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Our Top 10 Favorite Indianapolis 500 Pace Cars

The Indianapolis 500 race is steeped in tradition, from the “yard of bricks” starting line to the post-race milk drinking.

But one of our favorite traditions is the ceremonial parade lap that occurs just prior to the green flag waving—it’s a chance to see the race cars before they get all blurry, and provides the best views we get of the pace car.

For those unfamiliar with what a pace car does, it’s the vehicle that leads the race cars around the circuit during the pre-race warmup and caution laps.

The pace car’s duty is partially ornamental, often showcasing a new make/model or chauffeuring a celebrity, but once the green flag drops—it’s all business. The car plays a critical role in the safe operation of the race, and it has to be able to run with purpose-built cars capable of blistering-fast speeds and laser-quick turns.

We’ve put together a list of our 10 Favorite Pace Cars from the last 107 years. We went full-on “car nerd” with these picks and selected vehicles that represent significant technical milestones—not just ones wearing fancy paint or stickers.

(Image/Jeff Walker, Creative Commons)

10. 1998 Chevy Corvette

OK, Jackson Pollock-inspired stripe packages aside, the C5 Corvette brought us the LS engine. And, since the Corvette holds the record for pacing the Indianapolis 500 a record 15 times, we’ve got to feature at least one. Considering how few modifications were necessary to allow it to hang with legit race cars, choosing the 1998 edition to start the list is an easy call to make.


9. 1992 Dodge Viper RT/10

The Dodge Viper was the first mass-produced vehicle to challenge the Corvette’s title of “America’s Sports Car.” And it did so with a massive V10 engine that made over 400 horsepower—which at the time, was an Indianapolis 500 record for a stock pace car. (Note: This Viper was a pre-production 1992 model that paced the 1991 race.)

1920 Marmon 34B

8. 1920 Marmon Model 34B

Get this—the 1920 Marmon 34B had an aluminum, 339 cubic-inch straight-six with overhead valves. That was space-age stuff back then. Though the engine made only 34 horsepower (hence the model name), it benefitted from aluminum components throughout which undoubtedly reduced the car’s overall weight.


7. 1930 Cord L-29

The Cord L-29 was the first mass-produced American front-wheel drive car. But its layout was only unusual to the buying public—FWD cars already had a very successful race record at the Indianapolis 500. The L-29 was powered by a 301 cubic-inch straight-eight, good for about 125 horsepower.

6. 1955 Chevy Bel Air

OK, it’s a Tri-Five Chevy, one of the most iconic cars of all time—but that’s not why we picked it. The real reason is that this car showcased a new 265 cubic-inch V8 engine. Yep, the soon-to-be-ubiquitous small block Chevy was introduced to the racing world at Indianapolis.


5. 1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am 

Despite its somewhat staid 210 horsepower, the Turbo Trans Am foreshadowed how forced-induction would become a cornerstone of the automotive performance community in the decades that followed. The turbo was installed on Pontiac’s 301 cubic-inch V8, which featured lower compression to compensate for the turbo boost.

4. 1912 Stutz Bearcat

You’ve heard of “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday,” right? Well, the first person to say it was talking about Stutz. After a very respectable 11th-place finish in the first-ever Indianapolis 500, the Stutz (nee: Ideal) Car Company decided to sell its race car to the public. Now dubbed the “Bearcat,” the car went on to pace the race the following year.

3. 1964.5 Ford Mustang

Though Ford made a few dozen replicas for prize giveaways and parade duty, three Mustangs were actually prepped for track duty with serious go-fast hardware. How serious? Under the hood was a custom-built Holman Moody high performance 289 Windsor V8 poached from the GT40 development program.

2. 1923 Dusenberg Model A

How the heck does a luxury touring car wind up at #2 on the list? Easy, it offered a pair of firsts for an American car: an eight-cylinder engine and hydraulic brakes. At 260 cubic inches, the overhead-cam straight-eight made about 88 horsepower—good for a 95 mph top speed. So, if you like high-power engines and the ability to actually stop occasionally, thank the Dusenberg Model A.

1. 1969 Chevy Camaro SS

The two track-use 1969 Camaro SS pace cars began as L78 SS396 Camaros, but were treated to completely rebuilt engines, heavy-duty torque converters, and 4-wheel disc brakes. A balanced driveshaft and 3.31:1 gears were installed for sustained high-speed operation. The paint scheme oozes 1960s cool and became so iconic that Chevy rebooted it for the 1997 30th-Anniversary Camaro.

Disagree with our picks? Let us know what we overlooked in the comments below.

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  1. Herb Cornelius says:

    Would like to have seen the 1979 Corvette Pace Car Edition too.

  2. Pingback: Corvettes at Indianapolis: 10 of the Coolest Indy 500 Corvette Pace Cars

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