Indianapolis 500 fans are very familiar with the pace car concept but non-fans may need a refresher course.
The role of the pace car is essentially to set the pace for the field of race cars during starts, restarts and caution laps.
Detroit vied for the honor of the pace car supplier so every year there was a slugfest for Official Pace Car status and this competition produced some very cool rides.
Ford was the official supplier for the 1953 Indy 500. They pumped out a very cool convertible (most pace cars were roofless so you could see the VIPs) for the May 30, 1953 race. Bill Vukovich won this race known for its record heat (130F 54.4C)that killed one driver and forced relief drivers to relieve relief drivers.
Dodge got the nod for the 1954 Indy 500 held on May 31, 1954. This was another convertible and the race was won for the second year in a row by Bill Vukovich. The words “Stay tuned for the greatest spectacle in racing” was used for the first time in a broadcast during the race when this cool Dodge led every pace lap.
Mercury put their name on a pace car on May 30, 1957 and that’s why a very large and in charge convertible was at the head of every pace lap. Sam Hanks won the big race and the first $100,000 payday in the history of the race. He retired shortly after his biggest victory in racing.
Chrysler got into the pace car game on May 30, 1963 when they sent a 300 convertible to the legendary track. Parnelli Jones won his only Indy 500 during a very controversial race where his car pumped out oil for several laps. Rumors persist to this day he would have been black-flagged had there been an American driver behind him instead of Scotland’s Jimmy Clark. Regardless of the controversy, the big Mopar looked pretty cool at the ’63 Indy.
The brand new Camaro debuted at the May 30-31, 1967 Indy 500. This race was won by the legendary AJ Foyt and the reason it extended over two days came down to one factor-rain. Parnelli Jones dominated this race in a turbine car but a $6.00 bearing failed and Foyt aimed his car through a last lap wreck to win this big one. The Camaro pace car was icing on the cake.
There was another Camaro in the May 30, 1969 Indy 500. The ’69 is often regarded as the peak of Camaro style and that was a fitting contribution to another legend named Mario Andretti’s big day at the Indianapolis Speedway. Mario would go on to many more victories in many different race cars but he shared the track with another legend in May 1969.
Pace cars will always be a welcome addition at any car show but they also provide a link to a past when the Indy 500 was the biggest race on the planet.
The pace car cool factor is a bonus.
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