June 16, 2024
Motorsports

Wouldn’t you prefer a Viper as the Indy 500 pace car?

This year’s Indianapolis 500 pace car, the Chevrolet Corvette E-Ray. (Penske Entertainment: Joe Skibinski)

 

Prior to securing his fourth Indianapolis 500 win in 1991, Rick Mears had his sights set on a special prize.

Throughout the month leading up to the race, Mears was enamored with the Dodge Viper that would pace the event. He saw it not just as a cool car but also as a trophy, as the winning driver traditionally receives the pace car as part of their victory spoils.

While the pace cars from Mears’ previous three wins did not excite him – a 1979 Ford Mustang, 1984 Pontiac Fiero, and 1988 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme – the Viper, with its snarling V-10 engine, captured his attention.

“I win the race and I’m thinking I’m going to get a Viper,” Mears recalled.

However, instead of receiving a Viper, he was given a Dodge Stealth, which, though similar in color, did not meet his expectations. Thus began Mears’ quest to obtain the car that would become a legendary Indy 500 pace car.

(Penske Entertainment: Joe Skibinski)

Pace cars hold significance for various reasons, whether they are owned by winning drivers, sought after by collectors, or rarities preserved in museums. Each pace car has its own story, some illustrious and others less so.

In 1911, a Stoddard-Dayton roadster made history by pacing the inaugural Indy 500, becoming the first pace car in auto racing. Over the years, the Indy 500 has seen a variety of pace cars, ranging from a Dodge Challenger that crashed in 1971 to the first and only SUV pace car, a 2001 Olds Bravada. This year’s pace car, the Corvette E-Ray 3LZ, marks the first hybrid to lead the field. Models like the Mustang, Camaro, and Corvette are among the most coveted by collectors.

“When you look at the lineup of pace cars, you’ll find some iconic vehicles that have graced this race,” remarked Jason Vansickle, vice president of curation and education at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum.

The Coveted Viper

When the Dodge Viper arrived at the speedway in 1991, it was considered cutting-edge, even though it was not originally slated to be the pace car. The Dodge Stealth was initially chosen for the role, heavily promoted as the performance model while the Viper was still in its prototype phase, slated for public release in 1992.

However, the Stealth, a rebranded version of the Mitsubishi 3000GT, sparked controversy, particularly among the United Auto Workers, who protested the decision to have a non-American car pacing the American race.

“They claimed it wasn’t American and that an American car should pace this event,” explained Vansickle. “At the last minute, they switched the car out and brought in the Dodge Viper.”

The Viper that led the field was one of the first pre-production models, rushed to the speedway despite exhibiting prototype flaws like inconsistent panel gaps upon close inspection.

“Looking at this car today, you can see the rush to get it ready,” Vansickle noted. “Knowing it’s one of the first pre-production Vipers ever made adds to its allure, despite its imperfections. And boy, is it fast!”

Mears, eager to own the Viper after his victory, reached out to Dodge officials in hopes of trading his Stealth for the desired car. However, his request was firmly denied.

“I felt like they owed it to me,” Mears expressed. “In the end, I considered buying one myself. But when I inquired about the cost, the dealer quoted me ‘Ten over.’ I declined, not because of the markup but because of the principle.”

Unexpected Prizes

Mears eventually moved on, resigning to the fact that he may never acquire the car he truly desired. He was not the only Indy 500 winner to receive a different car than the one that paced their victory.

At the 1962 race, a Studebaker Lark Daytona convertible served as the pace car while Rodger Ward was presented with a Studebaker Avanti.

“Though the Avanti wasn’t able to pace the race due to timing issues, a model was still presented to the winner,” Vansickle explained.

The 1969 Chevrolet Camaro pace car replica remains a highly sought-after collectible, known for its iconic color scheme and the popularity of ’69 Camaros in general.

“The Dover White and Hugger Orange color combination is legendary, and ’69 Camaros are perennial favorites among collectors,” Vansickle added.

Interestingly, during the 1969 race, Chevrolet prepared two pace cars, one with Goodyear tires and the other with Firestone, reflecting a tire war at the time. Although Mario Andretti, the race winner, had ties to Firestone, he was pictured in the pace car equipped with Goodyear rubber during the victory celebration.

In contrast to modern high-performance Corvettes, many pace cars from previous eras required modifications to achieve the necessary acceleration and speeds exceeding 120 mph for track duties.

“Some of those ’80s cars were even run on methanol,” Vansickle revealed. “They underwent significant upgrades to enhance their performance.”

Aside from performance enhancements, some pace cars underwent cosmetic alterations to facilitate ceremonial duties or to give them a unique appearance as per manufacturer specifications.

The 1977 Oldsmobile Delta 88 pace car featured streamlined mirrors and a targa top with a removable sunroof. It gained significant attention after A.J. Foyt became the first four-time winner of the Indy 500, as it was frequently photographed with Foyt and speedway owner Tony Hulman on board.

“That C pillar was where Foyt and Hulman would sit in those iconic photos,” Vansickle pointed out. “The back window was also removable, a distinctive feature of that car.”

The ’77 pace car was the initial project of Ed Welburn at General Motors, who later became the company’s vice president of global design and oversaw the development of notable concept vehicles like the Olds Aerotech, Cadillac Ciel, and Buick Avista.

The 1911 Stoddard-Dayton, left, and 1923 Duesenberg Model A

Historical Beginnings

The 1911 Stoddard became the first pace car to initiate a flying start in racing history. Following two years of standing starts, speedway owner Carl Fisher realized the dangers of starting 40 cars simultaneously and introduced the pace car concept.

“With 40 cars in the first Indianapolis 500, a standing start would have been risky for drivers and spectators,” Vansickle elaborated. “Carl’s decision to use a pace car served multiple purposes: promoting car sales, ensuring a safer start, and establishing the unique tradition of the three-wide start with 33 cars charging into Turn 1. Originally four wide, the tradition began with the pace car.”

Twelve years later, a Duesenberg Model A paced the Indy 500, following a 24-hour endurance run around the speedway that covered over 3,000 miles.

“It was a remarkable feat. The car had to be serviced while running nonstop for 24 hours, with another Duesenberg Model A bolted next to it on the track,” Vansickle recounted.

While some pace cars may not have seemed collectible at first, unique features and their association with the Indy 500 have made them desirable over time. A brown/beige Buick Riviera convertible, equipped with a 410-horsepower twin-turbo V6, paced the 1983 race.

“Despite its unassuming appearance, being a convertible and serving as the pace car added allure to the vehicle, making it more desirable compared to a standard model,” Vansickle noted. “Cars from the ’80s are gaining in popularity among collectors.”

The Long-Awaited Viper

As one of only four drivers to secure four Indy 500 victories, Rick Mears knew the significance of the Viper from the moment he saw it in 1991. Despite the initial setback of not receiving the desired car, his quest for the Viper ultimately ended on a positive note. Understanding Mears’ desire for the car, his team owner, Roger Penske, purchased one for him.

“I don’t remember how much time had passed, but Roger called me and said, ‘Hey, I got our Vipers!’ Mears recalled.

Although Mears no longer possesses the pace cars from his previous wins – the ’79 Mustang, ’84 Fiero, and ’88 Cutlass – he holds his cherished Viper in high regard.

“I still have it,” he affirmed, “and I still enjoy driving it!”

FAQs

1. What is the significance of pace cars at the Indianapolis 500?

Pace cars serve various purposes at the Indy 500, from ensuring a safe start to becoming coveted collectibles for winners and enthusiasts.

2. Are pace cars modified for performance at the Indy 500?

Yes, many pace cars undergo performance enhancements to meet the speed and acceleration requirements for on-track duties.

3. Which pace car is considered the most iconic in Indy 500 history?

The 1969 Chevrolet Camaro pace car replica, with its distinctive color scheme and historical significance, remains one of the most popular among collectors.

Conclusion

Indy 500 pace cars hold a special place in racing history, embodying both tradition and innovation. From the pioneering Stoddard-Dayton to the cutting-edge Viper, each pace car symbolizes the excitement and prestige of the iconic race. As drivers like Rick Mears cherish their pace car trophies, these vehicles continue to captivate enthusiasts and collectors, preserving the legacy of the Indy 500 for generations to come.

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