The Pace Car: A tradition from the start

Published On March 9, 2016 » 3452 Views» By Donald Davidson » Blogs, IMS, IMS History, Indy 500

We’re chronicling 100 days of Indy 500 history on #SpeedRead leading up to the historic 100th Running. With 81 days to go, IMS Historian Donald Davidson explains another cherished Indy 500 tradition.

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The Pace Car began with the very first “500” in 1911. With 40 cars meeting the qualification requirements to start the inaugural race, Speedway President Carl G. Fisher concluded that this was too many for the traditional standing starts employed at all racing events in those days. He thought back to his not-too-distant days as a bicycle racer, when “flying” starts were used. All of the standing starts at Indianapolis Motor Speedway events in 1909 and ’10 had begun with eight or nine cars per row, with very few events requiring a second row.

Fisher decided it would be safer to instead line up the cars in rows of five and lead them away behind a passenger car for one unscored lap, then pull over to the side of the track on the main straightaway and release the rolling field to the flagman. The drivers generally liked the idea but suggested that one of their own, particularly Ralph DePalma, should lead the field at the start and then fall into position. But Fisher decided to it himself with a Stoddard-Dayton car, of which he happened to be the local dealer. Some sources have suggested that it was James Allison’s personal vehicle.

A Stutz driven by Carl Fisher paced the field at the second 500 Mile Race in 1922.

A Stutz driven by Carl Fisher paced the field at the second 500 Mile Race in 1922.

On the day before the race, once the field had been set, Fisher carried out several experiments at varying speeds using 12, 18 and finally 25 cars. Allison rode with him. The first couple of attempts were a little on the ragged side, but discussions would take place between Fisher, Allison and the drivers, and it was finally agreed upon that 40 to 45 miles per hour was about the right speed. While a pace vehicle is believed to have been used at a program for electric-powered cars at Narragansett Park, Rhode Island, in 1896, it is believed that the 1911 “500” was the first major event anywhere in the world at which a pace vehicle was employed for a start. A pace car therefore has been used to start every Indianapolis 500 ever held.

Sam Hanks took the wheel of the 1958 Pace Car, a chrome-filled Pontiac Bonneville.

Sam Hanks took the wheel of the 1958 Pace Car, a chrome-filled Pontiac Bonneville.

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About The Author

Donald Davidson

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Historian Donald Davidson, based at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, developed a passionate interest in the Indianapolis 500 as a teenager in England. Arriving at IMS in 1964, he delighted the racing community with his ability to recite year-by-year accounts of participants’ careers. Returning permanently in 1965, he was invited by Sid Collins to join the worldwide IMS Radio Network and was hired by Henry Banks as USAC statistician, remaining at USAC for almost 32 years. He was named Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian in 1998. Along with numerous television and radio assignments, raconteur Davidson has played host to the popular call-in radio show “The Talk of Gasoline Alley” on 1070 AM in Indianapolis during the month of May continuously since 1971. His writing credits include countless historical articles and columns, a pair of “500” annuals in 1974 and ‘75 and co-authorship with Rick Shaffer of the acclaimed “Autocourse Official History of the Indianapolis 500,” published in 2006.
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