In fact, it was Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder Carl Fisher who came up with the idea of ditching the standing start for the more spectacular – and in Fisher’s mind, safer – rolling start. He would lead the field – at that time, 40 cars arranged in eight rows of five! – driving a Stoddard-Dayton at 45mph.
Every Indy 500 has used a pace car ever since. Fisher paced the first five and then it became the duty and honor of various automotive industry figures or retired racers, and a great marketing tool for car manufacturers to supply the cars. That had the potential to raise some interesting juxtapositions – Louis Chevrolet piloting a Chrysler in 1926, for instance – and cause some issues after the race, too. From 1936 it became traditional for the 500 winner to be awarded the pace car, but in ’65, the Ford Motor Company, fundamental to Team Lotus’s assault on the Indy 500, did not let its winner Jimmy Clark accept the keys to the Plymouth Sport Fury pace car.
Up to and including 1956, the pace car led the field for just one warm-up lap before pulling aside on the front straight and ‘releasing’ the charging pack behind. In 1957, this became two laps in order to allow fans in the main grandstand to take in and photograph the eleven rows of three rumbling along behind the pace car.
That worked out particularly well in 1958 for the man driving the pace car, a beautiful Pontiac Bonneville (pictured at top of page), because that man was Sam Hanks. He won Indy the previous year at his 13th attempt, but had then announced in Victory Lane that he was retiring from racing. Thus in ’58, the crowd got their chance to salute the reigning Indy 500 champion who had chosen not to defend his crown.
In fact, Hanks would pace the field for six straight years, always with track owner Tony Hulman as a passenger and over the years, the number of passengers that rode with Hulman grew and included celebrities.
In 1971, one of these was the legendary astronaut John Glenn, and nothing he encountered while serving with the USAF in World War II and the Korean War, working as a test pilot or flying in outer space could have prepared him for this particular ride. The owner of a local Dodge dealership, Eldon Palmer, drove the Challenger pace car at breakneck speed along pitlane, but the cone he’d put out to mark his braking point had been moved and so he outbraked himself by a long way. The Challenger slewed out of control and into a photographers’ stand, causing several injuries.
Like Hanks, 1960 Indy winner Jim Rathmann served as pace car driver six times, and while it wasn’t necessary to have pace car drivers that good, celebrity drivers with racing experience were seen as preferable. James Garner jumped at the chance to pace the field in ’75, ’77 – the first year that pace cars led the field for three laps – and ’85.
Until 1979, the pace car would never be seen on track between the beginning and end of the race, caution periods being controlled by the leader of the race. However, from ’79, in order to keep the drivers circulating at a safe pace while whatever had caused the yellow was resolved, the pace car would reemerge in front of the pack. That meant that the pace car, while still having a ‘celeb’ drive it on pre-race pace laps, needed handing off to a professional.
For many years, that pro was three-time Indy 500 winner Johnny Rutherford, who was the IndyCar Series’ regular pace car driver. When he retired from this duty at the end of 2016, former IndyCar favorite Sarah Fisher took over the role of professional pace car driver at IMS.
This year’s celebrity pace car driver in the Corvette C8 Stingray hardtop convertible could of course be trusted to control the field during any cautions throughout the race, because it’s Danica Patrick – the first woman ever to lead the 500 and to finish in the top three. Indeed, she scored top 10 finishes in six of her eight races there.
However, it’s that very experience that means Patrick is in demand by NBC for the third straight year, so when she scuttles off to the commentary booth at the end of the pace laps, she will cede the Corvette’s seat to Fisher.
|1911||Stoddard-Dayton||Carl G. Fisher|
|1912||Stutz||Carl G. Fisher|
|1913||Stoddard-Dayton||Carl G. Fisher|
|1914||Stoddard-Dayton||Carl G. Fisher|
|1915||Packard 6 (Model 5-48)||Carl G. Fisher|
|1916||Premier 6 (Model 6-56)||Frank E. Smith|
|1919||Packard V12 (called Twin Six)||Jesse G. Vincent|
|1920||Marmon 6 (Model 34)||Barney Oldfield|
|1921||H.C.S. 6||Harry C. Stutz|
|1922||National Sextet||Barney Oldfield|
|1924||Cole V8||Lew Pettijohn|
|1925||Rickenbacker 8||Eddie Rickenbacker|
|1926||Chrysler Imperial 80||Louis Chevrolet|
|1927||LaSalle V-8 Series 303||Willard “Big Boy” Rader|
|1928||Marmon 8 (Model 78)||Joe Dawson|
|1929||Studebaker President Roadster||George Hunt|
|1930||Cord L-29||Wade Morton|
|1931||Cadillac 370 Twelve||“Big Boy” Rader|
|1932||Lincoln Model KB||Edsel Ford|
|1933||Chrysler Imperial Convertible Roadster||Byron Foy|
|1934||LaSalle Model 350||“Big Boy” Rader|
|1935||Ford V8||Harry Mack|
|1936||Packard 120||Tommy Milton|
|1937||LaSalle Series 50||Ralph DePalma|
|1938||Hudson 112||Stuart Baits|
|1939||Buick Roadmaster 80||Charles Chayne|
|1940||Studebaker Champion Two Door Sedan||Harry Hartz|
|1941||Chrysler Newport Parade Phaeton||A.B. Couture|
|1946||Lincoln Continental V-12||Henry Ford II||Wilbur Shaw|
|1947||Nash Ambassador||George W. Mason|
|1948||Chevrolet Fleetmaster Six||Wilbur Shaw|
|1949||Oldsmobile 88||Wilbur Shaw|
|1951||Chrysler New Yorker V8||David A. Wallace|
Chrysler New Yorker leads the 1951 field with a front row comprising Duke Nalon, eventual winner Lee Wallard and Jack McGrath.
Photo by: IndyCar Series
|1952||Studebaker Commander Convertible||P.O. Peterson|
|1953||Ford Crestline Sunliner||William Clay Ford, Sr.|
|1954||Dodge Royal 500||William C. Newburg|
|1955||Chevrolet Bel Air||Thomas H. Keating||Tony Hulman|
|1956||DeSoto Fireflite Convertible||L.I. Woolson||Tony Hulman|
DeSoto Fireflite heads Pat Flaherty’s winning Watson-Offy, Jim Rathmann and Pat O’Connor in 1956.
Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
|1957||Mercury Turnpike Cruiser||F.C. Reith||Tony Hulman|
|1958||Pontiac Bonneville||Sam Hanks*||Tony Hulman|
|1959||Buick Electra 225||Sam Hanks*||Tony Hulman|
|1960||Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight||Sam Hanks*||Tony Hulman|
|1961||Ford Thunderbird||Sam Hanks*||Tony Hulman|
|1962||Studebaker Lark Daytona Convertible||Sam Hanks*||Tony Hulman|
|1963||Chrysler 300||Sam Hanks*||Tony Hulman|
|1964||Ford Mustang||Benson Ford||Tony Hulman|
|1965||Plymouth Sport Fury||P.M. Buckminster||Tony Hulman|
|1966||Mercury Comet Cyclone GT||Benson Ford||Tony Hulman, Gus Grissom|
|1967||Chevrolet Camaro||Mauri Rose||Tony Hulman|
The Chevy Camaro Indy 500 pace cars from 1967, ’69, ’82 and ’93.
Photo by: Andy Sallee
|1968||Ford Torino GT||William Clay Ford, Sr.||Tony Hulman, Duke Nalon|
|1969||Chevrolet Camaro SS||Jim Rathmann||Tony Hulman, Pete Conrad|
|1970||Oldsmobile 4-4-2||Rodger Ward||Tony Hulman, Pete Conrad|
|1971||Dodge Challenger||Eldon Palmer||Tony Hulman, John Glenn, Chris Schenkel|
|1972||Hurst/Olds Cutlass||Jim Rathmann||Tony Hulman, Pete Conrad, Chris Schenkel, Bob Draper, Dolly Cole|
|1973||Cadillac Eldorado||Jim Rathmann||Tony Hulman, Alfred Worden, Chris Schenkel, Bob Lund, Dolly Cole|
|1974||Hurst/Olds Cutlass||Jim Rathmann||Tony Hulman, Frank Borman, Chris Schenkel, Bill Kay|
|1975||Buick Century Custom V-8||James Garner||Tony Hulman, Jim Rathmann|
|1976||Buick Century V6||Marty Robbins||Tony Hulman, Jim Rathmann, Chris Schenkel|
|1977||Oldsmobile Delta 88||James Garner||Tony Hulman|
|1978||Chevrolet Corvette C3||Jim Rathmann|
1978 Corvette C3 leads Tom Sneva (Penske), Danny Ongais (Parnelli) and Rick Mears (Penske). Eventual winner Al Unser (Chaparral-run Lola) is in the middle of the second row.
Photo by: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
|Year||Car||Driver (start)||Driver (caution periods)|
|1979||Ford Mustang||Jackie Stewart||Jim Rathmann|
|1980||Pontiac Trans Am Turbo||Johnnie Parsons||Don Bailey|
|1981||Buick Regal V6||Duke Nalon||Duke Nalon|
|1982||Chevrolet Camaro Z28||Jim Rathmann||Don Bailey|
|1983||Buick Riviera Convertible||Duke Nalon||Don Bailey|
|1984||Pontiac Indy Fiero||John Callies||Don Bailey|
|1985||Oldsmobile Cutlass Calais||James Garner||Don Bailey|
|1986||Chevrolet Corvette convertible||Chuck Yeager||Don Bailey|
|1987||Chrysler LeBaron||Carroll Shelby||Don Bailey|
|1988||Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme||Chuck Yeager||Don Bailey|
|1989||Pontiac Trans Am||Bobby Unser||Don Bailey|
|1990||Chevrolet Beretta Convertible||Jim Perkins||Don Bailey|
|1991||Dodge Viper RT/10||Carroll Shelby||Don Bailey|
|1992||Cadillac Allante||Bobby Unser||Don Bailey|
|1993||Chevrolet Camaro Z28||Jim Perkins||Don Bailey|
|1994||Ford Mustang Cobra||Parnelli Jones||Don Bailey|
|1995||Chevrolet Corvette C4 convertible||Jim Perkins||Don Bailey|
|1996||Dodge Viper GTS||Bob Lutz||Don Bailey|
|1997||Oldsmobile Aurora||Johnny Rutherford||Don Bailey|
|1998||Chevrolet Corvette C5||Parnelli Jones||Don Bailey|
|1999||Chevrolet Monte Carlo||Jay Leno||Don Bailey|
|2000||Oldsmobile Aurora||Anthony Edwards||Don Bailey|
|2001||Oldsmobile Bravada*||Elaine Irwin Mellencamp||Don Bailey|
|2002||Chevrolet Corvette C5||Jim Caviezel||Joie Chitwood, III|
|2003||Chevrolet SSR*||Herb Fishel||Johnny Rutherford|
|2004||Chevrolet Corvette C5||Morgan Freeman||Joie Chitwood, III|
|2005||Chevrolet Corvette C6 convertible||General Colin Powell||Joie Chitwood, III|
General Colin Powell gets instruction from Johnny Rutherford in 2005.
Photo by: Ron McQueeney
|Year||Car||Driver (start)||Driver (caution periods)|
|2006||Chevrolet Corvette C6 Z06 coupe||Lance Armstrong*||Johnny Rutherford|
|2007||Chevrolet Corvette C6||Patrick Dempsey||Johnny Rutherford|
|2008||Chevrolet Corvette C6 Z06||Emerson Fittipaldi||Johnny Rutherford|
|2009||Chevrolet Camaro SS||Josh Duhamel||Johnny Rutherford|
|2010||Chevrolet Camaro SS||Robin Roberts||Johnny Rutherford|
|2011||Chevrolet Camaro||A. J. Foyt||Johnny Rutherford|
|2012||Chevrolet Corvette C6 ZR1||Guy Fieri||Johnny Rutherford|
|2013||Chevrolet C7 Corvette Stingray||Jim Harbaugh||Johnny Rutherford|
|2014||Chevrolet Camaro Z28||Dario Franchitti||Johnny Rutherford|
|2015||Chevrolet Corvette Z06||Jeff Gordon||Johnny Rutherford|
|2016||Chevrolet Camaro||Roger Penske||Johnny Rutherford|
|2017||Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport||Jeffrey Dean Morgan||Sarah Fisher|
|2018||Chevrolet Corvette ZR1||Victor Oladipo||Sarah Fisher|
|2019||Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport||Dale Earnhardt, Jr.||Sarah Fisher|
|2020||Chevrolet Corvette Stingray||Mark Reuss||Sarah Fisher|
|2021||Chevrolet Corvette Convertible||Danica Patrick||Sarah Fisher|
Photo by: IndyCar