Late to the game, Chevy pace cars now reign at Indianapolis
Carl Fisher had an idea a minute, a few of which changed the world.
He founded the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He instigated the Lincoln and Dixie highways. He dredged sand from the Biscayne Bay and built Miami Beach.
It was Fisher's idea in 1911 to employ a "pacer" to control the rolling start of the first Indianapolis 500. It was believed to be the first time one was used anywhere.
Soon, the pace car company also was supplying dozens of cars and trucks for track support, parades and celebrity use -- and, since 1936, a car to the winner.
Louis Chevrolet was big at the speedway from the get-go. He won a race there before there was a 500, even before there were bricks. But the car company bearing his name didn't pace a race until 1948. Since then, 22 Chevys have done the honors, including pacing the past 10 Indy 500s.
1948: The first Chevrolet pace car was a gray Fleetmaster convertible with a spotlight and a bright red graphic on each door. Wilbur Shaw, speedway president and three-time race winner, drove. Thomas Keating, Chevy's general sales manager, rode shotgun on the pace lap.
Mauri Rose, who happened also to be a GM employee, won his third Indy 500.
1955: If ever a Chevy cried out for Indy pace car status, it was the new '55 Bel Air. The red-and-white convertible with a white top had a hopped-up version of Chevy's new small-block V-8 under the hood.
Rose, now overseeing Chevy's motorsports adventures, managed the Indianapolis show. Keating, now Chevy's general manager, drove the pace lap with speedway owner Tony Hulman beside him.
At the victory dinner a day later, subdued 500 winner Bob Sweikert was awarded a Bel Air. The race was marred by the death of defending champion Bill Vukovich.
1967: In 1967, Chevy's brand-new Camaro was another natural pace car choice. Of 81 white SS convertibles shipped to Indianapolis, four were fitted with special 396-cid V-8s for track duty.
For the first time, Chevy dealers across the country could leverage the Indy buzz by stocking "pacesetter" edition Camaros. The pace car usually appeared only at the start of the 500 and wasn't seen again. Officials broke with tradition in 1967, when rain halted the race after 18 laps. The car reappeared to pace the resumption of the race.
Rose drove. Hulman was alongside him. A.J. Foyt won the race and a pace car, which he initially declined because it lacked air conditioning and power steering.
1969: Emboldened by the success of the '67, Chevrolet almost overdid it in '69 with another white Camaro convertible. Two "hugger orange" stripes gracing hood and deck lid were wide and bright. The interior was swathed in black-and-orange houndstooth.
Chevy sent about 160 replicas to Indy. But the car count went way beyond that. Chevy filled dealers' orders for almost 3,700 replicas.
More than 40 years later, the gaudy car that seemed to overstuff the market is among the most popular Indy pace cars of all time.
Mario Andretti won the race and the keys to his pace car, which did have air conditioning and power steering.
1978: Word got out that only 300 black-and-silver replicas of the '78 Corvette pace car would be produced. That triggered such a dealer outcry that Chevy increased the number to 6,500. Whether a dealer liked it or not, every store would get one, Chevy said.
Faced with a budget-busting invoice of about $10,000, many dealers dished off their orders to other dealers or to speculators. Frenzied retail customers got caught up in the buy/sell. Prices soared. They peaked around race time, then plummeted. Thirty-three years later, near-zero-mile four-speed pace cars with the preferred L82 engine are selling in the $25,000 range -- which is about what they were bringing in the spring of 1978.
Al Unser Sr. won the race.
1982: The first new Camaro Z28 off the assembly line in November 1981 became one of the two specially prepped track cars for the 1982 race.
Unlike the replicas, of which 6,000 were built, the track cars featured fuel-injected 250-hp engines with aluminum blocks and other modifications from the fertile environs of Vince Piggins' Product Promotions Group, a semisecret race shop within Chevrolet engineering.
Chevy dealer and 1960 Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann, who had managed a clandestine motorsports outpost in Atlanta for Piggins in the mid-1950s, was the driver.
Gordon Johncock won the race by a split second over Rick Mears.
1986: The happy coincidence of Chevrolet and the speedway both celebrating their 75th birthdays and the return of a convertible to the lineup made the Corvette the pace car choice in 1986.
Three stock yellow convertibles were outfitted for track duty. Not since the '78 Corvette had a pace car been street legal. Retired Brigadier Gen. Chuck Yeager was the driver. There were 7,315 convertibles built in 1986, and Chevrolet gave them all pace car status.
Bobby Rahal captured an emotional win; ailing car owner Jim Truman died soon afterward.
1990: Chevrolet could have tagged the Corvette ZR-1 to pace the 1990 race, but it instead chose a new convertible version of the front-wheel-drive Beretta.
When quality issues killed the convertible, pace car driver Jim Perkins, the new Chevy general manager, decided to go with the Beretta anyway.
Three bright-yellow 225-hp V-6s were hand-built and prepped for track duty. Another 4,500 coupes were designated replicas.
Arie Luyendyk was the race winner.
1993: Pace car honors went to the redesigned Camaro coupe in 1993. An artful multicolored streamer effect accented the black-and-white paint treatment.
Chevy built 645 replicas, 125 of which served as Indy support vehicles. In honor of BorgWarner's long association with both the speedway and Chevrolet, a single replica was equipped with a manual transmission and lent for the month to the BorgWarner plant in Muncie Ind. All other pace cars were automatics.
Perkins was back for a second stint as the pace car driver.
At the wheel of one of Roger Penske's Ilmor/Chevy-powered cars, Emerson Fitti-paldi won the race.
1995: The streaming ribbon theme which had graced the '93 Camaro reappeared in '95 on purple-and-white Corvette convertible pace cars.
Perkins was behind the wheel for the third time.
When Scott Goodyear was black-flagged on lap 195 for passing the pace car on a restart, Jacques Villeneuve took the lead and the win.
1998: Golfing great Greg Norman was supposed to drive the '98 Corvette pace car, a radar-blue convertible with yellow wheels and flanks awash in bright yellow stripes. When his shoulder surgery dictated a replacement, 1963 Indy winner Parnelli Jones filled in.
Eddie Cheever Jr. took the checkered flag after outrunning Buddy Lazier on a lap 195 restart.
1999: The redesigned 2000 Monte Carlo snagged pace car honors in 1999. A Chevrolet relationship with Warner Bros. produced a signature Tasmanian Devil graphic that soon migrated to production cars.
Comedian Jay Leno drove.
Robby Gordon ran out of fuel on the 199th lap, handing the lead and the win to Kenny Brack.
2002: The Corvette's up-coming 50th anniversary saw it invading Indy in 2002 with a dizzying array of rolling stock, including three deep-red '03 coupes prepped for track duty. Actor Jim Caviezel drove the pace car. Helio Castroneves won it for Roger Penske.
2003: The funky SSR, a slick two-seat hard-top convertible with trucklike styling cues was brand-new to Chevrolet when it paced the 2003 race. GM racing czar Herb Fishel was the driver.
Twenty-five SSRs were sent to Indianapolis, including five prepped for track duty. They were painted a deep violet with subtle silver flames flowing back from the nose.
Gil de Ferran picked up the race win.
2004: Three white-over-blue Corvette convertibles did the honors in 2004, but neither replicas nor graphic packages were offered for sale. Actor Morgan Freeman drove.
Sixty-six other Vettes with red, white and blue streamers extending back from gill panels, were support and dealer drive-away units.
The race winner was Buddy Rice.
2005: Gen. Colin Powell, the former U.S. secretary of state, paced the 2005 race in a "Victory Red" Corvette convertible pace car that featured a bulging silver metallic strip down the center and titanium and black accents. Since stock Corvettes were plenty fast already, alterations were limited to track safety and communications equipment.
Dan Wheldon won the race.
2006: Official track cars were white-over-blue Corvette convertibles, one of which bike racing champion Lance Armstrong drove on the pace laps. No replicas were available. Fleets of red SSRs and blue Vette convertibles with big white bow-tie insignias dominating their hoods were the support vehicles.
Sam Hornish Jr. came out of nowhere to take the win.
2007: A Corvette convertible was back again to pace the '07 race, but the red, white and blue exterior graphic theme of recent years was abandoned in favor of atomic orange and ebony. Iridescent gold streamers graced both sides.
In addition to three official track cars, more than 50 replicas did support duty. Five hundred replicas would be built.
Dario Franchitti won the race and the keys to a replica.
2008: Who's to say the Indy 500 can't deal with more than one pace car? In 2008, there were two. Both were Corvettes, one fitted to run on E-85 ethanol, the other marking the 30th anniversary of Indy's first Cor-vette pace car.
Two-time Indy 500 winner Emer-son Fittipaldi paced the start in the ethanol car, a metallic green convertible. The gasoline-powered black-and-silver convertible reminiscent of the '78 was used during caution periods.
The race winner was Scott Dixon.
2009: After a seven-year hiatus, a Camaro was due back in the Chevy lineup as a 2010 model. So Chevy sent a preproduction, 426-hp silver coupe with a wide red band across the top and die-cut red splatterings around the front wheels to Indy. Actor Josh Duhamel drove.
Helio Castroneves won the race.
2010: It was deja vu at Indiana-polis, as a 2010 Camaro paced the 500 for the second straight year. Three inferno-orange coupes, un-adorned except for a 500 logo on each door and wide, white stripes across the top, did track duty. ABC commentator Robin Roberts drove the pace lap. Eventually, 294 replicas were produced for sale.
Dario Franchitti notched his second Indy win.
2011: Five hundred white Cam-aro convertibles with orange stripes reminiscent of the '69 pace car were built.
Dan Wheldon picked up his second Indy win. He had been well behind J.R. Hildebrand coming out of the fourth turn on the last lap when Hildebrand touched the outside wall and lost the lead.
Donald Trump was first announced as the pace car driver, but he withdrew a few days before the race. A.J. Foyt filled in.