Who Should Drive This Year’s Pace Car?

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For the last few weeks, one of the more frequent topics on Trackside has been who might drive the pace car for the 100h Running of the Indianapolis 500. Like everything else associated with this year’s milestone race, it is considered much more of an honor than it would be for driving in the 99th or the 101st.

The general consensus is that it must be someone who “moves the needle”, as if the television ratings for this event will live and die with who drives the pace car. Such was the thinking for choosing Robin Roberts to drive it in 2010. The Good Morning America co-host and former ESPN anchor was supposed to have utilized her broad platform to bring in new viewers. She did not. In fact, the ratings for the 2010 dropped almost a full point from the previous year and set, what was then, an all-time low (the 2013 race has since surpassed that dubious mark).

I didn’t disagree with the Robin Roberts choice at the time. Their logic made sense. She was popular and could draw in a very diverse set of demographics that were unfamiliar with IndyCar racing and the Indianapolis 500. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out.

Still, the Robin Roberts choice looked good on paper, which is more than you can say about some of the other curious choices over the last fifteen years or so.

Prior to the turn of the century, the honor of driving the pace car had been pretty much limited to former drivers, auto industry execs and the random celebrity that had a racing connection – such as James Garner (1975, 1977 & 1985), Marty Robbins (1976). Gen. Chuck Yeager (1986 & 1988) may have been the exception to this, but he was certainly no stranger to speed.

Since the late fifties, drivers such as Sam Hanks and Jim Rathmann had somewhat of a lock on the gig. Between the two of them, they drove the pace car a combined twelve times. Since World War II, other former race winners chosen to pace the field included Wilbur Shaw, AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Mauri Rose, Rodger Ward, Emerson Fittipaldi and Dario Franchitti. Those seven drivers represent a combined twenty-four Indianapolis 500 victories. Two former drivers in the post-war era that never won the race included Sir Jackie Stewart (1979) and Duke Nalon (1981 & 1983).

One auto industry exec to drive it was Eldon Palmer in the infamous pace car crash in the pits as the field took the green flag. Like Donald Davidson, I don’t really care to go into it but it does warrant mentioning in this discussion. It puts a bad light on an otherwise very nice man. If you want details, look it up.

It was in the IRL era that IMS officials started going mainstream with their choices to drive the pace car. Mainstream may be a little too generous, because that word implies that most of the general public is familiar with them. Such was not the case with many of their choices. Since 2000, some of their more well-known mainstream celebrities were Anthony Edwards, Morgan Freeman, Colin Powell, Lance Armstrong, and Patrick Dempsey. Some might put Jim Harbaugh in this category. I follow sports, so I certainly know who Harbaugh is – especially with his tie to racing that is virtually unknown outside of IndyCar circles. But if you are not a sports fan, does he resonate with you like Peyton Manning or Tiger Woods? Probably not.

Some of their more curious choices may only be curious to me, because I had barely heard of the likes of Elaine Irwin Mellencamp (2001), Jim Caviezel (2002) or Josh Duhamel (2009). And if Susan had not repeatedly subjected me to years of watching the Food Network, I never would have heard of Guy Fieri (2012). These aren’t A-Listers, they’re not even B-Listers. You wonder how many people were offered the “honor”, before someone accepted it.

The thing is, I feel that it truly is an honor to pace the field at the start of the Indianapolis 500. Yet, I got the impression that most of these “celebrities” treated it with the same level of respect as a 7:00 am Chamber of Commerce ribbon-cutting at a new Kroger – as if it is more of an inconvenience than anything. I think that those chosen to pace the field should have a level of understanding and respect for what the event is all about.

That’s why James Garner was such a great choice. He was a big-time movie star from the sixties that had hit it big again in television with The Rockford Files, just as he was chosen to drive the pace car for the first time in 1975. But his love of racing was well-known and it extended well beyond his starring in Grand Prix in 1966. Like Paul Newman, he raced himself from time to time. Garner certainly knew about the “500” and appreciated his three opportunities to drive the pace car.

The same goes for Patrick Dempsey. Although he starred in one of those programs I would never have watched had Susan not commandeered the TV on Thursday nights – I know Patrick Dempsey has a deep love of auto racing. Not only does he race sports cars, he was at one time part-owner of Vision Racing. He certainly knew what an honor it was to drive the pace car in 2007.

So, I’m not opposed to celebrities driving the pace car. I just want them to be a little more invested in it than some have been in the past.

I’ve heard several suggestions for this year’s race tossed about. Some say Jerry Seinfeld should pace it. Jerry Seinfeld is a car guy. You will be hard-pressed to find a bigger fan of the show Seinfeld than me. I own every episode on DVD and usually have it on TBS in the early evening hours while I’m doing things in the house each night. But Seinfeld went off the air eighteen years ago. Jerry Seinfeld will be sixty-two when May rolls around and he has not been that visible over the past couple of decades. If you are looking to move the needle, he may have been your guy twenty years ago – today, not so much.

If you are looking for a celebrity A-Lister that will bring a fresh set of eyeballs, how about using the Big Machine Records connection and go for their biggest star and one of the biggest stars on the planet – Taylor Swift? With her adept use of social media, she could certainly sway an entire generation to tune in. How truly invested she is in what an honor it is would still be up for debate, but at least she’s someone that everyone has heard of.

But with this year’s race being the milestone event that comes in the form of the 100th running, I think the honor this year should go to someone who understands and appreciates how big the honor truly is – a former driver.

I’ve heard different ideas on who that might be. Someone suggested that there might be three pace cars driven by all three four-time winners – AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears. Of that group, Foyt is the only one to have driven it before – in 2011, for the Centennial Celebration as a substitute for Donald Trump (no political comments please). That’s not a bad idea. Father time dictates that there won’t be many more opportunities to group all three of those iconic drivers together for much longer. Foyt is now eighty-one and Unser will turn seventy-seven on Race Day – neither are in perfect health.

I’ve also heard an alteration of this idea – by making passengers of all the living multiple winners throughout the three cars. That sounds good in theory, but I’m not sure they could all fit in three cars. I’m not sure, but I don’t think the pace car has even been announced, has it? If it is a Corvette as in three of the past four years, that means only one seat per pace car. That just doesn’t work.

Since AJ Foyt got the nod for the Centennial race in 2011, I think it is only fitting that the honor should go to his nemesis for the 100th running – Mario Andretti. One of the biggest debates in racing argues who is the greatest driver ever. There are always only a handful of names mentioned, but it usually comes down to AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti.

When I was a kid in the sixties, most people were a fan of one of the two – you simply couldn’t pull for both. That’s akin to being a fan of both the Colts and the Patriots. I, and everyone in my family, was a fan of Foyt. I never cared for Mario when I was growing up. But as I grew older, I learned to appreciate his accomplishments on the track and even grew to like him off of the track. I now recognize Mario Andretti as the world’s greatest ambassador for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500 – and yes, he still "moves the needle".

Mario Andretti will turn seventy-six at the end of this month. He usually drives the two-seater to start the Indianapolis 500 (and most other IndyCar races). But I think Honda will understand if Mario foregoes those duties for a chance to drive the pace car for the 100th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Surprisingly, Mario Andretti has never driven the pace car before. He is way past-due for that honor. Doug Boles and his staff need to rectify that oversight while they still can. They can find an A-List celebrity for next year’s race, but this honor needs to go to someone who is part of the fabric of this great event. I can’t think of anyone better than Mario Andretti.

George Phillips

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39 Responses to “Who Should Drive This Year’s Pace Car?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    No question that Mario is the right choice…
    He’s there with AA already every year anyway and as you said, driving the two seater as well. Further, he is probably one of the few if any other former drivers that is capable of pilling a few actual hot laps out there in a race day car.

  2. Bruce Waine Says:

    If not A J or Mario, why not Roger (Penske) ?

    • I can give you a number of reasons.

      As I started reading this my thought was one or more of the 4 time winners, all three or Mario.

      There should be a procession with the cars on the track with all the surviving race winners. The can pull off before the final warm up lap, leaving the pace car out there with the field.

      This one shouldn’t be too hard. Lets hope they don’t mess this up.

  3. If this were the 101st Running, I’d suggest Sam Schmidt. What a wonderful story he would be and what better way to bring back and showcase how automotive invention has always been a part of the Speedway. In fact, as I write this, I’m not so sure Sam wouldn’t be a great choice for this year.

  4. I’ve read that Mario was already committed to driving the two-seater because the Barrett-Jackson auction of the first new Acura NSX included “Ride with Mario to start the 100th Indy 500”. Anybody else heard or seen that?

  5. NOT MARIO ANDRETTI!

    This is a guy who always declared throughout his career, either vocally or by his actions, that he thought the Indianapolis 500 was “just another race.” This is a guy who would take off to Europe in the ’70s to run and qualify at Monaco and line up in the back of the “500′ field so he wouldn’t miss one of his sacred Formula One races! This is a guy who JUST LAST YEAR revealed in an interview that he only goes to IndyCar races that he drives the two-seater in! He also said in that same interview he doesn’t watch the races on TV when he’s not at them! Now that’s some big IndyCar fan, eh?

    Okay, let’s be honest here: I’m a diehard AJ Foyt fan from 1965 who has grown up at 16th & Georgetown ever since who cannot stand Mario Andretti because I know he doesn’t really care for us. He was a snotty-nosed brat when he showed up here who liked to move other drivers out of his way and thought he “deserved” a win at Indianapolis. NOBODY deserves a win at any race track, let alone Indianapolis, and his “I’m cooler than you” schtick has always rubbed me and my entire family of race lovers the wrong way. I know I’ll get a ton of crap here from the Andretti lovers and I know there could be far worse choices for Pace Car driver, but a one-time “500” winner from 47 years ago who usually crashed out of that event the rest of his time there is not at the top of my personal list of choices.

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis

    • “This is a guy who JUST LAST YEAR revealed in an interview that he only goes to IndyCar races that he drives the two-seater in! He also said in that same interview he doesn’t watch the races on TV when he’s not at them!”

      That’s news to me. Could you provide a link, please?

      • Been looking for it for over an hour now….

        • Damn, I cannot find it! But I know I read it, it was an article about him driving the two-seater.

          I also forgot to mention in my diatribe (lol) that when “The Split” happened Mario Andretti was nowhere to be seen at the IMS from 1996-2001! Seven whole years. And during that period he said several disparaging things about The Track and the folks who own it. SOME FAN!

          Let’s leave Mario Andretti to driving the two-seater this year and let champions like Foyt, Unser and Mears pace the field.

          • Phil, to be fair – I gave up my tickets in 1996 and I was absent from IMS from 1996 until 2003, and I consider myself a fan. I sided with CART throughout most of “The Split” until it became obvious that it was a losing battle. I never said or thought anything negative towards the track. As for the owner…that’s another story. I think either side can be forgiven for what was said or done in that emotionally charged time. If Jimmy Vasser can be forgiven for “Who needs milk?”, I think some slack can be cut for Mario staying away. – GP

    • Something is wrong. Mario’s slowing down……

    • C’mon Phil, don’t hold back.

    • God forbid that someone might think Monaco or LeMans or even the Daytona 500 is more important than the Indy 500! I mean, the nerve of those people!

      Never mind the fact that the 500 barely registers outside of Indianapolis any more, and LeMans passed it long ago in terms of single day attendance. And let’s not even talk about manufacturers and sponsors involvement. And tv ratings? Particularly worldwide.

      If who drives the pace car is the thing that you and the remaining die hards are going to ” hang your hat on” to drive interest in the 500, then I’ll take that as a tacit admission that the race itself no longer has much “vig”, and has increased its pace to inconsequential-ness

      • Well sir, they can think it all they want, it doesn’t make it so. It doesn’t matter if the largest single day sporting event in the world’s largest enclosed arena registers among the folks you provide as anecdotal evidence or not. It is what it is, and yes, who drives the Pace Car does matter here where I live, which happens to be Indianapolis. We don’t hang our hat on it, we were giving an opinion about a column a friend of ours wrote today. Tomorrow we will be on to something else as the 100 day countdown continues until the Greatest Spectacle in Racing is run for the glorious 100th time.

        Now kindly buzz off please, lol!

        • Well gee whiz, there Phil, that’s that open minded and intellectually advanced thinking I’ve encountered on nearly each of my trips to Indy.

          Thankfully, at least the staff at Indy’s hometown pharma company haven’t lost the ability to think rationally and honestly about their processes and operations, otherwise a lot of people might be at risk.

          Unfortunately that trait apparently doesn’t rub off on the population at large, particularly the IMS sycophants like yourself.

          Look Phil, twist the meaning of “largest single day event” anyway you like, but the fact is the the 500 means less and less every passing year. Some of us realize that, and would like to see IMS recognize where the problem lies-with IMS itself. But supported by blind “place fans” such as yourself, that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

          So get all tingly about the pace car driver. The rest of us will revel in the advanced technology and diversity of hardware and tracks found in other forms of motorsports, such as LeMans/WEC and F1

          • Ooooh, you’re just so much better and more intelligent than I am because I’m in love with a place that has been in my hometown for 115 years? Whatta man! Oh, and you’re just so much more intelligent than I because you like cars with drivers who cannot stomach 240 mph speeds and must slow down to 35 mph to negotiate a tricky hairpin turn every couple of hundred yards so they don’t feel uncomfortable or scared while they are touring around waiting for someone on their team to tell them to speed up or slow down or let their team mate pass. Yes, you’re so much better and more intelligent than I because you like “real racing” and us troglodyte Hoosiers haven’t got a clue.

            You, sir, are entitled to your own opinion, but your opinion will never make you correct. Sorry you are stuck in th 2000s and don’t know or care to know the facts surrounding the biggest race in the world, BAR NONE! I know that fact just hurts your feelings so badly but facts are facts, Goober!

            Done talking to a piece of work like you. You have a real fine day.

            Phil Kaiser
            Indianapolis
            Racing Capital of the World

          • Phil just said it. Greatest race in the world, which is the reason the pace car should be driven by the greatest driver in the world, Mario Andretti!

      • Monaco or LeMans? Wouldn’t waste my time.

        • I’ll second that, Bob! Even if I am an unknowing Neanderthal from the Racing Capital of the World!

          Heh, heh….

          • And I misspoke to our good buddy Olderchump: the IMS has been in my hometown for 107 years, not 115. I’ve been attending practice, qualifications and the Race for 51 of those years, so I get a bit defensive about the greatest arena man has ever built.

            See, that’s what happens when I read a post like his first thing in the morning and me eyes fill with blood and me head starts spinning on me neck, hahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!

            Yes, I make mistakes, but I own up to them.

          • Each comment you leave simply reinforces the stereotypes that have come to define the term “Gomer”.

            Congratulations! What you have proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, is that you’re simply a myopic “place fan” . Whose entire self worth seems to be derived from your proximity and attachment to a run down facility in a town known for trying to buy sports relevance by throwing millions of dollars at wealthy sports owners in a desperate attempt to seem “big league”.

            I’ve attended the 500, the USGP ( at Indy) and the 24 hrs at LeMans. By far the worst experience was Indy, with the phenomenally rude “yellow shirts” treating paying customers like vermin.

            And for all the stick given to the French for how they allegedly hate Americans, the experience of LeMans was a light year ahead of that in Indy.

            So enjoy yourself Phil, old boy, and keep forking over your allegedly hard earned cash to an organization that clearly couldn’t care less for its long time “fans” like you. And work on those insults and snappy comebacks; they really help to confirm your bigotry against those that don’t think like you.

          • For what it’s worth, I think you’re both sort of wrong…

  6. of course I’m almost alone in supporting the idea of Miss Swift. If you want to get the kids engaged, she’s the person for the job. One tweet of the broadcast time and channel from her and I’d put down $100 that there would be a measurable viewership increase.

  7. billytheskink Says:

    I’m predicting Alfonso Ribeiro. ABC connection, former Barber-Dodge and Formula Mazda racer… this is happening.

  8. Kyle Lakatos Says:

    I get why drivers would be good but lets think about this. AJ, Penske, Mears, Franchitti all have teams and I’m sure their focus will be on the start and driving the pace car would detract from that focus. Mario….well he already drives the two seater so he’s technically already there. While I have no problem with drivers in the pace car, the only people who really get excited about this are Indycar fans and even then it’s not really that exciting for them. The purpose of the pace driver should be to draw their fan base to the event as well as expose the race to a new audience. I know its the hundred, but like Mr Boles has said this should be the beginning of a new era. I have suggested someone like Ellen would be a good choice…just hear me out. Ellen is very popular and has a daily tv show. Imagine a week of Ellen promoting the race on her show. Driver interviews, both current and past. Celebrities that will be attending the race (Manning, Journey, Blake Shelton, maybe Gwen Stephani, and whoever else they got). Maybe she does a couple shows from the track. Now think of that exposure and the new viewers she could have tune into the race after creating an interest. Fans, me included, are always upset by the lack of marketing…This would be great marketing for the race exposing it the the entire country daily for a week leading up to the race. Obviously there might be conflicts and this might not be feasible but its worth a shot. If Ellen isnt available then how about Tim Allen (big Indycar fan), Alfonso Riberro ( Racing Fan) and both are currently on TV. How about Robert DowneyJr who has a movie comming out or Sylvester Stallone (played a indy driver) or Tom Cruise (Cole Trickle finally gets to Indy), or even DiCaprio. I get the Taylor Swift idea amd yeah why not, but thats someone you would want for the national anthem. Well thats my two cents worth.

  9. Mario Andretti as the pace car driver and Taylor Swift to sing the National Anthem or drop the green flag. Blake Shelton should be in town that day so how about Blake dropping the flag and Gwen Stefani singing the National Anthem.

  10. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    For me, it’s been proven time and again, there’s no amount of needle-moving that driving the pace car for the Indy 500 will provide, so I’d like to eliminate that from consideration.

    In relation to this event, to me it is a ceremonial position of a very high rank and one I think only belongs to former winning drivers.

    For the 100th running, I want to see only the Indy 500 racing royalty.

    1. Pre-command parade laps: all living winners, each in a car, honored in a pre-race ceremonial lap which ends at the south end of pit lane. All winning drivers (except Mario and the three 4-timers who promptly then get into pace cars) exit their cars and remain in pit lane to salute the drivers as they pull away on the first parade lap.
    2. Driving the pace car: Mario Andretti, followed by the three four time winners in a trio of parade-laps pace cars. The three four-timers all pull in together with one lap prior to green, and proceed through pit lane. Mario stays out and fulfills the duties of the starting pace car.
    3. Waving the Green Flag: I’d also have the fastest qualifying record-holder at the speedway wave the ceremonial green flag at the start – Arie Luyendyk.

    I’d like to see someone other than a Hulman give the command too. The drivers are the true royalty of the place, let them have all the moments they can.

    • I don’t really care how the whole thing goes down (the pace car driver, who waves the green and stuff like that are like priorities #1423 and #1424 on my list of what makes race day Race Day for me), but I’ll co-sign DZ’s idea.

  11. There are some good ideas already put forth here, notably Bob and DZ IMO. I really don’t care who drives the pace car as long as it is someone connected to racing at Indy and not some obscure food guy with bad hair again.

  12. My vote is for Mario. But how about Jay Leno as an alternative? He is a genuine car guy.

  13. Hey Olderchump, take a look at my website where you’ll see exactly where my “self worth” comes from:

    http://www.reverbnation.com/philkaiser

    You know absolutely nothing about me….

    Phil Kaiser
    Indianapolis
    Racing Capital of the World

    • Hey Phil, when you are having a bad day jousting with your older friend, step away from here and put some 5.6.7.8s (with a barefoot drummer) on the old turntable and crank them up. A classic Japanese three girl rock band. Just good trashy garage rock. I think they should drive the pace car.

    • Trust me Phil, between here and your maniacal rantings on Racer.com, I know more about you than I care to.

      Besides, didn’t you say you were done with me? Or is that just one more thing that you’re wrong about.?

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