Don’t Fret About The Pace Car
Can anyone remember when the announcement of the Indianapolis 500 Pace Car was a really big deal. Of course, I can – but I’m older than dirt. The brand new Mustang paced the field in 1964. I still vividly remember the classic looking 1967 Camaro that was white with a royal blue stripe going around the end of the hood. It was quite a coup for Chevrolet when the Camaro returned just two years in 1969, with two bold orange stripes down the hood to accent the pearl white car. That car may have ended up being one of the most iconic Pace Cars ever.
The announcements were always made months in advance, and the chosen manufacturer had ample time to build a successful marketing campaign around it.
The driver was of little importance. It was usually a former driver or a dignitary of some sort that had ties to either the track or the car. But the driver was usually of little consequence, so long as they were able to set the pace quickly enough, while maintaining proper control. That wasn’t always the case.
Benson Ford drove the Mercury Comet Cyclone to start the 1966 race. There were more than a few whispers that he brought the field down too slowly and may have caused the opening lap pile-up on the main straightaway. Eldon Palmer, a local area Dodge dealer, brought the field down fast enough in 1971 – perhaps a little too fast. As he ambled down the pits as the field roared by, he didn’t get his Dodge Charger Pace Car stopped quick enough and subsequently plowed into the photographer’s stand at the end of the pits, injuring several people. Palmer, who by all reports was a very congenial person – was haunted by the event forever.
Lately however, the emphasis has been more about the driver than the car. The choice of car has been a ho-hum experience over the past few years. In fact, the last time a non-General Motors vehicle paced the field was in 1996 when a Dodge Viper brought the field down to the start. There were a couple of Oldsmobile Aurora’s thrown in there during the formative IRL days, since that was the engine that powered most of the starting grid. But since 1998 the chosen Pace Car has been either a Corvette or Camaro for eleven years counting 2012. Excuse me while I yawn.
In past years, the Pace Car announcement usually took place in late December. In the last couple of years, we found out in February. This year, they made us all hold our collective breath until May 8th. What a surprise to find out that it was either a Corvette or Camaro again this year. What was a real surprise was the lack of imagination that went into the design of this particular car. It’s painted solid white, with two gray strips down the hood and the hideous 2012 event logo slapped onto the side.
But with General Motors having the Pace Car program locked up – I guess no one feels the need to add any excitement by putting any creativity into the paint scheme.
Now all of the effort goes into getting a “name” driver that will help draw in casual fans. Perhaps it’s because I’m old or I live under a rock (or both), but in most year’s – it seems to me that they’ve fallen short of the A-listers. Since 1998, excluding last year when AJ Foyt was chosen to sub for the controversial pick of Donald Trump – Emerson Fittipaldi in 2008, is the only former driver chosen to lead the field.
Since that time, they’ve blown us over with such star names as Elaine Irwin Mellencamp (sorry Jay Penske), Jim Caviezel (before he played Jesus) and Josh Duhamel (who?). Granted, they had some bigger names in that time frame. Robin Roberts, Morgan Freeman, Lance Armstrong and Colin Powell come to mind – but I’m not sure they are enough to lure viewers that otherwise had no intention of tuning in.
This leads us to this year’s choice – Guy Fieri. Some will be surprised to learn that this choice doesn’t really upset me. At least I’ve heard of him and I actually enjoy his show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. But that’s mostly because I like to frequent the types of places he reviews, not because I like his appearance or demeanor.
But the main reason that it doesn’t upset me is that the Pace Car program lost my attention years ago. I’ve grown apathetic to wondering what the Pace Car will be or who might drive it. I think most people have, as well – which might explain why the choice of car or the driver is not announced until May. It’s not a tradition that really held my fascination even in the times that most deem as the golden years of the event.
There are other traditions that I tend to fret over – preserving the sanctity of Back Home Again In Indiana; wringing my hands over the tasteless ads that have arrived and appear to be growing on the walls and the infield of IMS and having a full thirty-three car field are all more important to me than who is driving the Pace Car. Are my priorities misplaced? I’m curious.