Out in front: Notable pace cars at Indy

A Chevrolet Camaro Z/28 paces the field during the 2014 Indianapolis 500. Photo credit: INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

Much like the standard sedan on the road and race car on the big oval, pace cars, too, have evolved over the years. Whether it’s a unique paint job, a high-performance engine or the celebrity behind the wheel, pace cars have become one of the most visible tools of motorsports, especially at a race such as the Indianapolis 500. The first Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, initially named the “International Sweepstakes,” was won by Ray Harroun at an average speed of 74.602 mph on May 30, 1911. Many historians believe that the inaugural race marked the first use of a pace car to start a race. Here's a look at some of the more notable Indy 500 pace cars over the years.

 

Photo credit: INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

Hudson 112

Year: 1938

Race winner: Floyd Roberts

Notable: Named after its 112-inch wheelbase, the Hudson featured an 83-hp inline flathead six engine and reportedly took 35 seconds to reach 60 mph from a dead start.

Photo credit: INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

Chrysler Newport (Phaeton)

Year: 1941

Race winners: Floyd Davis and Mauri Rose. It was the second and last time that one car carried two drivers to victory at Indy. 

Notable: The Newport Dual Cowl Phaeton was a limited-production car that was built only in 1940 and 1941. At the end of 1941, American car output was halted to support war manufacturing. In the minds of many, the Chrysler Newport was the last grand prewar American car. The car that paced the Indy 500 had a 143-hp, 5.3-liter straight-eight engine, and after the race, became the personal car of Walter P. Chrysler Jr. In 2013, it sold at auction for $880,000.

Photo credit: INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

Nash Ambassador

Year: 1947

Race winner: Mauri Rose

Notable: One of the few pace cars in Indy history that was not a convertible. It was powered by a 112-hp inline-six engine and was driven by American Motors CEO George Mason.

Photo credit: FORD

Ford Mustang

Year: 1979

Race winner: Rick Mears

Notable: The Mustangs of the late 1970s and early 1980s lacked the performance of many other Mustangs. But Ford tapped Jack Roush to outfit custom V-8 engines in the Mustang pace cars, ensuring that they could confidently lead the pack.

Photo credit: INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

Pontiac Fiero

Year: 1984

Race winner: Rick Mears

Notable: It’s a Fiero -- what else needs to be said? The quirky car became a pace car early in its short life and was, and still is, the shortest Indy pace car in length and the only midengine one. It was the first Indy pace car powered by a four-cylinder engine since 1912.

Photo credit: FIAT CHRYSLER AUTOMOBILES

Dodge Viper GTS

Year: 1996

Race winner: Buddy Lazier

Notable: Bob Lutz, then president of Chrysler, drove the blue with white striped Viper GTS. It was the last non-GM pace car to lead the pack around the 2.5-mile oval. (In 1991, the first Viper RT/10 became a last-minute substitute pace car for the Dodge Stealth, a Mitsubishi clone opposed by the UAW because the Japan-built Stealth lacked American roots.)

Photo credit: INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

Chevrolet Corvette

Year: 1998

Race winner: Eddie Cheever Jr.

Notable: Purple (technically the color was Radar Blue) on yellow? That’s right, this Corvette featured not only yellows rims, it had a yellow interior. It was the late 1990s after all. With the 2017 race, the Corvette will have been the Indy 500 pace car 14 times -- more than any other nameplate -- with the first duty coming in 1978.

Photo credit: INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY

Oldsmobile Bravada

Year: 2001

Race winner: Helio Castroneves

Notable: The first and so far only SUV to pace the field at Indy, it was also the 11th, and last, Oldsmobile to pace the race. In a way, the Bravada pace vehicle, powered by an inline-six engine, was one of Oldsmobile’s last big moments before the brand went out to pasture in 2004.

You can reach Jack Walsworth at jwalsworth@crain.com -- Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackwalsworth

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