Automotive History: Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars (Part 8, 1980-84)


As we accelerate  into “Turn One” of Race Weekend, we continue our look back at previous Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars.  We have reached a point in Pace Car history where, with rare exceptions, this was an annual GM event.  However, there  certainly was more variety than the unbroken string of Chevrolets we’ve seen over the past twelve years.


Pontiac was chosen to pace the race in 1980, its first appearance since 1958.  It is interesting to note that as much as the Pete Estes/John DeLorean years at Pontiac were known for performance, not a single Poncho paced the 500 during their time.  For 1980, the 301 Turbo-powered Trans Am was the car.  It’s of interest that the same cars were used to pace that year’s Daytona 500 as well, which was a first.  Johnnie Parsons, winner of the 1950 race, was the driver at the start of the race, but Don Bailey took over during yellow-flag periods.  In this case, there’s very little information to be found about the specs of the actual Pace Car.  It appears that five cars were prepared for Pace Car duty, and sources seem to indicate that “very little” modification was required to come up to Pace Car spec.  However, nobody goes into detail about just what the “very little” actually entailed.  There was one significant modification: The bird decal on the hood was made extra-large.


One interesting question surfaced in my research.  It is claimed that the 1982 Pace Car was the first to use a yellow strobe light mounted on top.  However, this photo clearly shows the strobe affixed to the top of the 1980 Trans Am.  Could this have been a Daytona picture instead of an Indy picture?  Surely someone out there knows.


Pontiac made 5,700 replicas of the 1980 Pace Car.  The color scheme of white with charcoal trim was similar to that of the Tenth Anniversary edition from 1979.  These seem to have been preserved in decent numbers, and many are available for sale on the web.  We previously published a piece on the Turbo Trans Am (here) that contains a lot more information on the basic car.


In 1981, Buick was back with another V6, this time in a Regal.  There were two cars prepared for pace duty, both ASC-modified with a convertible rear roof section and a special interior.  The engines were specially prepared 4.1-liter Buick V6s that were naturally aspirated, unlike the turbocharged engines of 1976. (Yes, I realize that the “turbo6”  logo appeared on the cars.  It just looked cool, so let it go.)  The specially prepared engines used a 12.5:1 compression ratio and gnereated 281 bhp @5100 rpm and 262 ft/lbs of torque at 4,000 rpm.  The car was driven by Duke Nalon, who made ten starts at Indy between 1938 and 1953.


In a turnabout from the several years prior, Buick made only 150 replicas for sale to the public, all of which were used at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in some capacity.  Although these did not, of course, have the extra-powered engines, they came equipped with decals, T-tops and a dash plaque bearing the sequential number of that particular car.  These cars were quite similar to the 1982 Regal Grand National.


There has been some confusion about the 1981 Pace Car, with some people thinking that the Turbo Trans Am was back for a second year.  The Trans Am did return for a repeat of its 1980 role at NASCAR’s Daytona 500, but not at Indy.


Nineteen eighty-two would return a Camaro to Pace Car duty.  I suppose it was fitting that the new third-generation Camaro would be the third Camaro to pace the race.  This car used an aluminum-block version of the 5.7-liter V8 that had been blueprinted and hand-assembled by GM Engineering.


The press kit informed the public that the engine was good for “over 250 bhp” – how much over, they would not say.  Still, that was not a bad figure in 1982.  The two actual Pace Cars were the first to be fitted with the flashing yellow lights that replaced yellow flags the following year, thus making the ’82 car the only one ever equipped with both lights and flags.  Jim Rathmann would drive the car at the start of the race, and longtime track employee Don Bailey would take it from there.


In addition to the real Pace Cars, Chevrolet provided another 50 or so Camaros for track use, and made 6,000 replicas for public sale.  These were powered by a 305 V8 with either a four-barrel carburetor or Crossfire injection.  Unlike  their colors and graphics, options and equipment could vary widely. Unfortunately, the three-speed THM200C –not one of GM’s more durable units–was the automatic transmission that was offered.  The ’82 Camaro was also chosen as Motor Trend‘s Car of the Year, an award that did not often coincide with Indy’s choice of a Pace Car.


Buick was becoming a regular at Pace Car duty, and was back for 1983.  In a nod to an earlier age, the Riviera convertible was chosen to celebrate the Riv’s twentieth anniversary.  It was the most old-school Pace Car in quite a few years, harkening back in concept to the ’59 Electra 225.  However, instead of a big nailhead V8, this car would boast a twin turbo 3.8-liter V6–another of the seemingly endless variations of turbo Buicks seen at the track since 1976.

1983RivieraPaceCar05 has an excellent page (here) with loads of technical information, including the fact that the car produced over 350 horsepower.  Take THAT, Chevy!

Photo source:

Photo source:

As it turns out, maybe all that power really was necessary.  According to Gary Smith (here), who had a hand in the exterior design of several Buick Pace Cars, the Riv generated the highest drag of any Pace Car that had been tested in the wind tunnel until that time.


In addition to about 50 Festival cars, Buick offered another 500 Riviera hardtops (designated as Riviera XX)  as replicas.  Civilians got no turbos, only a choice between the 4.1 V6 and the 307 V8.  These cars were painted to match the Pace Cars, and included special rocker panel and drip moldings anodized in dark brown.  The cars also came with wire wheels, gold-stripe Uniroyal tires and four-wheel disc brakes.  It is interesting that even though Buick built over 1,700 Riviera convertibles that year, none was trimmed out as a Pace Car replica.  Times had certainly changed since 1959.


The 1984 race was paced by a Pontiac Fiero, which is said to be the only mid-engined car to ever pace the race, and one of the few four-cylinder cars to do so (and the first since the 1912 Stutz).  The car was powered by a specially built 2.7-liter Super Duty four that produced a reported 232 horsepower.  A specially fabricated, periscope-style air intake above the roof helped cool the naturally aspirated and carbureted engine.  One of the two purpose-built cars turned a lap at 136 mph.  John Callies, head of Pontiac’s Performance Motorsport division drove the car to start the race and Don Bailey, in keeping with custom, took it from there.


Pontiac built 2,000 Pace Car replicas in 1984.  Unfortunately, the 2.5-liter Iron Duke (rated at 92 horsepower) made for a very un-Pace Car-like experience with cars sold to the public.  The bodywork, however, set the car apart, and Pontiac reused it to trim the 1985 Fiero GT.  These Pace Car replicas do not seem to have the following enjoyed by many of the others. First, it’s a first-year Fiero.  Enough said?  Another issue is that the red-and-light gray leather interiors are virtually impossible to recreate today without extensive custom fabrication, since none of its unique parts is being commercially reproduced.  According to at least one classic car valuation site, you should be able to score a primo Fiero Pace Car replica (by far the most valuable version of the ’84 Fiero) for a touch over $7K–chump change for your own personal piece of mobile Indy memorobilia.


This wraps up this year’s walking tour of Indy Pace Cars.  We have run the gamut, from a ’65 Fury to an ’84 Fiero.  We have seen a near-disastrous crash.  Mostly, though, we have seen a near-complete change in the definition of a Pace Car. The days of the showroom stock pacer have given way to specially built and highly customized promotional vehicles.   There is another race in a couple of days (paced this year by the new Corvette, and backed up by an impressive batch of electric-blue Camaro convertible Festival cars), after which the time for Indy retrospectives will be over for another year.


If there is sufficient interest, we can pick up the series again next year–or, perhaps start on some Star Wars-style “Prequels” to cover some of the pre-war stuff.  Or maybe even take a year off, if I have over-informed the CC readership on this topic.  In any case, let’s all grab a cold brew and catch “the greatest spectacle in racing.”


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) and Part 7 (1975-79).