Automotive History: Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars (Part I, 1946-49)

(first posted May 15, 2012)  The month of May means many things to many people.  But if you are anywhere around Indianapolis, the month of May means only one thing: that the annual Indianapolis 500 is upon us.

The race itself is quite a tradition, going back to 1911.  At that time, it was no sure thing that most cars could last for 500 miles of racing, let alone finish in the top three.  There has been much written about the great drivers and their race cars over the years.  However, my favorite topic has always been the pace cars.

The 500 has employed a pace car from the very beginning.  The pace car allowed for a flying start for the racers.  The pace car would (and still does) lead the field around the track for a pace lap before turning off onto pit road just in time for the racers to hit the start/finish line where the flagman waves the green flag.

The inaugural pace car was a Stoddard-Dayton driven by Speedway president Carl Fisher.  There have been many interesting pace cars over the years, and this month seems a good time for periodic pieces on them.  Although I may come back to earlier ones later, I propose a start at the dawn of the “modern era” – to me, this is 1946.

The Speedway had been closed during World War II, with the last race run in 1941.  Businessman Tony Hulman from Terre Haute, Indiana bought the dilapidated track from World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker and set about revitalizing the facilities.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is still owned by the Hulman family.  What was the choice to pace the 1946 race?   This beautiful Lincoln Continental cabriolet driven by Henry Ford II.  Those Firestone whitewalls were probably not easy to get in May of 1946.  Unless your name was Ford.

The Continental may have been the logical choice, as it was one of very few aspirational prewar cars that made it back into postwar showrooms.  Also, this would be the only postwar race paced by a legitimate classic.  There was not much performance to the Lincoln V12.  Frankly, it is a good thing that the Lincoln was only pacing and not racing, as these were known to be among the least durable engines of the postwar era.  I have read that it was not uncommon to see units requiring a rebuild at 30,000 miles.  But this particular example seems to have held up for the day.  Actually, I have understood that the only way to keep these engines lubricated and happy was to keep the revs up so that the overmatched oil pump could keep its vital juices flowing, so maybe this Continental one of the few to be actually driven this way.

For 1947, it was something different.  Where the ’46 Continental was expensive and exotic, the ’47 Nash Ambassador was the opposite.  This year marked Nash’s only year to ever pace the race.  It is also one of the few years where the pace car was a four door sedan.  The pace car was bright canary yellow, a non-factory color.  The mystery is that there is a darker car in publicity shots as well.  A different car or just before the paint job?  Who knows.  A surprising fact is that the Ambassador ohv six was only 18 horsepower shy of the Lincoln V-12 (112 vs 130).

Nash President George Mason (standing outside of the car) got the honors behind the wheel.  It is reported that he had raced motorcycles in his younger (and trimmer) years.  However, he was willing to share the limelight with Clark Gable, who was allowed to at least sit in the drivers seat.  When I think of “cars of the stars”, the Nash Ambassador is not the first one that comes to mind.  Could this have been the only time Clark Gable ever sat in a Nash?  Quite possibly.

General Motors first postwar pace car was in 1948 with a Chevrolet Fleetmaster Deluxe, driven by Speedway exec and former race driver Wilbur Shaw (who is not behind the wheel in this picture).  Shaw was the first of five drivers in the 500 to win back to back races and was hired by Tony Hulman as President of the Speedway.  It is interesting that with the various new models that were out by that time (Kaiser, Frazer, Studebaker, Hudson, Packard) the last of the warmed over prewar Chevys got the nod this year.  Oh well, Chevrolet would be back later with some more exciting machinery.

Chevrolet has probably paced the race more often than any other car, including the 2012 race being paced by a Corvette.  But you might not guess that Chevrolet never paced the race a single time before 1948.  So, maybe they are making up for lost time.  Can anyone detect a difference in the quality of the PR photos coming from General Motors?  No fat guys with cigars in this picture.  But blackwall tires?  Really?  Actually, as dull as the ’48 Chevy was, is it any wonder that the shapely young lady with the flag is in the foreground?

By this time, serving as the pace car for the 500 had become quite the public relations bonanza, so I would imagine that auto manufacturers were fighting each other at the Speedway gates for the honors in 1949.  The victor was the famous Oldsmobile Rocket.  No need for an attractive woman with a checkered flag here.  Oldsmobile would become a perennial at the Speedway, but what year more fitting than this one to show off the new Rocket V8.  I would imagine that the flying start was a little faster in 1949.

The Olds (a Rocket 88) also seems to have come in two colors.  Was it painted?  Or was a lighter color requested by the publicity people because the red pace car did not photograph as well in black and white?  Maybe we will never know.  This was the last year that Wilbur Shaw would drive the pace car.  The front row of racers jumped the start signal that year, and from there on, Shaw would face backwards in the passenger seat to give hand signals to the racers while someone else drove.

The high performance 88 was a fitting segue into the Pace Cars of the high octane 1950s.  Which you will read about here soon.