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The Tale of Two Would-Be Indy 500 Pace Cars

Photo Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway



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Though a privilege that has been reserved by Chevrolet’s Camaro or Corvette since 2004, the honour for being the pace car of the Indianapolis 500 is one many vehicles were able to savour. A prime advertising platform for a production vehicle ahead of finely-tuned race machines, the role was first occupied by a 1911 Stoddard-Dayton, a vehicle brand that Indianapolis Motor Speedway founder Carl G. Fisher sold through a dealership. Through the 104 editions of the 500-mile event on the 2.5-mile oval, some vehicles have gone on to great success including the Ford Mustang in 1964 and others have proven less popular among customers such as the Chevrolet SSR that paced the 2003 Indy 500 race. Regardless to the reception, the glory of being an Indianapolis 500 Pace Car is a cherished moment for an automobile, the team that designed and built it.


In almost every case, the event’s pace car is firmly set to lead what is now known as an elite 33-car field. However, there have been two occasions where the originally named vehicle would be replaced for race day.



1962 Indianapolis 500

Planned Pace Car: Studebaker Avanti

Replacement Pace Car: Studebaker Lark Convertible



Between the end of the second world war and the end of the 1950s, the brand assembled by the big American Three auto companies (Chrysler Corporation, Ford Motor Company and General Motors) effectively placed a stranglehold on the top spots in the annual sales charts. Residing among the top-5 of American automobile producers early in the 1900s, Studebaker remained a survivor of the turbulent first half of the car industry. Although producing a few popular models during this time including the Champion, Golden Hawk and later the compact Lark, the South Bend, Indiana-based auto company was losing grip of market share.


In 1962, Stubebaker’s hopes were placed in a bold, new luxury coupe called the Avanti. Wearing a fiberglass body with a shape sculpted under the guidance of famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy, the Studebaker Avanti was a smooth-looking two-door hardtop. The Studebaker Avanti would have been the first hardtop pace car used in the Indianapolis 500 since the Nash Ambassador used for the 1947 race. Front disc brakes and a V-8 engine with available supercharging was also offered on the car meant to change the fortunes for Studebaker.


Fortunately, due to the complications of producing the fiberglass body and Studebaker’s financial problems, the Avanti was not supplied in time to be ready for the 1962 Indianapolis 500 event. Instead, the automaker supplied one of their available models, a 1962 Studebaker Lark Daytona convertible, to fill in the role. Introduced in 1959 but restyling by Brooks Stevens for the 1962 model year, the Lark was a compact car that gained attention in part for its use of unibody construction. The Studebaker Lark Daytona convertible pace car was fitted with a 210-horsepower 289 cubic-inch V-8 engine channelled through a four-speed manual transmission. The Avanti would be recognized as an Honorary Pace Car for the 1962 Indianapolis 500.


Photo Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway




Though Studebaker pulled the plug on the four-passenger luxury coupe after only two years in production, the Avanti name and the vehicle created with under the name would endure for decades through several businesses.

 



1991 Indianapolis 500

Planned Vehicle: Dodge Stealth R/T

Replacement Pace Car: Dodge Viper Prototype


Photo Credit: Stellantis




While it is not a firm rule forbidding foreign-produced vehicles pacing the Indianapolis 500, the American patriotism surrounding the race as well as Memorial Day weekend has effectively limited pace car selection to American-branded models. This would continue into the 1991 Indianapolis 500 as Chrysler Corporation affiliated Dodge were chosen to provide the year’s vehicle. However, their vehicle selection would create a controversy no other pace car ever faced.


The Dodge Stealth model was developed by Chrysler Corporation as part of a than-consistent cooperation with Japanese automaker Mitsubishi Motors. Selling Rebadged versions of Mitsubishi’s subcompact Galant, Lancer and Mirage under the Dodge and Plymouth name in North America since 1971, the Stealth would be the most potent car to arrive from the alliance. The R/T Turbo AWD trim model was propelled by a 300-horsepower twin-turbocharged, intercooled engine linked to an all-wheel drive system. Respecting the performance attributes of this new sports car, Chrysler elected to send a Dodge Stealth R/T Turbo AWD to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 1991 Indianapolis 500.


Photo Credit: Stellantis




Making the pace car announcement in early 1991, Chrysler Corporation along with the Dodge brand was on the receiving end of widespread criticism the source of the Stealth. The reason for the opposition to the Dodge Stealth serving as the Indy 500 Pace Car was it being mechanically identical to the Mitsubishi 3000GT in addition to being manufacturing at the Japanese auto brand’s Nagoya Plant. Protests against the use of the Dodge Stealth R/T Turbo pace car were led by the UAW (United Auto Workers) union. For the 1991 edition of the great 500-mile race at the Brickyard, Chrysler Corporation was pressured to place another vehicle into the limelight for leading 33 cars to the green flag at Indianapolis. A prototype version of their Dodge Viper supercar was hastily prepared for the 1991 Indianapolis 500. Adopted from a show car, the 400-horsepower, V-10 engined-Viper roadster was on track more than a year and half before sales of the car commenced. Carroll Shelby, an accomplished racer, sports car builder and consultant on the Dodge Viper, was chosen as the pace car driver.


The Dodge Viper was not the first time Chrysler Corporation provided a show car for the Indianapolis 500 pace vehicle. A streamlined, dual-cowl Chrysler Newport concept car led the field to green in 1941 for what was the last 500-mile race at the speedway until the conclusion of World War Two.

 

Indicative of the campaign that displaced it as the pacesetter of the 1991 Indianapolis 500, the Dodge Stealth would be regarded as a step-child in the product lineup. However, the high-powered sports car is recently finding some love as a collector car.

 


Suffering from their own individual demerits, the Studebaker Avanti and Dodge Stealth lost a moment to shine that would have etched their names into a marketing position as significant as the driver’s name in the Borg-Warner trophy. In both cases where replacement pace cars were selected, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 received the originally intended vehicle as part of the customary rewards. The 1962 Indy 500 champion Roger Ward received the first publicly available Studebaker Avanti would wait months following the race before it was delivered. Rick Mears received a Dodge Stealth (titled as the “Official Car of the Indianapolis 500”) after his fourth and final victory at the 500-mile event.

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