Automotive History: Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars (Part 6, 1970-74)

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The 1970s marked a beginning of a change in Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars.  As the ’70s unfolded, the undertaking of supplying a Pace Car, along with all of the other vehicles used in connection with the race, would become more and more a duty of General Motors.  Still, the early 70s certainly provided its own kind of variety, as well as the most famous (infamous?) Pace Car of them all.

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Oldsmobile was back at the track for 1970, its first Pace Car duty in a decade.  But instead of a big Ninety Eight convertible, the car of choice would be a 442.  The Pace Car would use the W-30 version of the big 455, a TurboHydramatic 400 transmission, and heavy-duty suspension.  The front disc brakes were stock units, but the rear drum brakes were from a Vista Cruiser.

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Roger Ward drove the Olds on Pace duty.  There is an interesting story at Hemmings (here) in which the actual Pace Car was apparently found after many years, and restored by its current owner.

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1971 brought the most infamous Pace Car ever: the Ceramic Red Dodge Challenger convertible.  In a change of pace (so to speak), none of the manufacturers elected to supply a Pace Car for the race.  Indianapolis Dodge Dealer Eldon Palmer linked up with the other three Dodge dealers in the metro area and themselves supplied enough Challenger convertibles for race activities (50, according to most sources).  Palmer himself drove the actual Pace Car, which he actually owned.  This car was likely the very last showroom-stock vehicle used as a Pace Car – possibly because of how things went with this one.

Photo source: caranddriver.com

Photo source: caranddriver.com

The reason for the car’s infamy is well known: when flying into pit road, Palmer lost control of the car and slammed into a press box, causing several serious injuries.  There were several lawsuits that came out of this, and I knew one of the lawyers involved.  As the testimony was related to me, Palmer had practiced many, many hours at the track.  Because the car would exit the track and enter the pits at well over 100 mph, it was critical to get on the brakes at the right time.  Too soon, and he could cause an accident on the track.  Too late, and  – well, you know.

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Palmer had planted a brightly colored plastic flag in the grass as his signal to begin braking.  Unfortunately, the morning of the race, track personnel had, unknown to Palmer, removed the flag during some routine trash pickup.  During the race, Palmer blasted onto pit road as he was supposed to, and looked for his flag.  By the time he realized that it was gone, he was still hurtling along at about 150 feet per second, and it was too late to get stopped.  Speedway President Tony Hulman, former astronaut John Glenn and ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel were passengers for the wildest Pace Car ride in race history.  Press reports cited nineteen injuries, but fortunately there were no deaths.  Sources report that the car’s brakes were four wheel drums.  Would front discs have helped?  A question for debate.

1971 Dodge Challenger Pace car

Because the Challenger belonged to Palmer, he kept the car for many years.  It was eventually repaired and restored, and is currently in an Indianapolis-area collection, as reported a couple of years ago at Hemmings Daily.  There was some fallout from the incident, including that starting in 1972, it would be quite a few years when only former race drivers would be behind the wheel of a Pace Car.  Allpar provides some additional background (here), including that the actual Pace Car and a backup were powered by a 4 bbl 383.  There was also at least one 340 and quite a few 318-powered cars used as Festival vehicles.

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1972  brought Olds back to the Speedway.  This time, instead of a stock 442, the car was jointly prepared by Hurst Performance Products, and was referred to as the Hurst/Olds.  The car used a 300 horsepower 455 Rocket V8, and former race driver Jim Rathmann was behind the wheel.  Fifty Delta 88 convertibles were used as Festival cars.  There were 130 convertibles and 499 hardtops built as replicas.  The cars not actually pacing the race used a 270 horse 455 instead of the actual Pace Car’s more powerful mill.

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Photo source: Hurst/Olds Club

The pictures of the car with the gigantic Hurst shifter are quite interesting, but I am certain that these were for promo laps only.

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Photo source: Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The actual car, when photographed during its pacing duties, did its thing with only the shifter inside the car.

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I remember one of the replica convertibles being on the premises of Collins Oldsmobile in Fort Wayne, Indiana the summer that my mother was looking at a new ’72 Cutlass.  I knew that she would never go for a Pace Car replica with all of the decals, so I tried to sell her on the Viking Blue Cutlass Supreme convertible with the white bucket seats that was on the showroom floor.  No sale, but she did drive out in a green 2 door hardtop.  Oldsmobile would discontinue a convertible at the end of the 1972 model year.

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Photo source: Favcars.com

1973 would mark the final time for a full-out luxury convertible to pace the race, twenty seven years after the ’46 Lincoln Continental did so.  The ’73 Cadillac Eldorado would be the first Cadillac to pace the race since 1931 (unless we count the 1937 LaSalle) and the first front wheel drive car to do so since the 1930 Cord L-29.  Two cars were built for actual Pace Car duty, and these used specially modified 500 cubic inch (8.2 L) engines that were reportedly putting out nearly five hundred horsepower.  The actual Pace Cars lacked air conditioning and used hood pins to be sure that the long hood stayed put at high speed.

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Cadillac also supplied 53 Festival cars and an additional 513 replicas, which came with a decal set which the owner could have applied to the car.  Jim Rathmann drove the Pace Car again this year.  However, race winner Gordon Johncock received one of the Festival cars rather than the high performance Pace Cars.  It is reported that Cadillac retrofitted the two Pace Cars for street use and sold them to the public.

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One of the replicas was featured in a 2012 episode of the Discovery Network show Fast N Loud, which I happened to watch the evening before writing this.  The CC effect at work?

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1974 would be a sort-of repeat, with another Hurst/Olds pacing the race.  However, this would be a completely different car than the one from 1972.  Because there was no convertible offered after 1972, the actual Pace Cars were modified by removal of the roof and adding a roll bar.  Two roof panels were fabricated in case of bad weather.  Both Pace Cars used a Rocket 455 built to 1970 W-30 specifications, therefore not street-legal.

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There is some very interesting history on these two cars, both of which seem to have survived, at the Hurst/Olds Page (here).  As he did the previous two years, Jim Rathmann was the wheelman.

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As per recent practice, Oldsmobile supplied numerous Delta 88 convertibles as parade cars.  However, 1,800 replicas of the Hurst/Olds were offered for sale.   380 were reportedly built with the W-30 package, which were powered by the 455.  The rest were called the Y77 package and were powered by Oldsmobile’s 350.  After providing Pace Cars for the third time in five years, Olds would be back again later in the decade.

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Photo source: Rocket100.com

Within this five year period, we saw a significant transition from Pace Cars that were virtually stock (though perhaps specially prepared) to cars that were purpose-built for Pace Car duty and thus not street-legal.  We also saw a transition from Pace Car honors being spread all around the industry to to an era where with rare exceptions, it would become a General Motors event.    We will be back with more 1970s Pace Car action next time.

A sight that will likely never be seen again!

A sight that will likely never be seen again!