The annual running of the Indianapolis 500, a Memorial Day tradition, signals the beginning of summer. This year’s race marks 101 years since the first event took place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. At this historic track, known as the Brickyard, over 30 finely-tuned cars are pitted against each other in the greatest spectacle in motor racing. Race car fan or not, few are left unaffected by the pageantry of the Indianapolis 500. Starting with “Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines,” the excitement builds to a fever pitch, as the race car drivers follow the pace car, three-abreast, engines roaring, around the oval track. After the pace car exits the track, the flag drops, and the race is on.
The pace car, which has been part of Indy every year since 1911, was the brainchild of Carl G. Fisher, founder of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS). Fisher wanted the Indy race to begin while the cars were on the move, instead of the traditional standing start, but he needed a way to hold the field of cars together, at a consistent speed. The pace car not only controls the speed of the procession of cars, but the pace car laps allow the drivers to warm up their engines and tires, and provide an opportunity for fans to get a closer look at their favorite drivers.
The first car to set the pace in the Indy 500 was a Stoddard Dayton. Other early pace cars included Packards, Duesenbergs, Cords, and Studebakers. From 1940 to 1980, the Big Three U.S. auto manufacturers took turns pacing the Indy 500. Since the ’80s, General Motors has provided most of the pace cars, with only an occasional Chrysler or Ford leading the field. This year, a Corvette ZR1 will set the pace at the Brickyard.
Recognized as the founder of the IMS, it isn’t surprising that Carl Fisher had the honor of driving the pace car at the first five races at Indy. Through the years, auto executives, celebrities, and former race car drivers all piloted pace cars around the track. Some of the most recognizable names include Eddie Richenbacker, Edsel Ford, James Garner, Jackie Stewart, Chuck Yeager, Carroll Shelby, Jay Leno, Morgan Freeman, Colin Powell, Lance Armstrong, and AJ Foyt. In 1936, Tommy Milton, a previous Indy winner, started a new tradition that continues today – presenting the winner with the pace car he drove. Since then, winners have received either the actual pace car or a replica.
Although their appearance continues to evolve, all modern-day pace cars are painted with Indy’s distinctive letter and badging, but despite their similarities, there are a few pace cars that have been standouts.
In the summer of 1964, Ford released the first 64 ½ Mustang to the public. To coincide with the new car release, a white Mustang coupe paced the Indy 500 race that year.
In 1969, a white and orange striped Camaro was selected as the pace car, and the same color scheme was used on the 2011 Camaro pace car. The popularity of this design is seen today in all the tribute and current-day Camaros being built to capture this look.
In 1971, a Dodge Challenger, driven by Eldon Palmer, an Indianapolis car dealer, had the dubious honor of driving the only pace car to have crashed in pit lane. His passengers, John Glenn and Tony Hulman, along with 20 others, were injured in the accident. The following year, none of the car manufacturers were willing to provide a pace car for the race, so Hurst Performance took the initiative, and sponsored the Hurst/Olds. This was the only year a major car manufacturer did not directly provide the car.
In 2001, Oldsmobile provided the Bravada, the first SUV to lead the field, and then two years later Chevrolet supplied a SSR for the pace car, making it the only year a truck paced the drivers in the Indy 500.
Indy 500 Pace Cars
The History of the Indy 500 Pace Cars