It’s All In The Paint Scheme

Part of the allure of watching an IndyCar race – especially in person – is the sound and speed of the cars. Ranking right up there, in my opinion are all of the brilliant color schemes that the cars carry. I’ve mentioned before that 1967 was the first time that I had ever seen a day-glo paint job. That was the STP-turbine powered “Silent Sam” at Indianapolis. When they rolled that car out on a gloomy and cloudy pole-day morning, the car looked like it was on fire. I had never seen a color like that. It seemed to make everything around it appear to be in black & white. It was the only thing that stood out on such a gray overcast day.

Since then, I’ve seen many teams employ the use of day-glo paint. Some do it more tastefully than others. The following year in 1968, the same STP team had three wedge shaped turbines in the field at Indy, all painted the same brilliant day-glo orange. I guess they were afraid of getting the cars confused because on race day, they had been changed up. They all looked like they had been vandalized by teenagers, the night before the race.

Art Pollard’s turbine had flat-black paint slapped all around the nose of the car. Someone had painted white panels around the front of Graham Hill’s Lotus. But the worst belonged to the pole-sitter, Joe Leonard. They had taken a bucket of lime-green day-glo paint and painted the nose of Leonard’s car the garish green. They didn’t stop there. The wheels and even the sidewalls of the tires had been painted lime-green. The two day-go colors of bright orange and lime green just did not go together at all. The final touch was to reverse the numbers on Leonard’s car where it was a black “60” painted onto a white field. In the two weeks that ensued from when I saw those cars qualify to race day; they took some of the most striking cars in the field and turned them into the ugliest. The originally version of Graham Hill’s car is pictured to the right of this site as one of the pictures in my photo collection.

I’ve always paid attention to the slightest details of the paint schemes and liveries of IndyCars – even as a kid. I think things like that are important. Obviously a lot of teams and sponsors also go to great lengths to achieve the perfect appearance of an IndyCar. It is also very apparent that other teams could care less.

Roger Penske has ALWAYS had great looking paint schemes. From the time he arrived at Indianapolis in 1969, his cars were always the class of the field – in speed AND in looks. His Sunoco Specials driven by Mark Donohue were absolutely gorgeous in their royal blue with yellow trim. In the late seventies, when Bobby Unser and Rick Mears drove for sponsors Norton and Gould respectively, the paint schemes shared the same basic pattern with variations allowed for sponsor colors. The lines of the design were always graceful and flowing. In the eighties, the Pennzoil yellow dominated most of the Penske liveries, even if the sponsor was Cummins or Hertz; with the exception of the Miller cars of Danny Sullivan. His 1988 gold Miller High Life car was always one of favorites. In the nineties; almost all Penske cars, with the exception of a few Paul Tracy entries were of the Marlboro livery that we see today.

Penske shared this distinctive design with McLaren in Formula One until Marlboro moved its sponsorship to Ferrari, which would never abandon its traditional solid Ferrari red. It is probably the most recognized paint scheme in motorsports. It is so simple, yet so effective. The day-glo red chevron cars with the polished wheels completely stand out, when at the track in person. There is something about the day-glo red that doesn’t show up on television. If you’ve seen them in person, you know what I’m talking about. On television, they appear to be standard red and white. In person, they are day-glo orange and they stand out and look very unique.

There are other cars that have had a pretty standard look that identifies them with a team or sponsor. The Menard cars of the nineties were very recognizable, whether they were yellow, blue or green; and used day-glo in a very distinctive and attractive way. They stood out and looked very good. The current version on Ed Carpenter’s car…not so much. The Players Forsythe cars were also distinctive and sharp. Maybe I’m a little partial to those since they share the same color scheme as the Tennessee Titans. Dick Simon came up with some attractive paint schemes as well.

The Target cars have never been that attractive to me. Even in the early nineties when they shared sponsorship with Scotch video and employed more black into the scheme. Something about them looks rather ordinary – except they sure win a lot. Newman/Haas cars always seemed to lack imagination. In the nineties, they had black sidepods flanking a white tub with lots and lots of stickers. But they won a lot also. I kind of like the current McDonald’s car, but the one that Sebastian Bourdais drove was hideous. Of course, it won a lot and the current version doesn’t win as often. Another car that won a lot in the nineties and one of my favorites was the Rick Galles Valvoline car of Al Unser, Jr.

Tony Kanaan drove some very ugly cars before landing in the 7-Eleven car, which is now a classic. His LCI car for Tasman was one of the ugliest of the nineties. Then he drove another version of a McDonald’s car with “Drive Thru” on the sidepods. He also drove the Hollywood car for Mo Nunn that invented the word ugly. You can’t discuss ugly cars though, without mentioning the purple and yellow cars of Ron Hemelgarn. They took ugly to a whole new level, no matter how many variations they tried.

Bobby Rahal drove and owned some decent looking cars. Not a lot of imagination went into his 1986 Indy-winning Budweiser car. It was just mostly red with a lot of white lettering, but it sure looked good in victory lane. His blue & yellow Galles-Kraco cars were pretty sharp looking, as were his black Miller Genuine Draft cars. As an owner, I always liked the Bryan Herta black & white Shell car, but it turned ugly when Kenny Bräck got into it as a yellow, white and red car. I thought the Buddy Rice/Danica Patrick Argent Mortgage cars were very nice looking also. I wasn’t that crazy about the Ethanol car, but I don’t really know what you could do with those colors. His best effort though, was the Dan Gurney look-alike car that Oriol Servia drove at Indianapolis this past May.

It’s probably best to not have an all black car. The all black motif lends further credence to the notion that Team 3G can’t afford to paint their car. The black didn’t do any favors for Marty Roth either. I never thought the all black was a good look for the Newman/Haas cars of the late nineties. In fact, the last time I can recall thinking that a predominantly black car looked good was when AJ Foyt was running the Copenhagen car trimmed in coyote orange. Now, that was a good look.

To me, one of the best looking paint jobs to come out of the early IRL belongs to one of its most laughable drivers – Dr. Jack Miller. The racing dentist was one of the hardest drivers to watch, but the Crest toothpaste car was a pretty good-looking ride.

So what does all of this prove? Absolutely nothing. Fast cars win, no matter how they are painted. But if you’re not going to win very often, it’s probably best from a sponsor’s standpoint to have an attractive livery on your car. Of course, except for the turbines, I only went back about twenty years when the paint scheme was about the only thing to differentiate the cars from the casual observer. Some other time, we’ll go back further and talk about some REALLY good-looking cars – like the 1954 Fuel Injection Special of Bill Vukovich. Now…THAT looked like a racecar. Please note: With this being an off weekend in the IndyCar Series, there will be no blog on Sunday. I will return on Monday Aug 17. Have a good weekend.

George Phillips


27 Responses to “It’s All In The Paint Scheme”

  1. George, yes! One of my favorite parts of going to the IMS museum is seeing the way the cars are painted — the paint job is a big part of what makes a car someone’s favorite.

    Personally, gimme “Calhoun” (#98 Agajanian/Parnelli Jones 1963 winner). The paint job is simple and straightforward, and the design is actually shared with several other cars, including A.J. Foyt’s ’61 and ’64 winners. The key difference is that deep, deep blue, which, even 46 years on, mesmerizes me and has an almost liquid depth to it. The white paint on there also isn’t simply “white”; it’s a sort of metallic pearl that looks simply wonderful.

    Unfortunately, I wasn’t around to get a chance to hear the Offys in action, but I at least get some of the visual experience thanks to IMS’ vast collection.

  2. An “all black” livery that surly WORKED??? The Mario Andretti or Ayrton Senna John Player Special(JPS) Lotus racers!!!

    The PENSKE liveries for Unser Norton/ Mears Gould/ Andretti ESSEX/ & Alsup ABDick were designed by a GM designer that worked for Roger. Penske also had professionals design his unique aero & livery on his Indy (& NASCAR???) transporters

    • OOps! The transporter was designed by Larry Shinoda (who is credited with the ’63 split-window Corvette & the BOSS Mustangs

  3. Very nice article!

    Aren’t the Ferrari F1 and the Penske machines pained day-glow red because it looks more ‘red’ on TV, not because they want their cars to look day-glow red in person?

    I read an article in a collector-car magazine that lamented the fact that while the Ferraris may look OK on TV, they look horrendous in person. The author obviously thought it was a crime that Ferrari abandoned their traditional deep scarlet red so associated with their machines in favor of a TV-friendly almost pink-red.

    • Yes, Day-Glo made the cars look a more intense red on TV. However about 2-3 years ago Ferrari dropped their Day-Glo. They never really had a full 100% McLaren/ Penske “Rocket Red” day-glo color…. they blended a Ferrari shade & the Day-glo. However with HDTV…Ferrari has returned to a more traditional red metallic blend (if you doubt me… look at Michael Schumacher testing the ’07 Ferrari with his ’06 full Day-Glo Red helmet)

      • Interesting!

        That’s funny you mentioned that, because when I saw that testing footage of MS his helmet did seem to stand out in an odd way, but I didn’t think about why.

        When I went to the USGP a few years ago I was shocked at how pink the Ferraris were (it must have been before this change).

        I’ll keep an eye out for the new color when I watch the next race.

        As a side note, the F1 races are not actually broadcast in HD (even though the SPEED listing includes “HD”). They upconvert them or something to try to make them look better, but if you compare an ‘HD’ F1 race broadcast to an ICS or NASCAR race, you can see how bad it looks in comparison. I read an interview with Bob Varsha lamenting the fact that they were not in HD. Hopefully soon!

      • @ Speedy,

        On a side note, the reason Bernie hasn’t switched to HD yet is because HD hasn’t taken off in a big in Europe yet. However, a lot more companies are turning to HD conversions, so expect F1 in HD within the next 2 years (I hope…)

      • I guess I meant that the HDTV’s have massively improved TV images (even if its not a true HD broadcast signal…) so color & other details are displayed on a higher level.

  4. My little niece (4 years old) has become an Ed Carperter fan on the basis that his Menards sponsored car resonates so brightly on screen

    • I think the best 2009 ICS livery hands down is Carpenter’s Orange & Graphite WilliamRast car…. but it would not appeal to a 4 year old!!! 🙂

      I can see why she likes the MENARDS livery… it looks like Big Bird from Sesame Street!! 🙂 🙂

  5. Do they still paint the cars or do they use a wrap of some kind? I think the Nascar cars are wrapped, I don’t know about Indycars. But I’d think a wrap could never have the depth of a real paint job.

    • Penske wrapped his DHL Porsches in ALMS… but I was told the Indycars were painted. At Mid Ohio the Luczo Dragon team had some minor bodywork damage & their graphics guy was trying to match a Blue Mettalic film to the bodywork… Asked him if the car was wrapped & he said NO… it was paint.

      BTW, the Hendrick NASCAR Chevys are usuall PAINTED nor wrapped.

  6. tim nothhelfer Says:

    I prefer paint to wrap, but with revolving sponsorships we are sure to see more of them, and in time maybe the finishes will improve dramatically too.
    The NH(L) KMART cars that Mario and Michael drove were horrid and the driving suits were worse. The National Guard car in R/W/B looks great and always makes me smile to see it.

  7. IMO the 1995/96? Valvoline cars were some of the best liveries too, yet the voting is restricted to the Little Al/ Galles era.

  8. 636Racing Says:

    One of my favorite paint jobs was the 1995 Christian Fittipaldi entry. It was painted in the Brazilian colors of green yellow and blue. Very unique. I also thing the Jaguar F1 cars in the early 2000’s were sweet, British Racing Green and Day Glo Orange.

    • The Christian Fittipaldi livery WAS a large Brazilian Flag (if you viewed it from an oval or a top view 💡

      Also racing purists (hell Jaguar purists…) would tell you that those Jaguar F1 cars did not use traditional British Racing Green. It was a very nice Green Metallic & the Day-Glo was from the FIA camera mount (distinguishing the two cars) Too bad the Jaguar wee mid-fielders (except for a few Eddie Irvine podiums)

      • I think probably one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard was that Jaguar had originally opted for a British Racing Green-esque livery, but changed the pigmant thereafter to a combination that was lighter

        I remember it getting many people chuckling at the time, but apparently they were serious…

      • Of course, I mean lighter in a weight sense…

      • The Jaguar BRG was like Ferrari… more “Camera Friendly” Plus it matched associate sponsor BECK’S Beer (& its corp. colors)

  9. Hey, don’t badmouth all the Target cars! I think the late 90s red with the yellow thunderbolt was pretty cool. But the current cars just don’t make it, Chip.

    As for black, unquestionably the only two good ones are the John Player Special in F1 and A.J.’s Copenhagen cars. Though some folk’s opinions may be colored on this question, I think Danica’s black cars are the third best, with the orange highlights better than the teal.

    And though it’s a different discipline, I still have warm thoughts about the sky blue and orange Gulf Oil livery in Can-Am and Le Mans cars in the late 60s and early 70s. Especially those Ford GT 40s.

  10. I’ve always loved Red Bull’s car’s.

    • Agree 100%… but I think he is focused on Indy schemes.

      Red Bull is hands down the best livery on F1 because they can focus on ONE sponsor & build a strong identity/ theme. The old BMW Williams were great too because every sponsor had to adapt to BMW’s team colors (they even got Budweiser to drop their corp. red…)

  11. Jack in NC Says:

    My personal favorite has always been Bobby Unser’s turbo offy in 1968, that beat Joe Leonard’s STP turbine Lotus. White with black, red and yellow.

  12. There were three cars that stuck in my mind when I first started watching Indy car racing: the Penske Pennzoil entry, the Galles Valvoline entry, and strangely enough, the Amway car Scott Brayton used to drive. Regarding the last one, I doubt it’s among my favorite paint schemes but it was certainly memorable.

  13. Franchittilitter Says:

    My vote is Servia’s Gurney car at Indy this year. I especially liked the touches referring to yesteryear- the chief mechanic’s name on the car was so cool.

    Gotta love Tagliani’s death mask of King Tut as well, and the John Player Specials.

    Can’t stand the boring Penskes nor the hideous Menards of Carpenter.

    I guess I don’t like yellow! Phillipe’s Indy car was disturbing.


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