Who Should Drive This Year’s Pace Car?
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.