Setting the Pace

Starting rather memorably in 1978, Chevrolet began building Indianapolis pace cars both for the track and the road.

January 28, 2011
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Photo Richard Prince
Setting the Pace 3
Photo Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Setting the Pace 4
Photo Indianapolis Motor Speedway
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Setting the Pace 7
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A Chevrolet automobile first paced the Indianapolis 500 in 1948, it was a Fleetmaster Six driven by Wilbur Shaw, followed by a Chevrolet Bel Air in 1955, and Camaros in ’67 and ’69. It was not until 1978, however, that a Corvette led Indycars around the Brickyard. Since then, Corvettes have served as pace cars nine more times. Six of these occasions have been commemorated with the release of pace-car replicas for public consumption, beginning with the inaugural ’78 outing.

Chevrolet needed a way to celebrate the Corvette’s 25th anniversary, and the Indiana circuit seemed like the perfect venue. After successfully out-bidding rival carmakers for the honor, Chevy prepared a third-generation Corvette for duty. It paced the Indianapolis 500 on May 28, 1978.

Third-Generation Pace Car

As its official name implies, the 1978 Limited Edition Corvette was meant, at least initially, to be built in very small numbers—as few as 300. But, to make a long story short, it didn’t turn out that way. When news got out that Chevrolet would be offering commemorative pace cars, dealers were overwhelmed with inquiries—and most of these dealers were not even on Chevrolet’s very short list of franchises that would be receiving the car. With customers breathing down their necks and the potential for profit self-evident, these dealers demanded that they receive the car, too. Threats of legal action were enough to convince Chevrolet to built more cars—in the end, a lot more cars.

Despite GM acquiescing to dealer demand and significantly ramping up ’78 Limited Edition production, a speculative bubble grew. Some dealers demanded markups of over $5,000 on the $13,653.21 model, resulting in a Corvette that cost almost twice as much as the $9,351.89 base model. But the real markup took place in the secondary market. Fanned by national coverage—in March 1978, the Wall Street Journal famously reported on Chevrolet building only a “handful” of pace-car replicas—and by word of mouth, the market was whipped up into a frenzy never before seen for a Corvette. Prices quickly escalated, surpassing $30K and reportedly reaching a ridiculous zenith of $75,000.

What the speculators didn’t know was that, by the end of the ’78 model-year production run, Bowling Green would assemble a whopping 6,502 Limited Edition Corvettes—nearly 14 percent of the total run that year. Once the market digested this sobering news, the bubble promptly burst, leaving owners with a very expensive and not all that rare sports car.

While the speculators were angry to be caught holding the bag—GM was again threatened with legal proceedings—many retail customers were happy with the Corvette in their driveway. The distinctive silver-and-black paint scheme, “Official Pace Car” graphics (which were applied by the owner or dealer, if desired), front spoiler, rocker panel extensions and rear spoiler were the most obvious draws, but the model was also fitted with no fewer than 14 options, as well as unique interior upholstery. It was more than just a sticker job, and had a unique Vehicle Identity Number to prove it—the production run started with vehicle 1Z87L8S900001, while the standard ’78 Corvettes started with 1Z87L8S400001.

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