It’s race week in Indianapolis with the running of the 98th Indy 500 on Sunday so it seems fitting to feature a little history about the first time a Corvette was used as the pace car at the famous race. It was 36 years ago this weekend that Corvette first made its appearance at the Brickyard with the 1978 Corvette Indy 500 Pace Car.
When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway selected Corvette to pace the 1978 Indy 500, Chevrolet commemorated the event with an official replica of the Pace Car that would be sold. Initially, only 300 Indy 500 replicas were planned but after an outcry from Chevrolet dealers, GM instead increased production to over 6,000 so that each Chevrolet dealer would get a least one replica to sell.
Chevrolet showed off the Pace Cars for the first time at the 1978 New York Auto Show. The black and silver Corvettes were an instant hit with consumers, but after an article by the Wall Street Journal talked about the potential investment windfall these Corvettes may bring, demand for the cars shot through the roof with some dealers charging $10,000-$15,000 over the MSRP of $13,653.
The driver of the 1978 Corvette Pace Car was well-known at GM as well as in the circles of racing. Jim Rathmann was a Florida-based Chevy/Cadillac dealer who had raced at Indianapolis from 1949 though 1963 and he was the winner of the Indianapolis 500 in 1960. Jim is also known for being the dealer that came up with the brilliant marketing idea to lease new Corvettes for $1 to NASA’s astronauts in the sixties.
According to Bruce Troxell’s 2-part Examiner article on the 1978 Corvette Pace Car, Chevrolet built four 1978 Pace Cars that served the cause. The actual Indy 500 Pace Car driven by Rathmann at the race is now home at GM’s Heritage Center. A second backup car that was used by the track steward during practices is on display at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s Museum. The number 3 Pace Car was used in VIP parades and was presented to the winner of the 1978 race, Al Unser, Jr, who still owns the car. The final Pace Car was used for promotional events and was the second of two VIP Parade Cars. It was eventually sold to the public and its last know owner was a Kansas Chevrolet dealer.
Including the 1978 Indianapolis 500, Corvette has paced the Greatest Spectacle in Racing a total of 12 times – more than any other car. The 2014 Corvette Stingray paced last year’s Indy 500 while pace car duties this year fall to the new 2015 Camaro Z/28.
Photo Credit: Indianapolis Motor Speedway
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