Leading The Way: Seven Other Sweet Pace Cars

This weekend is the 96th running of the iconic Indianapolis 500 race, and you may have heard that the pace car will be a 2013 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1. Set to be driven by TV food critic Guy Fieri, the ZR1 marks the 11th time a Corvette and the 23rd time a Chevrolet has paced the Indy 500.

The 2013 ZR1 is a pretty cool pace car, what with its 638-hp supercharged V-8 under the hood and a unique gray-on-white color scheme. But that’s not the only sweet pace car from racing history. In honor of the Indianapolis 500, we scoured the history books — and our memory — to pick seven interesting pace cars from the past.

1941 Chrysler Newport Phaeton; 1941 Indy 500 (pictured at top)

The trend of using one-off show cars or concepts as a pace vehicle isn’t anything new, but it seemed to have been birthed at the 1941 Indy 500. Chrysler – along with coachbuilder LeBaron – built only six shapely Newport dual cowl phaetons, and one of them was specifically used for as the pace car for the 1941 Indianapolis 500. It was significant as the Indy 500 wouldn’t run again for five years, until 1946, due to World War II. The gorgeous Newport Phaeton was built on a Chrysler Imperial chassis and was the designers’ vision of how Dusenbergs might have looked had the company survived the Depression and still been operational in 1941. After the Indy 500 race, this car was used as the personal ride of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., and the car could be seen all around the Detroit area. The Newport again served as a pace car in 2003, when it was chosen for the Monterey Historic Races at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway.

1964.5 Ford Mustang; 1964 Indy 500 (white at left)

Yes, wedged between two famous concept cars, this Wimbledon White Mustang convertible looks a bit plebian, but it – like any other Mustang in that time span – still drew plenty of attention from American car enthusiasts. After all, the car had debuted only weeks earlier at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, and the American public was quickly snapping up the new car: though Ford planned to only sell about 100,000 Mustangs per year, over 417,000 were sold during the car’s first twelve months on the market. Three convertibles were sent directly from the factory line to Ford dealer/ super-tuner Holman-Moody, and were upfitted for use in the Indy 500. The Mustang pace car was driven by Benson Ford, grandson of company founder Henry; Beson suffered poor health and died in 1978 at age 59.

1967 Lamborghini Marzal: 1967 Monaco Grand Prix

The Bertone-designed Lamborghini Marzal was a wild, low-slung concept car, and it was more than just a darling for the 1967 Geneva Motor Show: it was a running, functional vehicle, and was employed as a pace car at the 1967 Monaco Grand Prix. Based on a stretched Lamborghini Miura chassis, the Marzal was supposed to embody the ambitions of NuccioBertone and Ferruccio Lamborghini to build a world-class – and rather fast — grand tourer.It had gullwing doors and a four-seat interior layout. The car used a 2.0-liter inline-six engine that was essentially half of a Miura’s 4.0-liter V-12 engine, mounted transversely aft of the passenger cabin. It was said to be capable of about 140 mph, but the Marzal never made it to production. Last year, the car sold for €1.5 million ($1.88 million) at auction.

Chevrolet XT-2; 1989 CART/PPG Series

Now here’s an oddball: Chevrolet engineers took a 1987 Camaro IROC and added a pickup truck bed. The result was called the XT-2, for Experimental Truck #2. The design was quite unusual: the entire front end of the car was one unit, designed to be especially aerodynamic. That meant that engine access required raising the hood and windshield, which were supported by gas struts. Speaking of which, the engine under that hood was a 4.5-liter V-6 with 360 hp, backed by a six-speed manual transmission. Beneath the purple skin was suspension grafted from the Chevrolet Corvette. Not only does the XT-2 look incredibly cool, but its performance stats make us think of the modern-day “ute” performance pickups sold by General Motors’ Australian division, Holden. Too bad the XT-2 never reached production. It was, however, chosen as the pace car for the 1989 PPG Cart Indy car race series.

Dodge Viper; 1991 Indy 500

A bit of controversy: the pace car was originally supposed to be a Dodge Stealth R/T, painted a retina-searing shade of yellow. Awkwardly, however, people noted that the Stealth and its platform-mate Mitsubishi 3000GT were assembled in Japan — and having a Japanese-built car pacing the American-centric Indianapolis 500 was thought somewhat heretic. Dodge decided to appease the crowds by instead bringing its under-development Dodge Viper, which was first shown as a concept car at the 1989 Detroit auto show. The Viper wasn’t actually going on sale until late the next year, so the one shown off in Indy was a pretty early prototype. That bright-yellow Dodge Stealth, incidentally, was still used as a parade car.

BMW 1M; 2012 MotoGP

Let’s cut to the chase: we love the BMW 1 Series M Coupe, known more commonly as the 1M. The car has several chassis components nabbed from the M3, making for delightful handling, as well as a up-tuned twin-turbo 3.0-liter inline-six engine with 335 hp. So when BMW created a special version of the 1M to serve as a safety car in the MotoGP championship, we were thrilled. For its duties on the track, BMW endowed the 1M with a new rear wing, white paint overlaid with red-black-blue stripes, and the smattering of lights and communications gear requisite for its MotoGP role. We love the BMW 1M as a street car, and we’re just as in love with it as a safety car for a motorcycle racing series.

Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG; 2010 F1 Season

As with the BMW, the reason we love the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG safety car is partly because we love the car itself. As a follow-up to the McLaren-Mercedes SLR, the SLS AMG is the latest Mercedes-Benz supercar. The coupe wears dramatic gullwing doors, and is powered by a bellowing 6.3-liter V-8 engine with 593 hp. Mercedes says the car can hit 60 mph in 3.7 seconds and manage a top speed of 197 mph — making it well-suited for duty pacing Formula 1 races. Indeed, for the 2010 season Mercedes dressed up an SLS AMG with a light bar, special communications devices, and cameras necessary for its work as the F1 safety car. Mercedes has provided every Formula 1 safety car since 1996.

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