REVISED AND UPDATED — Since 1911, some 100 vehicles have been chosen to serve as pace car for the Indianapolis 500. Hey, they can’t all be winners. Here are some of the more unfortunate selections.
We begin by asserting once again that here at Mac’s Motor City Garage, we love all cars. That’s unconditionally, warts and all. As we see it, there is no such thing as a bad car. There are only bad designers, bad engineers, bad senior management, and so on.
So when we reach back into history and single out any car for derision and ridicule, it’s meant only in the most light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek way. In truth, these cars aren’t necessarily the worst, perhaps only the most unfortunate or star-crossed. Remember, it’s all in fun.
Since we first compiled this list back in 2013, we’ve learned a few lessons, corrected some obvious mistakes, and refined our results accordingly. So without further ado, MCG presents the bottom of the barrel in Indy 500 pace cars.
1914 Stoddard-Dayton – Speedway co-founder Carl Fisher was a big fan of Stoddard-Dayton automobiles. He was the Indiana distributor for the automaker and, it is said, an investor in the company. Stoddard-Daytons paced the field for the first Indianapolis 500-mile Sweepstakes in 1911, again in 1913, and once more in 1914—despite the fact that by then, the manufacturer was out of business, defunct. Shuffled off its mortal coil. Who knows: Maybe Fisher was hoping the publicity might help to resuscitate the brand.
1983 Buick Riviera Convertible – It’s hard to imagine a car with less motorsports cachet than the Riviera droptop that paced the ’83 race. The paint was a beige—no, beige—two-tone with matching faux-retro wire wheels and Indy 500 door signage so dainty it could barely be read. The special twin-turbo, fuel-injected V6 under the hood was sort of trick, but nobody cared.
1998 Chevrolet Corvette – Corvettes make great pace cars. All told, America’s sports car has been chosen to pace the May classic more than a dozen times now. So just to change things up, this time let’s make the paint a stomach-churning eggplant and add some tacky checkered flag graphics. And we’ll powder-coat the wheels a bilious mustard yellow and dye the seat covers to match. Just think what that might look like.
1987 Chrysler LeBaron Convertible – The original Chrysler K-cars introduced in 1981 saved the automaker from bankruptcy, and in just a few short years generated a tangle of variants, from minivans to wood-sided convertibles, in an attempt to fill out the company’s thin product lineup. One such spinoff was the J-body Chrysler LeBaron convertible that paced the 1987 race. The four-cylinder ragtop was a decent enough car, but probably more suited to cruising the streets of Palm Beach than leading one of the world’s fastest sporting events.
2001 Oldsmobile Bravada – An SUV mommy car as Indy 500 pace car? Really? Really?
1947 Nash Ambassador — It was a perfectly fine automobile, but there was absolutely nothing about its styling, its engineering, or its wheezing 112-horsepower OHV six that suggested performance, let alone official duties leading the greatest spectacle in racing. Authorities often cite the Nash as the only four-door sedan to pace the 500. By the way, that’s Speedway president Wilbur Shaw behind the wheel.
1990 Chevrolet Beretta – In what looked for all the world like a cross-marketing campaign with the Barbie people, the Indy 500 pace car for 1990 was this adorable Chevy Beretta convertible. There was also a coupe version in fetching turquoise with pink graphics. Note the tire marks on the yard of bricks. We bet the Beretta didn’t make them.
1971 Dodge Challenger – See, there we go. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the ’71 pace car. It’s a perfectly fine vehicle and highly collectible today. This car’s day of Indy 500 infamy was due solely to its driver, local car dealer Eldon Palmer, who lost control at the start and plowed the Challenger though a press stand at the far end of pit lane. We can smile about it now because miraculously, no one was killed. Video below.