(The Indianapolis 500 is right around the corner, which seemed like a good time to re-run our Pace Car series from a few years ago. This, Part 1, was originally published 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.
Jim, what a treat, as I’m laying here in bed recuperating from my bad case of 1972 Torino flashbacks. Thank you!
No mention of that wild rocket trim affixed to the front fender of the ’49 Olds. Wow; where did that come from…or am I still hallucinating?
What’s interesting is that the “rocket” is slightly different in the two 88s that are depicted. I guess it wasn’t a factory option. Too bad.
“Wild rocket trim” appears to be three-dimensional on the dark/red car, and painted onto the white one!
Not just painted on, but it looks like it was painted onto the photo, not the car.
I’m thinking the red car was the pace car, and for the photos, they photographed a stock Rocket 88 convertible in a lighter color, and pasted the rocket trim and lettering onto the photo after. The placement and proportions of both look off, among other details.
These (49 olds) were the hot rods before the small block chevy. No telling how many donated their lives and engines to some old ford Jalopy. No wonder the Chev (or Nash) didn’t do much before the war. No hot rods. I’m surprised to see either of them here with all the straight eights and v8’s that existed.
Always fun to see the companies dustup over having been the pace car. There is (or was) a camaro down at the local mechanics that has pace car printing all over the sides. Probably need to take a picture of it if it’s still there.
Excellent series JPC! Eagerly awaiting further episodes.
My dad has a 1947 Linciln, same V-12 as the Continental, of course. Gave him nothing but troubles. Even when new he had to replace the fuel pump on several occasions. Although a close frined was the L-M dealer, dad went the GM route after two years. Several Buicks and Caddys followed that unloved Lincoln!
Can’t blame your Dad for moving on from a troublesome car but lordy, what a beaut!
ooops, please excuse the typos above. Wonderful posting on Indy-500. That “rocket” 88 is too much; looks like an early promo add-on.
Americas great race. I read somewhere Jaguar took their wining team to Indy from Le Mans and ran 5th 6th 7th in basicly race trim D type sports cars they would have all had the 200+mph LeMans diffs fitted. must have quite a sight amongst the small Indy cars of the day, now days the most interesting part is the pace car the actual race is a tedious parade at speed shame as once it really meant something with diverse entries from outfits like Cummins and others.
Cummins should really get into the car diesel biz seeing as they are the only major diesel engine manufacturer in India without a car portfolio (others being FIAT, Tata, Toyota, and GM, with Honda furiously working on theirs). I’d love to drive and own a Cummins Diesel-powered car.
They did try way back there was an article on Hemmings about diesels at Indy and Cummins powered road cars. Hindustan has been putting Isuzu diesels in all sorts of unlikely contenders like Morris Oxfords and Holden Toranas.
Back in Texas in the 1950s, roads were pretty good & usually straight. Nash Ambassadors were known as good high-speed cruisers.
Should be an interesting series of articles. It’s too bad the race doesn’t have the same “presence” it once had. Sure car guys will pay attention to it, but there was a time when everyone paid attention.
Ha! These days those cars can barely pace a fleet of Chrysler minivans! Hell, the Chrysler minivans (or pretty much any other today’s minivans) can probably do pretty well in the race itself, against the period race car.
Looking forward to some interesting reading! The 1949 choice must have been an interesting one.
Re the different paint colours – surely they would have taken more than one car to the race to cover breakdowns etc? I think the white Olds rocket trim looks ‘real’ too – compare to the bumper in the same photo. Am I right in thinking it is a special piece for the pace car and not a normal production item?
Did somebody say the words V12, Nash, and Oldsmobile!?
My buddy swears his black Brickyard Monte Carlo was a 2004 Indy Pace car driven by James Garner. He wants to sell it to me for an astronomical price. He said he attended the event with a girlfriend and when she ended up getting obnoxiously drunk, he bought the Monte Carlo on the spot and drove it home to Rochester, New York, leaving her behind. Is there any truth to his story? I have the actual VIN number to prove authenticity…just unsure about who to contact.
Traditionally, the pace car was part of the prize package for the winner. You might try to contact the IMS Museum. Also, Donald Davidson is the IMS historian, perhaps he would have info. Also, I suspect that at least one Monte fan has traced pace cars online. but this is a guess. Another guess is that your friend is telling a tall tale. I would think he would have documentation if he bought it directly. Of course, I could be wrong.
My father was active in the post war Indy 500 events into the early 50s. He told me that he took me in the pace car for a couple of starts. I was born in 1944, but can’t remember the rides.
I did some searches, but could not find any photos or info for passenger names. Does anyone have an idea where I might locate such?
I guess racing got into my blood as I’m still involved, but on a fast recumbent bike these days.
Good question, Bill. I have never seen anything on this topic. Things seemed pretty informal in that era, and seemed to always involve both Speedway officials and big shots connected with whatever manufacturer supplied the pace car.
Most historical info on the race has (rightly) centered on the cars and drivers that competed on the track. Deep info on pace cars and those who may have ridden in them is slim, at least from what I have seen. You might contact the IMS museum to see if there might be any archives for this sort of information.
Oh, does this article bring back memories! First, my compliments on the remarks under each vehicle many of which are just funny, from the cigars, to the changes of colors to the well fed guys standing by the vehicles! My memories? Have you ever ridden in an Indy pace Car? I have ridden in two replicas. Traditionally, auto manufacturers would produce the original Pace Car and ninety-nine replicas, at least in the 1950’s. I spent my summers as a boy in the Adirondack Mountains in The Town of Luzerne, five miles outside of Lake George. One of our boyhood friends was old enough by 1957 to drive. His dad, Dominick, owned a used car dealership on Staten Island (Borough of Richmond – New York City). His son Nicky received form his Dad a 1953 Ford Crestline Convertible, replica Indy Pace Car. Dominick had bought it presumably at an auto auction. We would drive around in it, Equipment: Ford V8 of course, white exterior, brass plaque on the dashboard stating that this is a replica Indy Pace Car, power windows, white leather interior with highlights in black patent leather and crushed gold leather!
In 1957, our cousin Ralph bought a replica 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser convertible. Ralph was 31 at the time and I was 14. My brother and our cousin John were old enough to drive. As Ralph would come up from Troy, NY on weekends to his summer “camp” (cottage) which was near to that of my grandparents, he let us borrow this car anytime we wished. So, we would go over in Grandpa’s 1954 Plymouth Belividere sedan and exchange it for the Turnpike Cruiser. Equipment included the monster engine, a special rear axle ratio that was used on Turnpike Cruisers to achieve high speed, of which this one was geared for about 135 MPH, soft light yellow exterior, cream leather interior, the brass plate on the right side of the dashboard declaring this a replica Indy Pace Car and a factory installed Continental Wheel that lengthened this car to 20 feet! Talk about showing off driving around Lake George Village with the top down. People would just look and look and we drove round and round! Yes, these were the simple “pink and black” days. The car was unreal to view.
That big Lincoln shows again how big those old roadsters were.
It also shows how ham-handed facelifts of original designs aren’t a recent phenomena.
Thanks for the reply, Fred.