsports”- Linda Vaughn got an Oldsmobile Delta 88 ragtop with Hurst decorations to drive.

In our count of open cars, we included those with T-tops and moon roofs because such cars were the “convertibles” of the late-‘70s and early ‘80s. That’s when the car companies were building their “last” convertibles, due to crashworthiness regulations. So, we think about 19 of the cars had partially or completely removable roof arrangements. Don’t quote us, because it’s sometimes hard to tell in a photo or to know if the photo car is the actual pacer.

In 1972, which was another Hurst-Olds year, the Official Pace Car was a white Cutlass convertible with gold trim. That was the Hurst color scheme then. However, a Cutlass coupe with a sun roof and Hurst and Indy 500 Pace Car features was also available with 220 being made. We’re not certain if any of these were at the race, but a ’72 Cutlass station wagon with similar features was. It was built for use by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Medical Director.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Corp. (IMSC) also required the pace car provider to supply a number of trucks for officials to use during the race. These went to the Official Photographer, Contest Board Officials, Official Safety personnel and so on. When the pace car was a Chevy, then Chevy trucks were used. If it was another GM make, GMC trucks were provided. Ford coughed up the trucks when the pacer was a Ford, Lincoln or Mercury and Dodge did the same if it was a Mopar year. In 1984, we attended a spring promotion for the Pontiac Fiero Pace Car and we were driven around in a GMC “Indy Hauler” van.

Speedway founder Carl G. Fisher came up with the idea of using a pace car so the race could have a safer “rolling start.” Fisher actually drove the Stoddard-Daytons in 1911,. 1912 and 1914, as well as an Indianapolis-built Stutz in 1912 and a Packard 6 in 1915. In addition to building the speedway, Fisher founded the first American car company, created the Lincoln Highway—the nation’s first coast-to-coast road—and developed Miami Beach in Florida.

Fisher purposely located his track in a place where he said “half the population of the country lived less than a day away.” This led to its rapid growth and soon car companies began vying for the honor of supplying the pace car. Driving the car that started the race also became a status symbol and in the beginning it went to many pioneers in the auto industry. Over the last few years, actors and athletes have driven the start-of-the-race laps, then turned the steering wheel over to a different driver for caution period re-starts. Former Indy racer Johnnie Rutherford has taken over after the start for the past four years.

Until the ‘50s, the Official Pace Car preceded the racing cars around for one lap as the drivers warmed up their cars. The pace car then pulled off at a fairly high rate of speed and the actual race began. Around 1957, a switch was made to one parade lap and one warm-up lap. The current practice of doing two parade lapis and one warm-up lap began in the mid-‘70s.

In 1971, the speeding pace car—an orange Dodge Challenger convertible driven by local car dealer Eldon Palmer—got out of his control. Palmer and three passengers including track owner Tony Hulman, astronaut John Glenn and a sports broadcaster crashed into a stand set up for photographers. Twenty people were hurt in the accident, which is the only pace car disaster that occurred at Indy.

Ford Motor Company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1953 and Ford signed on to provide the Official Pace Car (and about 50 other support vehicles) for the Indy 500 as part of its advertising program for the 50th anniversary celebration. An off-white Crestline convertible was used as the Pace Car. It had a white cloth top, wire wheels with “gangster” whitewalls and special interior paint and fabrics. Ford produced 2,000 replicas for display in Ford showrooms in May. At least some of the cars—maybe all—had a special floorboard medallion.

Dodge followed Ford to the pace lap at the speedway the next year with a boldly lettered Royal convertible equipped with a Red Ram Hemi V-8. The pacers were yellow with a black top, black lettering and a black painted fin shaped panel high on the doors. Wire wheels were mounted, as well as a shelf type continental kit. Dodge built 701 replicas for showroom sales promotion.

The next pace car we know of that was factory cloned was the iconic 1969 Camaro. The actual pace cars (usually three are supplied) were SS/RS models with the rip-snorting 396-cid 375-hp V-8. Replica ragtops (RPO Z11) had the same white body with orange stripes, orange-and-white hounds-tooth interior and orange pace car lettering, but could also be had with a 350-cid 300-hp engine, which is more common. Chevy built about 100 cars for Indy 500 festival use and produced a grand total of 3,674. There was also a rare Z10 coupe version that was built for just a few weeks. About 200 were made to satisfy dealers who were angry that they couldn’t get enough pace car convertibles.

After 1969, it became more common to see pace car replicas being sold. Naturally, Dodge didn’t sell copies of the orange ’71 Challenger that crashed, but the GM divisions that did pace cars after that, straight through 1978, usually sold at least some replicas. In the case of the patriotic looking red, white and blue 1975 Buick Century Custom convertible the total was 40 replicas. But the next year’s 1976 Buick Century Turbo T-Top (the first V-6 pace car) warranted 1,290 copies. All these numbers can be found at the website that also lists the complete roster of pace cars and pace car drivers, with many interesting historical notations.

Surprisingly, the first Corvette pace car was offered in 1978. Chevy planned to sell only 2,500 and the car created a ton of excitement. We were just breaking into the writing field then and happened to shoot the first pace car at a car show in New York City. We immediately went from no stories sold to 13 sales. The 2,500 cars sold so fast at over-sticker prices, that Chevy started building more. In fact, the company seemed bound and determined to show how unlimited a supposedly limited-edition car could be. By the time the dust cleared, 6,000 clones had been produced and the collector value began to fall.

After a year with a hot-rodded Mustang II in 1979, the pendulum swung back to GM with a Pontiac Trans Am Turbo V-8 T-roof in 1980, a 281-hp Buick Regal V-6 with a roll-bar roof in 1981, a new-Gen Camaro in 1982 (6,000 replicas made) and a very slick 450-hp Twin-Turbo Buick Riviera convertible in 1983. That brings us to 1984, when we went to the bash where the Fiero pace car was introduced to Pontiac dealers. The dealer party wasn’t as much fun as seeing a fleet of replica pace cars lined up at the bricked starting line. We got to ride there with Mary Hulman who we thought was a journalist, too. “No, I own the place,” she said, before inviting us out to eat with her and Tony George in Terre Haute.

Jack Martin, who was director of the Speedway Hall of Fame and Special Events at the time, had the use of a replica, and we drove it up to Frankfurt the next day to see Bill Goodwin’s car collection. The Fiero was the first four-cylinder pace car since 1912 and the smallest, but our Festival car didn’t have the big roof snorkel used on the two actual pace cars that GM hopped up to generate 232 hp. At least it didn’t catch fire and we later learned that it was one of just 2,000 built.

A little Olds Calais ragtop followed the little Pontiac two-seater, then came the second Corvette pace car. Actually, all of the new-for-1986 Corvette convertibles (the brand’s first ragtop in 15 years) were considered pace cars. That included to one that General Chuck Yeager paced the race off with. Then, 1987 was a Chrysler year, with Carroll Shelby pushing the LeBaron Turbo four-cylinder convertible. He posed in photos with the red ragtop and drove it on the pace lap. He’s soon be working on the Viper, that paced Indy in 1991.

We had another pace car experience in 1989, even though we didn’t get close to Indy. Dave Doern of Chicago, a fervent Poncho fan, always had an “in” at Pontiac. He had been given the job of putting the strobe lights on the three actual Turbo V-6 Trans Am pace car. According to one Website, strobe lights were first used in 1982 and are one way to tell an actual pace car from a clone. We don’t know about that, but we can tell you that in ’89, the strobe install was a non-factory job that transpired in Dave’s shop under far-from-secret conditions.

Dave told us that the three actual pace cars had been used in promotions in different parts of the country, with plans to drive them to Chicago to get the strobes plugged in, before they went to Indy. Apparently, one of the cars had been accidentally smashed up by a pr guy—or something along those lines. So, the car was fixed on the sly before coming to Dave. He asked if we wanted to drive the beast and we took all three cars out in Chicago traffic to do a “secret” photo shoot. We parked them in front of a Rand-McNally factory just before 3 pm. A few minutes later, thousands of workers came streaming out and got an advanced peek at the actual Indy pace cars that the press was hungering to see.

Dave passed away nearly two years ago, the day before Pontiac announced that it was being phased out. He was a loss to the Pontiac community, but there’s some solace in knowing that he didn’t see what happened to his favorite car. He was truly an enthusiast and a part of Indy pace car history.

Over the next 15 years or so, Indy pace cars went through various transitions. In the ‘50s, the speedway had always picked big, flashy, top-of-the-line models that you knew were special as soon as you saw them. Actually, this started in 1949, when the pace car was an Olds Rocket 88 convertible with big rocket sculptures on its fenders and a see-through hood panel that allowed viewing the hot new overhead-valve V-8. Over the next decade, pace cars included a ’50 James Dean Merc, the mold-breaking ’55 Chevy Bel Air convertible, the Hemi hurled ’56 De Soto Adventurer, the outrageous (in an aircraft carrier sort of way) ’57 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, the fuel-injected ’58 Pontiac Bonneville convertible and the jet-finned ’59 Buick.

In the ‘60s, the pacers were hot, muscular models like a cigar-shaped T-Bird, a big-block Chrysler 300, the hot and hot-selling ’64 Mustang Hi-Po 289, the ’66 Mercury Cyclone GT, the 427-powered ’68 Ford Torino and the big-block Chevy pony car with almost 400 ponies.

The ‘90s started off with a Chevy Beretta, then a Viper (actually a stand-in for the Stealth made overseas). Since all Official Indy Pace cars are American cars, the Mitsubishi-built Stealth was considered a no-no by the speedway as well as the UAW. Next we got a Cadillac Allante, then a Z28, then a Cobra Mustang, then a Corvette and a Viper coupe. An Olds Bravada SUV in 2001 and the 2003 Chevy SSR hinted that pace trucks were going to replace pace cars.

Things really evened out after that. The pace car was a Corvette in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. In 2009 and 2010, the new “retro” Camaro stepped up to the plate. In fact, since it perfected the marketing of pace car replicas in 1978 and turned them into a profit center, Chevy has been “king of the clones.”

With 2011 marking the 100th anniversary of the first Indy 500, the speedway will be hosting a 100th Anniversary Pace Car Reunion on May 21-22. Only Indianapolis 500 “Official” Pace Cars or Track/Festival Cars will be able to participate in this reunion.

1926 Packard

1931 Cadillac V-12 Pacemaker Convertible

1933 Oldsmobile Pacemaker Convertible with Rickenbacker

1939 Hudson Pacemaker Convertible

1941 Chrysler Newport Pace Car

1954 Dodge

1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser

1964 Chrysler Sport 300 Convertible

1965 Ford Mustang Indy Pace Car

1972 Hurst Olds Indy Pace Car Convertible

1973 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible

1975 Buick LeSabre Convertible

1979 Ford Mustang Indy 500 Pace Car

1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am Indy Pace Car

1984 Fiero Pace Car

1987 Chrysler LeBaron Turbo Convertible with Carroll Shelby

1989 Pontiac Trans Am Indy Pace Car

2007 Chevrolet Corvette Indy Pace Car

2010 Chevrolet Camaro Indy 500 Pace Car


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