The Indianapolis 500 race is steeped in tradition, from the “yard of bricks” starting line to the post-race milk celebration.
But one of our favorite traditions is the ceremonial parade lap that occurs just prior to the green flag—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 race 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 milestones—not just ones wearing fancy paint or stickers.
10. 1980 Pontiac Turbo Trans Am
Despite its somewhat staid 210 horsepower, the Turbo Trans Am foreshadowed how turbocharging would become a cornerstone of the automotive performance community in the decades that followed. While Buick technically brought out the first turbocharged pace car in 1976, it wasn’t until the 1980 TTA that the publicly-available replicas came with forced induction too. Check out this story for more history on the 1980-81 Turbo Trans Am.
9. 2017 Chevy Camaro SS 50th Anniversary
This one gets the nod not so much for the car, but for the anniversaries it commemorated. For starters, 2017 marked the 50th year of the Camaro’s existence. And the race it was chosen to pace was the 101st running of The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. For icing on the cake, the car was driven by Roger Penske in honor of his 50th year as a team owner (and as it turns out, soon-to-be track owner).
8. 1954 Dodge Royal 500
Perhaps the first of the truly epic pace car replicas offered by a major manufacturer, Dodge let folks tick a special “Pace Car” option box on the order sheet of a typical Royal 500 coupe. The package gave the car a ton of performance street cred. In particular, it made the 241ci Hemi (yes, HEMI!) V8 mandatory and, equipped with a stout four-barrel carb exclusive to the Pace Car model, the engine cranked out around 170 horsepower.
7. 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 more than any other vehicle, 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 appear on our list is an easy call to make.
6. 1996 Dodge Viper GTS Coupe
The Dodge Viper was the first mass-produced vehicle to legitimately 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. While we picked the 1996 GTS version here, an RT/10 model was the first to get the Viper Pace Car honors back in 1991.
5. 1989 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am GTA
Even though we already included a TTA on this list, we had to put the epic GTA down here as well. Far removed from its 301 V8-powered ancestor, the GTA featured a version of the Buick Grand National’s turbocharged 3.8L V6. With that equipment, the 1989 Turbo Trans Am could easily rip-off 13s in the quarter mile and had a 150+ mph top speed, making it one of the fastest cars GM had ever made at the time.
4. 1979 Ford Mustang
The gearhead world didn’t know it then, but Ford’s new Mustang “Foxbody” would soon be the performance standard bearer for the next few decades. And the Blue Oval made sure to give its new ‘Stang the proper introduction at the 1979 Indianapolis 500. You can learn more about the 1979 Mustang Pace Car edition in this separate article.
3. 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.
2. 1972 Hurst/Olds
After the disaster of the 1971 Pace Car incident, major automakers shied away from donating their cars for pace car duties at the Indianapolis 500. Undaunted, Hurst/Olds stepped up to the plate. Though derived from an Oldsmobile Cutlass, technically speaking, the Hurst/Olds came from Hurst Performance, not GM. So the 1972 Hurst/Olds bears the distinction of being the only time a pace car has been sponsored by a company other than an automobile manufacturer.
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.