(Originally published May 3, 2013) It is May in Indianapolis (again). Last year, we featured a retrospective look at some of the Official Pace Cars used at the annual Indianapolis 500 mile race. In 2012, we brought you four installments, which covered the cars featured in 1946-49, 1950-54, 1955-60 and 1960-64.
The month of May in Indianapolis means only one thing: the annual Indianapolis 500 mile race. The 500 (or The Race, as it is called locally) has a multitude of fascinating topics, but my favorite has been the Pace Cars. So, shall we pick up where we left off? Why yes, let’s do. Recall that Speedway officials choose just one car per year for Pace Car honors. The company that supplies the Pace Car also supplies many, many other courtesy vehicles for use at the track and by VIPs.
1965 marked a special year. A Plymouth paced the race twice that year – its first and last time. There were a lot of new cars that year, so competition for Pace Car honors must have been quite stiff. But a Plymouth Sport Fury would be the car for the 1965 race. There were supposedly 1,900 replicas built, one for each Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in the United States. Jim Clark won the race that year – driving a Ford. I can imagine that Henry II might have pushed a little harder for the new Galaxie as Pace car, had he known the race’s outcome in advance.
There is not a lot written about this car (go figure – a C body Mopar that gets overlooked). Not even Allpar has any detail on this car. It appears that the actual Pace Car was powered by the 426 wedge, but the 4 bbl 383 Golden Commando V8 was considered sufficient for Festival cars and for replicas. There was apparently no need for special preparation as with the prior years’ Mustangs. Other than the hardware for mounting flags, it appears that the Pace Plymouth was showroom stock. P. M Buckminster, general manager of the Chrysler-Plymouth Division, was the driver. It seems odd that with all of the performance-oriented Plymouths that were to come, none was ever chosen to pace the race.
For 1966, we saw another historic but obscure Pace Car, the 1966 Mercury Comet Cyclone GT. This would be the last time a Mercury would pace the race. As in 1964, Benson Ford would pilot the car. This would also be the last time Benson would drive a Pace Car. As we have seen, Pace Cars were more often than not painted white, certainly after 1955. Mercury went red this year. Or should I say Caliente?
The three cars used on the track were equipped with 427 V8s. There were one hundred replicas built, thirty three of which were used as Parade cars for the race. The replicas used a slightly warmed-up 390 rated at 355 bhp (due to special high-lift cams). The cars were also equipped with a handling package and disc brakes. Several years ago, a guy in my neighborhood owned one of these, car decals and all. He stored it elsewhere, but it would make trips to the house on special occasions in nice weather. Could this be the only really collectible Comet?
1967 marked just the third time that Chevy would pace the race. Chevrolet would, however, provide the Pace Car many, many more times (including the 2011 Camaro convertible). The 1967 Camaro is widely considered a response to the Mustang, and Chevrolet’s promoters followed Mustang again in using the race in Indianapolis to promote a new pony car. Former race driver Mauri Rose would drive one of the three 396-equipped Camaros.
Being a Camaro, there is a wealth of info on the internet about these cars. One source indicates that race winner A. J. Foyt turned down the actual Pace Car because it lacked air conditioning and a power top. It is said that Chevrolet proceeded to build him another one equipped more to his liking. Could this have been when he decided to become a Chevrolet dealer in Texas? Much about these cars remains murky, however, such as whether the special white paint code represented some sort of special hand-buffed show finish, or whether it was a unique shade of white not shared by normal production cars.
After Chevrolet got the 1967 honors, we should not be surprised to find Ford back at the track in 1968 with its newest hot car, the Torino GT. This time, it was William Clay Ford’s turn at the wheel, in what would mark the final time one of Henry Ford’s grandsons would pilot a Pace Car at the Speedway. There appear to have been two cars equipped with the 428 V8 and a third with a 390, for reasons that are not clear. It also appears that the festival cars were mostly equipped with the 302/automatic combination.
There appear to have been 709 Pace Car replicas built that year. Given that there were a bit over 5,000 1968 Torino GT convertibles built, the percentage of Pace Car replicas is pretty high. It appears that without Pace Car duty, there would be quite a bit fewer Torino GT convertibles preserved today. Sadly for Ford fans, this may be one of the most overlooked Pace Cars of the 1960s, because of being between two years with very well known Pace Cars.
Poor Torino, I feel the need to give it just a little more love. Actually, the car looked pretty good at speed. But could Ford have known just how overlooked this car would become? How else can we explain what must have been one of the last black and white promo photos of a pace car?
Speaking of very well known Pace Cars, one of the most well remembered came in 1969. Who can forget the White and Hugger Orange ’69 Camaro SS. So, how did Chevrolet come back with the second Camaro convertible in three years? Perhaps because they knew that there would be no Camaro convertible starting in 1970. Jim Rathmann, another well-known race driver, would be behind the wheel. These cars all featured an orange houndstooth upholstery fabric that was unique to the Pace Car package.
These cars are extremely well documented at multiple sites (including this one). It appears that three 396-equipped cars were built, then shipped to Chevrolet Engineering where they were largely disassembled and rebuilt with stouter, stiffer and faster parts. Gee, there is no report of the ’65 Plymouth needing this special treatment (says the Mopar homer). Oh well, we can at least agree that this was a highly memorable car that was prized by many. How many? It appears that something close to 3,700 replicas made their way into public hands, most of which used the 350/automatic power team. A co-worker bought one of the replicas as his his first car in the early 1970s, and remembers it quite fondly. He is, of course, sorry that he sold it.
It is clear that by 1969, the era of the full-sized luxury Pace Car was all but over. Next time we will be back with Pace Cars of the early 1970s.
I was always under the impression that the first pace car that didn’t have any performance modifications needed to meet requirements was the 89 TTA.
Always learn something on here…cool article.
I think the 1986 Corvette convertible Chuck Yeager used in 86 required no mod.s
The 1977 Olds 88 Pace Car was the next full sizer, and maybe can count the ’73 Eldorado. But, still, it was the end of big Pace Cars, pretty much.
There was a Riviera convertible in 1983, lots of big colonades also paced in the 70’s from Buick and Oldsmobile, true they were intermediates, but BIG intermediates, an Oldmobile Aurora paced in the 90’s, thats full size-ish.
Thanks for this trip back to the sixties. I am very surprised about the Plymouth not having any mods. And who can forget all those ’69 Camaros. Seemed then like they must have made a half-million of them.
And they are STILL being made! Cloners have now started bastardizing 1st-gen Firebirds by turning them into Camaros. Sad.
I’d rather have a Firebird.
Man, I love that orange and white Camaro Pace Car. To me, it is the best looking pace car ever.
I can’t say that I’m a huge Camaro fan, but I agree – there is something about that orange and white ’69 that is really appealing. There is no doubt that Chevy promoted it masterfully.
I wish you could still get redline tyres. Or can you?
All C-body convertibles got welded-in “torque boxes”, which are steel plates that connect the subframes with the unibody structure to reduce flex. That was not a mod specific to the Indy pace car.
It is unknown what happened to the actual 65 Fury pace car. I remember reading an article online written by someone that bought a 65 Sport Fury pace car edition. He researched the car’s history and found that it may have been the actual pace car. Presumably, if there had been any special chassis mods for pace car duty, the owner probably would have commented on their presence or absence when inspecting his car for clues.
I picked up a 65 pace car………….needed parts at Napa & the guy asked my vin. He looks it up and says………..oh, it came with a 426 wedge, but not a hemi. Also has cutout in the floor for a 4 sp. the kicker is it has gummy residue above the chrome going to the back. Its painted red by somebody in the past, but wimbledon white is showing through in many ares.
Why the need for mods are these cars so poorly designed they cant circulate on an oval track in standard form and its not like they actually go fast or have to stop and steer like real race cars.
Google “Challenger Pace Car Crash”… it’ll probably come up for discussion here in the next Pace Car installment. 🙂
That crashed in a straight line from sheer stupidity
Maybe not. The story is that the driver of the Challenger pace car, local Dodge dealer Eldon Palmer, while practicing before the actual race, placed a flag (some reports say an orange cone) to mark where he should begin braking when entering pit row. Unfortunately, someone had removed the flag and, during the pace lap, Palmer realized too late as he came down pit row that his marker was gone and braked too late, causing the crash.
So, I’m not sure I would say ‘sheer stupidity’, unless it was towards whomever removed Palmer’s braking marker before the race.
I think they had to be able to accelerate to over 100 mph through turn 4 on restarts and then stop from over 100 mph on pit lane, which necessitated modifications to most passenger cars.
Aint never driven a “stock” car at speed on a track, Have you? It’s one thing to race around a little roadster but these are almost 2 ton missles that are in front of a pack of racers that are capable of 200MPH+ speeds. I’ve pulled pace car or what is really the “safety car” duty at a couple of tracks in my area. It takes real balls to pull out onto the track during a yellow flag. I’ve almost been rear ended a few times because of the zero to infinity speed of a bone stock production car. Now one thing you don’t read about are the brake upgrades, if there were any to this era of pacers. White knuckle ride doesn’t even start to describe what it is like to be behind the wheel.
Real Stockcar racing might be a little dangerous but this oh please grow a pair if your alledged performance car that’s nominated for pacecar duty cant accelerate to a mere 100mph and brake several times on a simple oval track where there are no corners you are looking at the real reason American cars were derided as being crap, the fact you say this scares you proves my point.
Real cars can turn left and right at speed and brake efficiently in standard form even back then
I can see I’ll have to show you guys some real Stockcar racing, Full contact motor sport wall slamming action then you might appreciate why we think NASCAR is for pussies
Yeah, Marcos Ambrose is a huge pussy. As the maxim states, “If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it”.
Kiwi, you really have no clue do you?
I remember reading about a pace car used for truck racing, that needed about 500hp to make it from the last turn to pit lane (only about 1/8th mile, starting at 60mph) before it got caught up & run over by the racing rigs…
I don’t know the exact requirements, but I believe the have to be able to accelerate from 80 to 115 mph in a certain distance, and be able to be up to a certain speed by the end of the pits.
It is easy to imagine this Pace Car business being negotiated in a smoke-filled room, the quid-pro-quo being money for race organizers, & product-placement for the car companies, esp. once it became a TV event. Of course by this time, high-drag Detroit barges had to be able to keep up with traffic, increasingly difficult as race speeds rose.
While the Pace Car gets all the spotlight, the picture of all those 1969 Camaros above shows how many cars are involved when you sponsor the pace car, I see 2 Suburbans, 20 or so pick up trucks, including several painted Hugger Orange, a half dozen full size wagons, plus a bunch of other Chevrolets in the far far back that cant be identified.
I was also struck by the photo of all the civilian vehicles required as a sponsor of the Indy 500. At first glance, you wonder why they would need all those pace cars, but then realize they’re all used to shuttle all the VIPs around the track for the parade laps.
That pace car had the 426 Wedge, not the Hemi.
Agreed with Roger. I read this article so fast I missed that part.
Good catch, guys. There is so little information on the web about this car, and evidently what little there was out there was wrong. One source (which I relied on initially) claimed the car had the 383, which just didn’t make sense. I kept digging and found another source (a published book, no less) that claimed the Hemi was used. I was so happy to find a better answer during a break at work that I forgot to turn on my “fact filter”. 426 Wedge it is!
I bought a 1965 fury pace car from our small town dealer and because he was such a small dealership with little chance of selling a sport fury with 436 in it plymouth let him buy it in fury III body with 383 2 barrel carb. Loved car and wish I still had it or one like it.
I saved a photo of a ’65 Sport Fury pace car replica that was actually for sale on ebay awhile back.
I have a 1965 fury pace car & the hood was signed by Don Garlits. Do you know anything about it? Please responded.
The ones that I would want are the non – pony/sports cars. I do like the unexpected pace vehicles.
I agree! ’69 Camaros are so common, they are like Wonder bread.
Bland, stale, and tasteless?
I remember Car and Driver road testing the 1965 Plymouth pace car.
CC effect! I just saw a red 1966 Mercury Comet Cyclone GT convertible up for sale.
It’s not a pace car. But someone thinks it’s worth something. It’s listed for $23K
What is “common” today is every sedan on the road. No style,no class. All the care about is gas mileage,while the only passengers in the back seats are 5 years old or kissing their own knees. My grand sons “hot wheels” are better looking.