Automotive History: Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars (Part 7, 1975-79)

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We Midwestern CC contributors are still recovering from our Iowa confab, but are back nonetheless, with the latest installment of our Indianapolis 500 Pace Car retrospective.  The last half of the 1970s would see Pace Cars that were (mostly) far from showroom-stock; they were, however, an interesting bunch.

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Buick’s advertising slogan used to be “Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick?”, and in 1975, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway answered “Yes”.  Instead of one of the bigger models, the ’75 Century served as Pace Car that year, joining the 1959 Electra 225 and the 1939 Roadmaster to become one of only three Buicks ever to do so up to that time.

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Actor James Garner was its driver, and although certainly was celebrity, he nonetheless had enough racing experience to be deemed suitable for Pace Car duty.

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The actual Pace Cars had a 455 V8; a 350 powered the replicas.  Buick supplied LeSabre convertibles as Festival Cars.  Gary Smith, a young stylist at GM, designed the graphics for this car (and also the 1976 version; his account of these cars can be found here.)  Replicas of this Pace Car are fairly scarce, as there were reportedly only 1,813 built.  Another source (here), which documents these cars fairly well, indicates that a shortage of decals may have been responsible for the low number of them produced.

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It appears Buick went next door to Oldsmobile’s house, knocked on the door and asked, “If you are not using it, may I borrow your big Hurst shifter?”  I’ll go out on a limb and say that there never were any Hurst/Buicks other than the one you see right here.

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In 1976 Buick was back again with another Century.  The biggest difference between the two was the powerplant, as now the 455 was out and a turbocharged V6 was in (thus making this Century the very first V6-powered Indy Pace Car).  There is some info on the web about how Buick’s turbo program resulted from some experiments by a Boy Scout Explorer Post involving turbocharging the new (old) Buick V6.  A Buick engineer was one of their advisors,  and one thing led to another.  The car was good for more than 300 horsepower (the reported actual figure was 307 horsepower, which would have eclipsed the 455’s output), and its hood, front fenders and trunk lid were all made of special lightweight aluminum. The driver was country music star Marty Robbins, himself an avid race driver with something like 35 NASCAR races under his belt.  

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It has been reported that with less than 22-pounds of boost, the 3.8 Turbo Century did a better job of meeting acceleration requirements (90 mph exiting from turn 3; 110 mph exiting from turn 4; and 120 mph upon entering the pits) than did the 455-powered 1975 Century.  There is a very nice piece on this car here.

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Like the previous year’s Century, the ’76 version was styled by Gary Smith.  He has pointed out that while the actual Pace Car had full side graphics, replicas wore a truncated graphic that originated behind the eagle on the front doors.   There were about 1,290 replicas made, all of which lacked the high-powered engine and other special features of the actual Pace Cars.  Replicas could be had with either a (non-turbo) V6 or a 350 V8.

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In 1977, an Oldsmobile paced the race for the fourth time in the decade, setting a new record for most Pace Car appearances by one make within a decade.  The featured car was the newly downsized 1977 Delta 88.  The actual Pace Cars would come equipped with a unique Targa roof, a feature unavailable in the Pace Car replicas.  The Pace Car was also equipped with bucket seats and a floor-shifted transmission.  Had that combination (including the Targa roof) been offered to the public, this could have gone down as the most desirable of the post-1976 B-body cars.  James Garner would return as wheelman this year.

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The actual Pace Cars were powered by modified 403 V8s.  There is lots of speculation, but it is understood that these engines received special cams, ported and polished heads, and dual exhausts.  Some sources refer to W-30 parts while others attempt to debunk the fact.  Suffice to say that these cars were stronger than anything you could buy at your local Olds dealer in 1977.  Olds did produce about 2,400 replicas, all of which were powered by a stock 403 and otherwise equipped with Positraction, sport wheels and a sport steering wheel.  And the graphics, of course.

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Somewhere I have some photos of at least one of these cars (most likely one of the Festival cars)  from a trip some friends and I took to the Speedway that year.  But rather than look for it, I will use this much better shot.

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Nineteen seventy-eight marked the first time Chevrolet would choose the Corvette to pace at Indianapolis, but not the last. Once more, Jim Rathmann was the driver. This Pace Car would be remarkably close to the actual production version, with flag mounts being their only significant difference.  Oddly, there were actually only four of these cars at the track, with ’78 Monte Carlos serving as Festival Cars.

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According to a member of the C3 Vette Registry, the actual Pace Car was the very first production build of an RPO Z-78 Corvette, complete with emissions equipment and functional air conditioning and a CB radio.  The details of this car and the other three Vettes at the track are detailed here.  Of course, a stock ’78 Corvette was probably much more suited to Pace Car duty than a drum brake-equipped ’71 Challenger, which had been the last stocker so employed.

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The replicas of this Pace Car are one of the genre’s more common, as Chevrolet produced 6,502 of them (one for each Chevy dealer).  These also became hyped as “instant collector’s items”, thus commanding big premiums over sticker price.  The result is that there are quite a few pristine examples around today, some of them never titled.  Don’t believe me?  Google “1978 Corvette Pace Car” and try to count the number of preserved examples you can find online.

1978 marked the Corvette’s twenty-fifth anniversary, and the car showed some changes to celebrate.  This was the first year of the “glassback” rear window, and was also the first year that a C3 Corvette would sport two tone paint jobs.  This was one of the last cars done under the long and successful career of Bill Mitchell as head of GM styling.

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For those of you whose interests tend towards something other than GM iron (or fiberglass), 1979 came to the rescue.  This may be the only example of 1979 coming to the rescue of anything.  Perhaps the lone bright spot of the entire year was the debut of the new Fox-platform Ford Mustang.  Come to think of it, the debut would have been in 1978.  This would be Ford’s first time back to the track since 1968, when someone named Ford drove a Torino.  This time, race driver Jackie Stewart would drive the car to start the race, and good old Jim Rathmann would take over during caution periods.  The Pace-Stang was fitted with a special T-top, that would not find its way into production cars until 1981.  The silver/black color combination was, by now, the traditional choice.

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Roush Industries handled the engine mods, which were extensive.  The cars (three of them) started with a 5.0 V8, but were fitted with many parts out of Ford’s performance parts bins.  Modifications  included 351W heads, a 1970 Boss 302 solid lifter cam, and many other specially chosen parts.  The completed engines were mounted to modified C-4 automatics.  I have not found actual power ratings on these cars, but we can be sure that they were quite a bit stronger than anything available at a Ford Dealer in 1979.  An interesting aside is that all three cars were later repainted white and, with new graphics added, paced the Detroit Grand Prix that year.  One of the three cars is in the Speedway museum, and the other two are reported as still in the possession of Roush Industries (and still wearing their Detroit look).

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Reproductions were available with the stock 302 carried over from the Mustang II, or the short-lived 2.3L turbo mated to a stick shift.  Buyers of the replicas also made do with a sunroof instead of the T-Tops.  This was one of the most hyped Pace Car replica ever, with over 10,000 produced between plants in Dearborn and San Jose, and there is quite a base of Ford fans who prize these cars as a bright spot in an otherwise dark period for performance at Ford.

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There was actually another desirable Ford vehicle to come out of Pace Car duty – The “Official Truck”.  For quite a few years, the Pace Car provider was also expected to supply a number of utility vehicles for track use in addition to Pace Cars, Festival Cars and Official Cars.  Chevy and GMC had seen most of this duty during the ’70s, but Ford finally got a turn.  These trucks have remained favorites of Ford truck fans and can still be found here and there.

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We have now closed out the 1970s at Indy, and it was quite a transition.  The factory hot rod era was out, and (for the most part) the custom-built specialty car era was upon us.  Our next dip into this topic will take us into the 1980s.

You can find previous installments of this series with these links: Part 1 (1946-49), Part 2 (1950-54), Part 3 (1955-59), Part 4 (1960-64), Part 5 (1965-69), Part 6 (1970-74).