Orphan Indy 500 Pace Cars
by Bob Hagin
April 2, 2001
Every year since its inception 85 years ago, the Indianapolis 500 race has been paced by a standard production car usually driven by a celebrity or automotive personality. Buick, Cadillac, Ford, Lincoln and many more have lead the pack in the opening moments of the event. The purpose, of course, is for the "free" exposure that the brand will get.
But many makes that have paced the Memorial Day race are now automotive history. The following have shined and then disappeared:
STODDARD-DAYTON - Carl Fisher was the developer of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the guiding force behind the first 500-mile race in 1911. Fisher envisioned it as a testing event to prove the reliability of American cars. The Stoddard-Dayton was a very classy vehicle of the day and Fisher himself drove them as pace cars before World War I.
STUTZ - The Stutz Bearcat of 1912 was the definitive sports car of the era, but it was a more conventional roadster that Carl Fisher used to pace the Indy 500 that year. The year before, Gil Anderson drove a strictly-stock Stutz to 11th place in the race just five weeks after it had been designed and completed by Harry C. Stutz. .
PACKARD - Probably the most prestigious auto ever built in this country, the Packard was the American Rolls-Royce; dignified, quiet and conservative. It paced the race three times, the last being in 1936 when former racing great Tommy Milton drove a "little" Packard 120 to promote a low-priced model in an effort to ward off the Depression Blues that plagued the rest of the carriage-trade auto industry. It worked.
PREMIER - Built in Indianapolis, the Premier was a natural to pace the race in its own home town. In a response to a plea by speedway management, Premier built and fielded three race cars for the event in 1916 because of the dearth of entries from Europe after of World War I. The best of these Johnny-on-the-spot racers finished seventh.
MARMON - The Marmon Wasp won the first 500-mile race at Indianapolis in 1911 and introduced the rear-view mirror to the automotive world. But it took until 1920 before one of its vehicles, the Model 34, was selected to be the pace car for the race. And although he was past his prime and had retired from competition, its driver, Barney Oldfield, was still a well-known personality.
NATIONAL - Oldfield again drove the pace car two years later. National was another Indianapolis-based auto maker that was skating on thin ice. Having Oldfield drive one of its Sextet models at the Indy was a last-ditch stab at solvency, but a year later National was history.
H.C.S. - When Harry C. Stutz left the company that bore his name in 1920, he immediately started the H.C.S. company and got one of them into the Indy 500 as a pace car the next year. Stutz himself was the driver.
DUESENBERG - In 1925, the most famous race car at the Indy 500 was the Duesenberg. Joe Boyer had won in one the year before and Pete DePaolo did the same in '25. But Duesenberg also built passenger cars then and Fred Duesenberg himself drove the opening pace lap in one of his Model As.
COLE - Joseph Cole also built cars in Indianapolis and one of his V8 models paced the race in 1924. It was the waning year for the company and it went out of business in '25, the same year Cole himself died.
RICKENBACKER - Before he became a World War I flying ace and a hero in world Wart II, Eddie Rickenbacker was a well-known race driver. By 1925 he not only owned the Indianapolis Motor Speedway but put his name on an automaking company. Needless to say, 'Captain Eddie' was behind the wheel of the Rickenbacker that paced 'his' race that year.
STUDEBAKER - Studebaker started as a wagon maker in the 1860's, but it went on to be one of the biggest auto makers in the U.S. Its big President model paced the Indy 500 in '29 and the company actually fielded its own teams a few years later. One finished third in '32.
CORD - E.L.Cord had a stormy business life as guiding force behind the front-drive Cords of the '30. Among his problems were allegation of a stock swindle that involved selling more than 100-percent of the company. In 1930, Cord himself piloted an L-29 Cord to pace the 500-mile race.
LASALLE - The LaSalle was a 'baby' Cadillac when it appeared in '27. Ex-racer Willard "Big Boy" Rader was the chief test driver for GM back then and drove LaSalles the first two times they were Indy pace cars.
HUDSON - The '38 Hudson was a homely car, but it nonetheless paced the Indy 500 that year. By then, commercialism was the name of the pace- car game and the Hudson's appearance was to introduce a new model.
NASH - George Mason, president of Nash, drove one of his Nash Ambassadors at the head of the Indy 500 lineup in 1947. Since the company didn't make a convertible that year, a four-door sedan was used. Until then, a 'closed' car had paced the event only once.
DESOTO - President L.I. Woolson drove a big De Soto Fireflite Pacesetter convertible on the pace lap in 1956. It was actually a 320-plus horsepower early muscle car and Woolson scared onlookers as he entered the pits at nearly 100 mph at the end of his pre-race run.
PLYMOUTH - If we'd written this story only a couple of years ago, Plymouth wouldn't have been on this list. Plymouth was in on the horsepower race in '65 and a Sport Fury, driven by Plymouth head man P.M. Buckminster, managed to stay out of trouble.
All the other brands that have paced the Indy 500 race are still in business. And isn't it ironic that Oldsmobile, a 10-time member of this honored fleet, will be added to this extinct-vehicle list next year.