We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 80 days to go, Jeff Vrabel continues exploring the many tie-ins between the Indy 500 and pop culture.
One of the most visible honors the Indianapolis Motor Speedway can bestow upon visiting all-stars, dignitaries and general big-shots is the driver’s seat in the Pace Car, an honor that until recent years was reserved for those in the racing world but has begun to expand to include lots of other people you know.
It goes to a lot of repeat drivers as well. The record for multiple appearances is held jointly by Sam Hanks and Jim Rathmann, who both were tapped to drive six times. IMS founding father Carl G. Fisher enjoyed a five-consecutive-year run of driving the Pace Car, although you probably didn’t see him because that was in 1911-15. “Big Boy” Rader*, Benson Ford, James Garner and Jim Perkins are all members of the three-timers club, and a number of memorable names have made the circuit twice, including Chuck Yeager and Indy 500 champs Bobby Unser and Parnelli Jones.
In the late ‘90s, the honor began drifting from racers and those associated with the speedway to broader-appeal celebrities. Jay Leno took the wheel in 1999, and the following years saw turns by Elaine Irwin-Mellencamp (whose drive-around music was probably pretty obvious), Jim Caviezel (the only person to have circumnavigated the track and have played Jesus), Morgan Freeman (who we hope basically talked throughout the whole thing) and Gen. Colin Powell (who could probably drive as fast as he damn well wanted to). It’s also worth noting that four members of the Ford family drove pace cars but only one Chevrolet family member did — yet a Chevrolet won a 500 while no Ford has.
The honor is, of course, often given to big-shot drivers: A.J. Foyt returned for the 2011 post, and Emerson Fittipaldi and Dario Franchitti have been tapped in recent years. In 2015, five-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon jumped to IndyCar for at least a few laps. But there are other celebrities sprinkled throughout, including Jim Harbaugh, one-time IndyCar owner and fairly lively coach; Guy Fieri, fairly lively celebrity chef; Patrick Dempsey, whose hair at least is pretty lively; and the always lovely Robin Roberts.
* We couldn’t just drop a guy named “Big Boy” Rader without going into detail. Aside from his first name, Willard, not a whole lot can be found about him online, largely because he never actually started the 500, though he did drive relief in a few early races before being hired by GM as a test driver. According to folklore, he was one of the first to turn a lap at 100 mph, which he did in a Packard outfitted with a special aviation motor (!) on Aug. 2, 1916. This pleasingly old-timey newspaper article has the full report.