Pace cars have played an integral part in every Indianapolis 500, beginning with the great race’s inaugural run on Memorial Day, May 30, 1911, when Indianapolis Motor Spreedway owner Carl Fisher drove a brand new Stoddard-Dayton around the track. The race, which featured 40 competitors was won by Ray Harroun.
The pace car basically has 2 primary purposes; leading the starting grid around the track for a predetermined number of unscored warm-up laps before setting the field free at “purposeful” speed to start the race, as well as re-entering the track during yellow flag caution periods to pick up the leader and bunch the field up at a reduced speed.
Pace cars led the field for one unscored lap between 1911-1956, before changing to 2-laps in 1957 to allow the field extra time to warm up the engines, oil temperatures, and tires, as well as give drivers the chance to get a feel for conditions of the entire track at least once before receiving the green flag. The change also gave fans on the mainstretch (where the largest grandstands are located) to see the entire field parade by once before the start. Previously only fans on other parts of the track got to actually see the grid go by for photographs and waving. However the field went back to lining up the grid on the mainstretch in 1959, which it still does to this day.
By the late 1960s, it became tradition for the driver of the pace car to be accompanied by a special celebrity, ranging from auto executives, to NASA astronaunts, and stars from the entertainment world including actor James Garner and Marty Robbins, picked (in part) for their experience in racing during the 1970’s. 3-time Indy winner Dario Franchitti drove the Chevrolet Z28 pace car in 2014 after retiring from competition due to injuries suffered at the Grand Prix of Houston in 2013, and. Jeff Gordon drove the Chevy corvette Z06 last year. Although primarily a Sprint Cup drive, Jeff Gordon, won 5 Brickyard 400s before retiring from racing at the end of the 2015 season.
The format for the pace car was changed again in 1977 to 3-laps (2 parade laps and 1 warm up lap). The 1978 race was the first to feature multiple pace cars on the track during the parade lap. Since 2010, the IndyCar “two-seater” (a retired Indy race car modified with a special passenger seat) has also been at the front of the field, carrying a celebrity or special guest. The non-participating vehicles pull off the track after 1 or 2 circuits, and the lone official pace car leads the field on the pace lap. In 2012, it was further expanded to 4 warm-up laps (3 parade laps and 1 pace lap), coinciding with the introduction of a new engine and chassis formula.
Note: In almost every year since 1936, it has been a tradition that the winner of the Indianapolis 500 be presented with one of that year’s pace cars (or a replica). This year’s pace car honors go to Camaro once again. Previous models have included the Camaro SS in 1967, 1969; 2009 and 2010 and the Z28 in 1982,1993; 211 and 2014.