Thanks to Fernando Alonso deciding to ditch the Monaco GP for a shot at Indy glory, outlets who normally wouldn’t give IndyCar the time of day are making a big deal about the Indy 500. However, the Indy 500 isn’t just one of the greatest motorsport events, it’s also a huge marketing opportunity for car manufacturers.
The biggest prize comes in bagging the prestigious role of supplying the pace car. For many years the race organisers alternated between different marques. However, General Motors has held an exclusive deal to be supplier since 1997, and has used Chevrolet models since 2002, meaning the choice of a C7 Corvette Grand Sport for this year should be no surprise.
We’ve taken a look back at fifteen of the Chevrolet pace cars used in the previous one hundred runnings of the Indianapolis 500.
The first Chevrolet to lead the field at Indy was this two-door convertible. Powered by a 216-cubic inch (3.5-litre) straight-six engine, and with a three-speed manual gearbox, the Fleetmaster was a continuation of a car first introduced before WW2. Despite just 90hp, the Fleetmaster could apparently reach over 80mph. We’re not sure why those guys don’t look more excited…
Introduced in 1955, the second-generation Bel Air bagged the role of Indy 500 pace car for that year. Now possibly one of the most collectable American classic cars, the ’55 Bel Air had the option of a 265-cubic inch (4.3-litre) V8 engine and even air conditioning. Power outputs for the V8 cars ranged from 162hp to 180hp, but performance was still more cruiser than sports car.
Performance was on the cards for 1967, with the new Camaro taking the pace car honours after a twelve-year gap for the Chevy brand. The SS model came standard with a 350-cubic inch (5.7-litre) V8, with an even bigger 396-ci (6.5-l) V8 option available in two states of tune. Naturally, Chevrolet equipped the pace car with the 396-ci engine, producing 375hp.
Two years later the Camaro was back at Indy, with the official pace car again featuring the 396-ci V8 engine. More notable was the decision to offer a replica, with the Indy Sport Convertible Option. Buyers got the same Dove White paintwork with Hugger Orange stripes, along with the bright orange interior and cowl induction hood. Over 3,500 buyers took the plunge to pretend to be pacing the Indy field whilst driving to work.
Despite being over a decade old, and firmly entering the nadir of its life, the C3 Corvette got the nod in 1978. Perhaps it was the black silver paintwork, with matching silver interior, that got attention or the fact it was the 25th anniversary of the original Corvette’s launch. 6,502 examples were built – one for each Chevrolet dealership – with buyers even getting the pace car stickers to add if they wished. The 350-ci (5.7-l) V8 was offered in unremarkable outputs of 180 and 220hp.
The fourth-generation Corvette had two bites of the Indy pace car cherry, but the 1986 version is probably most worthy of a mention. Not only was this the first convertible Corvette since 1975, it was also driven at the start of the Indy 500 by Chuck Yeager – the first man to ever break the sound barrier. Every convertible Corvette sold in 1986 was badged as a pace car replica, even if you decided against yellow paint.
Glossing over the mess that was the Chevrolet Beretta used in 1990, next up on our list is the (only) slightly more respectable 1993 Camaro. New for ’93, the fourth-generation Camaro will not go down in history as the greatest version to wear the famed badge. With a base model using a 160hp V6, the Z28 did at least have a 275hp 5.7-litre V8. Over 600 buyers opted for the pace car package, including the two-tone paintwork and so very 1990’s graphics.
History repeated itself in 1998, as Chevrolet used the Indy pace car role to demonstrate the new C5 Corvette Convertible. With a retina-searing paint scheme of Radar Blue body, combined with yellow wheels, and yellow decals it looked more like a Hot Wheels toy than a real car. Road-going Pace Car Replicas also gained the same ‘distinctive’ livery, making it a surefire way to ensure you never lose your car in a parking lot. Not a choice for introverts.
Ignore the slightly incongruous mathematics that 2002 could see a 50th anniversary for a car launched in 1963. The 50th Anniversary C5 Corvette was sold for the 2003 model year, hence Chevrolet’s use of it at Indy to promote it. Thankfully painted in a subtler Anniversary Red Metallic, the replicas also featured two-tone leather trim and special magnetorheological suspension dampers.
Safely settled into the role of supplying Indy 500 pace cars, Chevrolet offered a genuine replica for 2007. Using the regular C6 Corvette Convertible as a base, eschewing the more powerful Z06, the pace setter featured the 6.0-litre 400hp LS2 V8. Pleasingly for ESM, the 2007 car was very, very, orange. Atomic Orange paintwork outside, matched with interior trim pieces and engine cover painted in the same bold colour. Actor and Le Mans regular Patrick Dempsey was on hand to drive the Corvette at the start of the race.
This is more like it. The Corvette ZR1 came as standard with a supercharged 6.2-litre LS9 V8 engine, producing a substantial 638hp, making it the most powerful Corvette ever at the time. Picked to celebrate the Corvette’s 60th Anniversary – yes, another model year anomaly – meant a special paint scheme offered for all 2013MY Corvettes. Artic White paint, Pearl Silver Blue stripes, painted brake calipers, and 60th Anniversary badges for the wheel centre caps kept things relatively subtle. Unlike the driver: TV chef and ‘Mayor of Flavortown’ Guy Fieri.
Reinstating a level of Camaro credibility not see since the 1960s, the car picked for the 2014 Indy 500 was a serious machine. The Z/28 Camaro features a 7.0-litre LS7 V8 churning out 505hp and 481lb-ft of torque, along with carbon ceramic brakes and an aggressive (downforce-producing) aero kit. Selecting three-time Indy 500 winner, and four-time IndyCar champion, Dario Franchitti as the official pace car driver only boosted the respectability further.
Last year’s Indy 500 was something of a big deal for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was the 100th running of The Great Race itself, the 50th anniversary (more Chevy model year maths needed) of the Camaro, and the 50th year of Roger Penske being a race team owner. The obvious choice was therefore to have Mr Penske drive a special 50th Anniversary edition Camaro SS as pace car. Thankfully a choice the Indianapolis Motor Speedway went with. To spot a 50th Anni Camaro, look for the orange-painted brake calipers.
Worse than a Cadillac Allanté? Yes. Worse than a Chrysler LeBaron? Indeed. Even worse than a Chevrolet Beretta? Absolutely. Say hello to the Oldsmobile Bravada. Used in 2001, the Bravada was the last new Oldsmobile model to be launched before the brand disappeared in 2004. Sharing a platform with the Chevy Trailblazer and GMC Envoy, this was about as unsporty as a pace car could get. It did at least mark the first female pace car driver, with former Victoria’s Secret model Elaine Irwin doing the duty.