Historiography: Pacing The Brickyard

Camaro Indy 500 Pace Cars
A little history lesson. Photo by Randy Stern

Before I dive into this piece, a little side note to start with for context…

Last month, I began contracting as CarSoup.com's Content Management Editor. My duties are not just fielding and editing content for the website’s Buyer's Guide, but for print advertising supplements that appear in up to a dozen newspapers across the Midwest, providing and editing content for outbound communications via e-mail and other related duties as tasked. There is a lot of work being done at my desk, but my part in the process is to ensure accuracy, quality and excellence for those coming to CarSoup.com looking research, tips on shopping for their next vehicle or selling their old one.

It has been illuminating, but not without its challenges. My hope is that I remain here at CarSoup.com beyond the contract period – hopefully as a permanent staff member.

The reason why I mention this is that I put together a piece for the site and one of the outgoing e-mails pertaining to the Pace Cars of the Indianapolis 500. This has always been a good subject to discuss, because of some of the stories that went into their selection and their flawless execution before and during the grand spectacle at The Brickyard.

Indy is America's most watched race. It is IndyCar's premier event. With its long history, one could set aside their chauvinism of road courses and near-flat ovals for a few hours at Speedway, Indiana. In American racing, no other event has the traditions steeped in decades of open wheel racing in this country.

For one, the track session known as "carb day" could not be called anything else. Today's IndyCar entrants are fuel injected powerhouses by Chevrolet or Honda. No one has used a carburetor in decades on this track. "Bump day" is another tradition that gives drivers on the edge of qualification to make the 33-car grid the Sunday before Memorial Day. For these are days of qualification sessions that end up being "do or die" or take the check for being on the pole, the nerve wracking efforts on "bump day" embody its own level of drama amongst those looking for the 33rd spot at the start of the 500.

Race insiders know who will sit on the grid. IndyCar's stars will shine at the yard of bricks. Names of Ryan Hunter-Reay, last year’s winner Tony Kanaan, Scott Dixon, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Takuma Sato, James Hinchcliffe, Alex Tagliani – and many more – will vie for their face on the Borg-Wagner Trophy and that winning bottle of milk at the end of the race. With the return of Juan Pablo Montoya and the arrival of Kurt Busch trying his hand in this series, the buzz has its fans considering this year beinbg the best year of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

This year will miss one of the finest names in the past two decades at The Brickyard – Dario Franchitti. He and his ex-wife actress Ashley Judd were mainstays at Indy from 2004 to 2013. We won three times at The Brickyard, including an emotional and unforgettable 2012 race where he celebrated the late Dan Wheldon in victory. Last year, Franchitti’s career turned for the worse. His airborne accident at the Houston Grand Prix sent Franchitti to the hospital with multiple injuries, including a spinal fracture. In effect, this accident ended his career.

Franchitti will not be too far away from the grid. He will be driving in this year's 500 – the 98th running of this great race – in the Pace Car.

The 2014 Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 Franchitti will be driving marks the eighth time this model will set the pace of the Indy 500. The first Camaro to pace the 500 was in 1967. Since that race, the Camaro seemed like a great fit to pace the Indy 500, despite skipping the second generation altogether. The Z/28 has been at the top of the Camaro food chain since its original inception in 1969, yet this would be its fourth time as Pace Car. This version however is supposed to be the most powerful Camaro ever – appropriate choice considering that it was designed for track use rather than the street.

The Corvette has set the pace the most amongst "modern" Pace Cars – twelve times, including last year's C7 Stingray. Strangely enough, the first time it paced the 500 was in 1978 – on its 25th Anniversary. You would think that being the best sports car in North America that it would have paced The Brickyard a few times since its inception. If you look back at what did pace the 500, you would find nothing but big convertibles, plenty of muscle and pony cars. Since 1978, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway welcomed five generations of 'Vettes to pace the big race.

In recent times, we have seen our share of Indy 500 Pace Cars from the Big Three. Since 1963, General Motors paced the race 41 times. Ford last paced the race in 1994, while Chrysler's last run was in 1996. Though Pace Cars first became part of the Indy 500 in 1911, GM's first try was in 1927 with a LaSalle. Ford’s first pace car was in 1932 with a Lincoln. Indiana-based automobile manufacturers also had a prominent place at The Brickyard with companies, such as Marmon, Cole, Cord, Stutz, H.C.S., Premier, National, Duesenberg, and Studebaker. In fact, Studebaker ran its last Pace Car in 1962 with a Lark Daytona convertible – the last time an Indiana-based automaker ran the front of the grid.

There also have been some key vehicles introduced at the right time to pace The Brickyard. In 1964, the Mustang was just over a month old when it saw Brickyard Pace Car duty. The Dodge Challenger also paced the race a year after its debut in 1971. Chrysler began selling cars two years prior before getting its call to run the 500 in 1926.

There is an unwritten rule that Pace Cars for the 500 must be North American made – preferably in the USA. That rule was almost "violated." In 1991, Dodge was ready to send their new sports car, the Stealth, to pace the 500. The United Auto Workers protested to the Hulmans because the Stealth was built by Mitsubishi in Japan for Dodge. The Hulmans reconsidered the selection, informing Chrysler if they had a replacement. They did, and sent a Viper prototype to pace that race. That is why you will never see a foreign nameplate pace the 500, despite Honda powering several IndyCar chassis.

Pace cars are usually driven with care, in formation in front of the 33-car grid. Only one time have we seen a Pace Car incur an incident. That 1971 Challenger had the dubious distinction of said incident – an accident. Local car dealer Eldon Palmer drove the red Chally convertible with Astronaut John Glenn, Tony Hulman and a sportscaster on board, when the car lost control and crashed into a photographer’s stand. Twenty people were injured by the shunt.

Even more famous than the cars themselves were the drivers. Bob Lutz drove the 1996 Dodge Viper GT-S, while Jay Leno piloted the 1999 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. ABC News host Robin Roberts, Elaine Hale Mellencamp, Morgan Freeman, General Colin Powell, and Patrick Dempsey were amongst some of the big names that enjoyed the best view of The Brickyard.

Granted, I am only scratching the surface of at least one tradition of the Indianapolis 500. The point of this is to showcase a small piec e of this historical pie – the one that enabled manufacturers and brands to link back to this great race.

May 25th will be a magical day for 33 lucky drivers, hundreds of thousands of spectators, millions of television viewers, radio listeners and internet users. However, the first thing they will see after the command to start the engines of the 33 racers is a 2014 Camaro Z28 with Dario Franchitti in front of them. This is a tradition that remains tangible to those who still love The Brickyard and the 500.

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