When winter turns to spring and race fans start thinking about the Indianapolis 500, the most often-heard question is, “What will be the pace car?” Automakers once vied for the coveted spot because it’s good advertising in the vein of “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday.”
If it looked good on the track, drivers could imagine speeding along in their own version. Corvettes and Camaros have dominated the front-most spot ahead of 33 race cars, but there’s a century of pace cars worth devouring.
Beyond looking sexy, pace cars have a very important purpose. Their main duty is to provide safety during warm-up laps, when cautions occur, and by keeping the racecars at a safe speed whenever necessary. They also enable those beautiful “flying starts” Indianapolis race fans love so much. The first “Pacemaker” was a Stoddard-Dayton that led a field that included Ray Harroun’s Marmon Wasp. The driver? IMS co-founder Carl G. Fisher. A Stutz set the pace in 1912, followed by two more Stoddard-Daytons. In the first decade, race attendees saw three Stoddard-Daytons, two Packards, a Stutz, Premier 6, and Marmon 6 lead. Carl Fisher sat behind the wheel for the first five years.
Looking through the decades, there have been some impressive pace cars. Duesenberg paced in 1923 – as did a front-drive Cord L-29 in 1930, Lincoln Model KB in 1932, Chrysler Newport Parade Phaeton in 1941, and Lincoln Continental V-12 in 1946. An Oldsmobile 88, Chevrolet Bel Air, Ford Thunderbird, Studebaker Lark Daytona, and Chrysler 300 all appeared before the first Mustang in 1964. Other notable cars include the 1968 Ford Torino GT, 1971 Dodge Challenger, 1973 Cadillac Eldorado, 1974 Hurst/Olds Cutlass, and 1994 Ford Mustang Cobra.
Since 1997, all pace cars have been provided by General Motors. So far, GM has provided 51 pace cars that include models as varied as the Corvette, Camaro, Trans Am, Buick Riviera, LaSalle, Cadillac Allante, and Oldsmobile Bravada SUV. Corvette waited until 1978 for its first appearance, but tops the roster with 13 appearances. Camaro led 8 times. Chrysler, including brands that eventually merged into what is now FCA, claims 13 pace cars. Ford nabbed 11, Studebaker paced six times, and Stutz rolled twice.
The selection of pace cars has not been without controversy. In 1991, organizers tapped the Dodge Stealth. When fans rebelled against the Japanese-built sports car, Chrysler sent a pre-production Dodge Viper instead and put Carroll Shelby behind the wheel. And, who can forget 2011 when Donald Trump was supposed to pilot a white Camaro? Protests unseated him and inserted four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt instead.
Each of us has our favorite pace cars. I fondly remember visiting the track for the first time in 1984 when the Pontiac Fiero was pace car. Twenty-four years later, I rode hot laps with Emerson Fittipaldi in the ethanol-powered Corvette Z06. Great memories!
Centennial Pace Maker
All of these great cars lead up to the centennial race that will be led by four identically-prepared track-ready versions of the 50th Anniversary Edition 2017 Camaro SS, driven by Roger Penske. They’ll be specially painted with “100th Running of the Indianapolis 500” race graphics over Abalone White exterior paint. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway wing-and-wheel logos adorn the quarter panels. Unlike in the old days, the 455 horsepower V8 required no performance modifications.
“Chevrolet and the Indianapolis 500 have a long, storied history and it’s an honor to market the respective milestones of the Indy 500 race and the Camaro simultaneously, said Mark Reuss, executive vice president of Global Product Development, Global Purchasing and Supply Chain for GM. “It’s also a privilege to have Roger Penske perform the driving duties, as his team has helped Chevrolet earn four consecutive IndyCar manufacturer titles since 2012.”
I couldn't think of a better guy to drive a better car for the 100th running. Let the flags fly!
Photos provided by General Motors Media Archives, Ford Media Archives, and FCA Media Archives.