Subscribe to the Free
Newsletter

A Look Back at the History of the Indy 500 and the Corvette Pace Car

Pace Yourself: Four decades of Indy 500 pace car Corvettes explained (to the best of our abilities)

Chris Shelton Jun 23, 2017
View Full Gallery

Well, it happened again. For the 14th time—an unprecedented number we’ll explain in a minute—a Corvette led the 33-car field at the Indianapolis 500. The May 28th event represented a couple of achievements for Chevrolet. Over the event’s 101-year history, its cars have paced the field 28 times, half of those with the Corvette. More than achievements, those are records. In fact, more Corvettes have served as the pace car than any other manufacturer besides Chevrolet.

You don’t even have to like Corvettes to recognize this as a significant occasion. But we like ’em, so we thought we’d celebrate it with a look back at the Corvettes that performed official duty at the Indy 500 over nearly 40 years.

We say official duty but there’s more to the pace-car program than the car that leads the pack. There are actually several levels of pace-car status. To borrow from Christopher R. Phillips’ account in the January 2011 issue, they fall into four basic categories: Pace cars, track cars, festival cars and pace-car replicas.

Pace cars are pretty self-explanatory. They lead the race cars around the track at a predetermined speed prior to the start and during the interstitial periods like cautions. Some events have more than one car.

Track cars are the cars that various speedway officials and VIPs drive for the period up to and during the event. These are the cars that the mayor and we lucky magazine hacks get to tool around in. Not all track cars are even the same model as that year’s pace car; in fact, as of late, some are SUVs.

Festival cars are the ones that appear in the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade, usually on the eve of the race itself. Each of the festival-committee members gets a car to drive during the festival functions. As with the track cars during Corvette years, the festival cars aren’t always Corvettes. However, the manufacturer sometimes offers festival cars in lieu of pace car replicas, most recently as 2015 when Chevrolet allocated the 50 Camaros used in the parade in lieu of pace-car replicas.

Pace car replicas are the ones that the manufacturer produces in limited numbers for public consumption. Beyond likeness, they bear no association to the vehicles used in the production of the Indy 500. In fact, they don’t even go to the race. And in some cases the replica program gets extended to an entire variation, as Chevrolet did by making all convertibles pace cars in 1986. And Chevrolet doesn’t always replicate pace cars.

Corvette set yet another precedent with its first Corvette entry in 1978. That year the model earned the distinction (or criticism, your choice) as the vehicle to pace the event in completely stock form. This doesn’t apply to safety modifications like strobe lights and harnesses that all pace cars undergo to pass event scrutiny. What it means is that, with one notable example, every one of the Corvette pace cars was capable of executing its service with the options extended to all production Corvettes. The notable example was one car modified to run a different fuel blend. But even then the changes were more programming than equipment.

Treat the following as a recap, or overview, of Corvette pace car history. It’s not exhaustive and frankly we didn’t want it to be (that means satisfying everyone, and we know some of you are quite exacting). But it does paint a portrait of the Corvette, America’s sports car, as a favorite of America’s race.

02 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 2/14

Black with silver rockers and red details mark the first pace car as the most recognizable of the bunch. The author’s mother, Fran Shelton, poses with one of the cars allocated to Fletcher Jones Chevrolet, where the author’s father worked from 1967 to 1984.

1978

The 1978 event represented the fifth time Indy 500 promoters chose Chevrolet to supply official pace car vehicles for the annual event. But for the first time—and reportedly at the last minute—Chevrolet chose the Corvette to represent the company. It was a logical choice to celebrate the model’s 25th anniversary.

The 1978 pace car gets the distinction (or criticism, your choice) as the first pace car in Indianapolis 500 history to remain entirely stock, mechanically. Chevrolet distinguished the car entirely by appearances, with spoilers front and rear, a black-over-silver combination separated at the rub line with a red-and-silver tape stripe, and red detailing in the polished-alloy wheels. A silver interior drawn from the 25th Anniversary edition offered that year further distinguished the car.

Then, as it did in 1967 and 1969, Chevrolet offered a special-edition package to the public. It boasted the same stylizing and, like the official pace car, mechanically resembled all other production Corvettes. Every option available to the Corvette line was extended to the pace car, including the optional 220-horsepower L82 and the no-cost optional four-speed transmission. Despite the price incentive, fewer than 10 percent of all pace cars got the manual gearbox. Every car got a Limited Edition decal on the front fenders just beneath the emblem and the L82-equipped cars got a cowl sticker to prove it. The package also included a selection of stickers for dealers to gussy up the car for displays.

According to sources, Chevrolet initially announced 300 to 2,500 replica pace cars but ultimately produced 6,502, approximately one per every U.S. Chevrolet dealer. According to Jim Shelton, the author’s father, who sold the cars new at Fletcher Jones Chevrolet in Las Vegas, “We got three pace cars. Some dealers, probably rural, gave up their allocations.” Despite the greater production, demand far outpaced supply creating a volatile market where prices far exceeded the $13,653.21 MSRP, in some cases reportedly by almost 400 percent.

Jim Rathmann, the 1960 Indy 500 winner, drove the official pace car in the event, his fifth time doing so.

03 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 3/14

Chevrolet used the pace car program to advertise the reemergence of the convertible Corvette. Though it chose a yellow one for official use, Chevrolet made all convertibles as pace car replicas that year.

1986

For the seventh time, Chevrolet got the contract for pace cars, matching Oldsmobile’s record set in 1985. For the second time, Chevrolet chose the Corvette to represent the brand. Though recently redesigned, the ’86 entry’s party piece was the freshly reintroduced convertible body style.

Just as it did eight years earlier, the official 1986 Corvette pace car entry remained entirely stock, at least mechanically. But it was full of pioneering changes, not the least of which was antilock braking, a standard feature for all Corvettes that year, and for years to come.

Chevrolet offered replicas of the official pace car. But rather than designate a specific version or even color like the yellow used on the official entry, Chevrolet appointed all 7,315 convertibles produced that year as pace car replicas. An official decal package, applied by the dealer or consumer, accompanied each car.

Retired Air Force General Chuck Yeager piloted the Indy pace car.

04 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 4/14

The 527 convertibles that Chevrolet offered as official Indy Pace Car replicas were identical to the real deal in all ways but the rollbar and cover. This represents Chevrolet’s 10th time (the second time it set the record), the Corvette’s third, and the C4’s second chance as pace car.

1995

In 1993, Chevrolet earned the distinction of having paced the most races (nine), a record that it hasn’t relinquished as of 2017. 1995 represented 10 times for Chevrolet, the third for Corvette, and a second time for the C4 model.

Though the car remained stock, officials mandated a rollbar, which Chevrolet incorporated with a fairing to create a mock Targa top of sorts. Chevrolet produced 527 Indy Pace Car replicas with the exact options package as the official car but without the rollbar. Regular Production Office package Z4Z specified a Dark Purple Metallic over white finish, a decal package with special emblems, black leather interior with Indy-logo headrests, Delco/Bose audio system, LT1 engine, four-speed automatic transmission, 3.07:1 axle ratio, argent-painted 17x9.5 ZR-1 wheels and ZR-1 brakes.

Chevrolet General Manager Jim Perkins drove the pace car, his third time doing so.

05 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 5/14

Chevrolet built 1,163 replicas of the Radar Blue convertibles for 1998. Just as it did in 1986, Chevrolet used the event as an opportunity to introduce the convertible (the 1997 lineup was coupe only).

1998

Corvette’s fourth time at Indy represented Chevrolet’s 11th pace car, and the first time the C5 appeared on the track.

As was the case in all but 1995—the year of the rollbar—the car remained entirely stock, at least mechanically. The RPO Z4Z reproduction convertible wore Radar Blue paint and a yellow graphics package that began at the gill panel and finished with a checkered-flag motif toward the rear. It rode on yellow wheels and boasted an outlandish yellow-and-black leather interior brandished with Indy 500 imagery.

The pace car was basically a regular Corvette but the package had a host of required options like the Delco/Bose audio, seat-memory package, the automatic overdrive with the sport axle package and the Active Handling suspension system. The combination added about $5,000 to the $44,990 MSRP.

Chevrolet built 1,163 replicas, including five exclusively for factory use. Given the low volume, Chevrolet allocated the pace cars to choice Chevrolet dealers.

Chevrolet initially selected golfer Greg Norman to drive; however, shoulder surgery precluded his appearance. Instead, racing driver/owner Parnelli Jones stepped in.

06 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 6/14

The ’02 convertible—the second C5 in pace-car history—ushered in the 50th anniversary celebrations for the following production year. Chevrolet supplied three Anniversary Red examples for track duty along with QuickSilver and Yellow convertibles for track and festival cars, but produced no official replicas.

2002

Chevrolet made pace car history in 2002 by supplying its fifth Corvette entry, the second in the C5 family. And it used the opportunity to celebrate a second landmark: the Corvette’s Golden Anniversary.

To fulfill the latter mandate, Chevrolet supplied three pilot-production 2003 Anniversary Red 50th Anniversary Corvette coupes. According to Christopher R. Phillip’s account in the April 2011 issue, the lack of true Anniversary cars at the time meant that Chevrolet sent 33 QuickSilver and 33 Yellow convertibles for use as track and festival cars.

Graphics consisted of a 50th Anniversary hood logo with flags that trailed off in an abstracted gold checker motif that trailed down the fenders and along the doors. Flagged Indianapolis 500 graphics appeared on the B-pillars and the classic Indianapolis 500 logo appeared on the back of the quarter-panels. Chevrolet offered 66 ’02 vehicles for use as festival and VIP purposes. They included three Speedway White Corvette convertibles, 62 Sebring Silver Camaro convertibles, and a mix of Avalanches, TrailBlazers, Ventures and S-10 pickups.

The car’s appearance kicked off a nationwide golden anniversary program that included a display of every year Corvette at the National Corvette Museum and selection as the featured marque by the Rolex Monterey Historic Auto Races.

Chevrolet officially offered no replica pace cars for 2002. However, several vendors have offered graphics packages in the likeness of the official pace cars.

Actor Jim Caviezel drove the official pace car during the event.

2004

The sixth Corvette to serve as pace car represented the third car in the C5 family to pace the event. The convertible body style reappeared to usher out the design.

The official pace car featured white over dark metallic blue. A stars-and-bars motif emanating from the gills and ending in the quarter-panels separated the colors. Chevrolet configured 22 or 23 official Corvettes with the same graphics but in all white for use by event officials.

In a unique twist that year, Chevrolet delivered 44 LeMans Blue convertibles to the event, each driven by a member of the U.S. Armed Forces during a pre-race parade lap.

Actor Morgan Freeman drove the official pace car in the event.

2005

Chevrolet’s decision to offer the Corvette two years in a row represented the first time the model served consecutively. In fact, it was the first time any model served consecutively since Buick’s Century in 1975 and 1976.

The event debuted the C6 model. As usual, it remained stock mechanically.

Chevrolet appointed the cars in Victory Red with a silver stripe flanked by titanium and black accent stripes and a red Bowtie logo near the cowl. The 2005 Indy 500 logo appears as graphics on each door and as embroidery on the headrests. Vinyl graphics spelled out Chevrolet’s An American Revolution slogan across the top of the windshield. Chevrolet produced three pace cars and eight Victory Red convertibles without the graphics or embroidery.

According to some records, Chevrolet produced two replicas of the 2005 pace cars.

Retired General and Former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who had a 2005 coupe, drove the official pace car.

07 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 7/14

The ’06 pace car represented the third time the C5 paced the Indy 500. The stars-and-bars motif coincided with a military tie-in. Chevrolet submitted 44 LeMans Blue convertibles, each to be driven by a member of the U.S. Armed Forces during the parade lap. Those cars were sold to the public in lieu of a replica pace car.

08 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 8/14

The silver-striped Victory Red convertible represents what may be the most modest Indy 500 pace car. It also represented the second time a model paced Indy two consecutive years. Chevrolet reportedly produced two replicas.

09 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 9/14

Chevrolet chose the new Z06 model to represent the Corvette in the 2006 event. That the Z06 didn’t extend to the convertible models, a coupe performed the duties. Chevrolet didn’t offer the ’06 entry as a festival car or as a reproduction pace car.

2006

Corvette set precedence yet again in 2006, this time in two ways: as the first time a manufacturer and a model appeared thrice, consecutively.

Again, the pace car remained virtually identical to production Corvettes, at least mechanically. Chevrolet based the pace car on the Z06 coupe. The Arctic White car featured Victory Red and Cobalt Blue ribbons oriented in an abstracted American-flag motif. Indy 500 logos appeared on the doors and a red Bowtie ran across the hood near the cowl. The actual pace car also boasted a light bar for its strobe array. Chevrolet produced three pace cars and about 70 festival cars in LeMans Blue and Victory Red.

Once again, Chevrolet offered no official replicas of the pace cars or similarly appointed festival cars.

To capitalize upon the performance and endurance heritage, Chevrolet chose bicyclist Lance Armstrong (who, as it turns out, has no more Tour de France wins than the author).

10 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 10/14

In 2007, Corvette reappeared for the fourth time in a row. The Atomic Orange car had gold ribbon graphics, the Z06 spoiler and the following-year’s split-spoke wheels. For the first time since 1997, Chevrolet produced mass replicas of the official pace car.

2007

In a choice that may seem predictable or maybe even a little boring to non-Corvette enthusiasts, Indy 500 promoters once again chose Chevrolet, which once again chose Corvette as the official pace car of the 2007 Indy 500.

The Atomic Orange convertibles featured gold ribbon graphics, Indy 500 badges, split-spoke wheels (optional for the 2008 models), and the Z06’s spoiler. Embroidery in the black-leather seats left no mistake that the three pace cars and the 57 or so remaining festival cars were indeed official.

To the relief of enthusiasts, Chevrolet offered replicas of the official pace and festival cars. These came with the Z51 performance package, which included stiffer springs; larger antiroll bars; tuned dampers; larger, cross-drilled rotors; and either a six-speed manual or paddle-shifted six-speed automatic (the only option available). But Chevrolet also tempered enthusiasm by configuring only 500 such replicas.

Patrick Dempsey, actor and co-owner of IndyCar team Vision Racing, drove for the event.

11 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 11/14

Chevrolet submitted two official pace cars for 2008. Both Z06s, one was prepared to burn E85 fuel and wore a coat of Gold Rush Green with golden checkerboard graphics. The green car led the pack until the official start of the race.

12 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 12/14

Black paint with silver checkerboard graphics evoked the image of the ’78 pace car some 30 years prior. It burned conventional gasoline and paced the cars during the caution periods.

2008

No doubt all but the most hardened Corvette enthusiast wondered how the Corvette landed yet another year of pace car duties. The 2008 event represented the fifth time in a row that the model led the pack. For a refresher count, it represents the 19th time Chevrolet won the contract and the 10th time a Corvette did the duty.

Furthermore, a pair of Z06 coupes officially paced the event. But they weren’t identical. One, painted a color-shifting Gold Rush Green, was prepared to burn E85 fuel, a blend similar to the straight ethanol that the IndyCar sanctioning body mandated the year prior. (though technically a modification, the fuel system and powertrain controller revisions required to run E85 hardly qualify as a mechanical modification to many) The other coupe, painted black and silver in the likeness of the ’78 pace car from 30 years prior, burned conventional gasoline. They each served different roles: The E85 car led the pack for the prep laps while the conventional one ran during the caution periods.

Yet again Chevrolet produced 500 replicas, this time in coupe and convertible form. Intended to invoke the image of the ’78 pace cars, these were functionally identical to the black production models but with silver checkerboard graphics. They also featured a two-tone titanium-color interior with the Indianapolis 500 logo embroidered on the seats. Both versions got the 3LT and Z51 packages; forged, chrome-plated wheels; and Z06 rear spoiler.

Retired race car driver and two-time Indy 500 winner Emerson Fittipaldi, an ethanol refiner in his native Brazil, drove the pace car at the event and later signed the center console lid of all 500 replicas.

Corvette Pace Car 13/14

2012

After a three-year hiatus of Camaros, a Corvette pace car returned for an 11th time to the Brickyard. Just as it did in 2002, in anticipation of the Corvette’s 50th, Chevrolet enlisted a pilot-production 2013 ZR1 to kick off a year-long celebration of the model’s 60th anniversary.

The entry was chock full of superlatives: the 638-horsepower LS9 made the ZR1 more than the most powerful production car to serve as the pace car; it made the 2013 entry for 2012 the most powerful Chevrolet ever produced. Carbon-fiber front fenders, hood, roof, front splitter, rocker panels and floorpans; launch control and track management; and a four-channel ABS system with Brembo carbon-ceramic disc brake rotors made that year’s pace car the most technologically advanced, too.

With its white exterior and full-body-length stripe, the pace car largely resembled the 60th Anniversary package extended to all Corvette models … the following year. As such, Chevrolet didn’t offer a replica of the 2012 pace car.

Guy Fieri, the restaurateur, best-selling author and host of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives drove.

2013

Chevrolet achieved something beyond supplying a pace car for the 24th time. Its entry at the 2013 event represented the 12th time a Corvette paced, giving a model more entries than any other brand (Oldsmobile achieved 11 appearances by 2001).

Consistent with the prior year’s entry, Chevrolet supplied Corvettes from the following model year, in this case 2014, the first model year of the seventh generation. And consistent with all cars but the E85 model from 2008, it resembled every other production Corvette in every way but for paint and trim. It had the direct-injected LT1, the seven-speed manual trans and the Z51 performance package. Inside it boasted the carbon-fiber and aluminum trim and the magnesium seat frames.

The official pace car wore Laguna Blue Tintcoat with official Indianapolis 500 graphics on the doors. Though standard for its model year, too few ’14s existed prior to September 2013, to make it an official pace car.

Jim Harbaugh, then head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and principal at the Panther Racing IndyCar team, drove.

2015

For a staggering 26th time, Chevrolet got the contract for the official pace car. And for the 13th time, it allocated it to Corvette.

Typical for the program, the car remains production-spec. But don’t confuse stock with boring; the Z06 package puts 650 supercharged horsepower through seven speeds in undoubtedly the most aggressive Corvette to date.

The Arctic White Z06 got an Adrenaline Red interior and what may be the most restrained sticker package to appear on a Corvette pace car. Rather than send Corvettes for festival use, it did submit 100 Camaros—50 for festival use and 50 parade. While Chevrolet didn’t offer a replica Corvette for public consumption, it sold the parade Camaros as commemoratives.

Five-time Brickyard champion Jeff Gordon drove.

13 Chevrolet Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car 14/14

For this year’s ceremonies, Chevrolet offered the newly reintroduced Grand Sport. Though not the most powerful model in the line, chassis and suspension tuning make it the driver’s choice. We haven’t heard any plans for Chevrolet to replicate it for public consumption but without the door graphics it has the look that may make it highly popular.

2017

And here we are, 39 years since Corvette first served as the Indy 500 pace car. For this 14th time, Chevrolet prepared a Grand Sport.

The 460-horsepower eight-speed automatic is equipped with the Z07 package and is said to accelerate from 0-60 in only 3.6 seconds. White with a red gut, the current car is much like the 2015, albeit with slightly more elaborate graphics. As of this time, Chevrolet hasn’t announced replicas.

This year an Indy legend will take the wheel: Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis.

MORE PHOTOS

VIEW FULL GALLERY
X

Connect With Us

Get Latest News and Articles. Newsletter Sign Up

sponsored links

subscribe to the magazine

get digital get print
CLOSE X
BUYER'S GUIDE
SEE THE ALL NEW
NEWS, REVIEWS & SPECS
TO TOP