Setting the Pace

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

Photo: Setting the Pace 1
January 28, 2011

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.

Photo: Setting the Pace 2

Photo Richard Prince

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.

Photo: Setting the Pace 3

Photo Indianapolis Motor Speedway

On the other hand, the only performance upgrade that came standard on the Pace Car was a set of 15-inch alloy wheels with wide Goodyear radials. The 220-horsepower L82 engine and FE7 Gymkhana suspension were fitted on the Corvette that actually paced the ’78 Indy 500, but optional on the replica. Californians couldn’t even order the more powerful 350-cubic-inch V8 because of smog regulations, and had to make due with ten fewer horses than the standard 185-bhp mill. The model could be had with either an automatic or four-speed manual transmission. Examples that combined the latter with the L82 engine were especially coveted.

Fourth-Generation Pace Cars

It would be another eight years before a Corvette paced the Indy 500 again. Nineteen eight six didn’t coincide with any Corvette anniversary, but it was nevertheless a significant year as it marked the return of a convertible model after an 11-year hiatus. Driven by none other than test pilot Chuck Yeager during the parade laps before the race, a bright yellow C4 heralded the return of the droptop Vette. Steadily dwindling sales had killed the convertible model, so Chevrolet was obviously looking for a strong debut for its new version.

When it came to commemorating the occasion with a pace-car replica, Chevrolet took a decidedly conservative approach. Stung by its previous “Limited Edition” experience, Chevy simply called all ’86 convertibles, regardless of color, pace-car replicas. Other than an “Official Pace Car” dash emblem and an included, but not applied, decal package, there was nothing unique about these $32,032 Corvettes. To most enthusiasts, only the 732 yellow ones are considered true replicas. The number that mattered to GM was the total sales volume: 7,315. This figure comfortably eclipsed the 4,629 convertibles sold in 1975, suggesting Chevrolet had made the right move in bringing the droptop back. This was especially good news because it had cost a bundle to reengineer the C4 for convertible duty.

Photo: Setting the Pace 4

Photo Indianapolis Motor Speedway

A Chevrolet paced the Indy 500 again in 1990, but it was a Beretta, not a Corvette; the two-seater would have to wait until 1995 for its next turn at the Brickyard. This time around, Chevrolet was far more committed when it came to commemorating the occasion with a special-edition replica. Not only did it produce a distinct model, it did so in truly limited numbers. Just 527 ’95 Indy 500 Pace Car Replicas were built, all of them convertibles. With contrasting Dark Purple and Arctic White paint, a white top, a purple-accented leather interior and the usual Indy graphics, there was nothing subtle about this Corvette.

Though not actually sold as an options group, that’s the way it appeared on the sticker: Item Z4Z added $2,816 to the convertible’s $43,665 base price. In addition to the paint and graphics treatment, the package included a set of wider 9.5 × 17-inch wheels shod with 275/40ZR17 tires—basically the front wheel/tire combo from the high-horsepower ZR-1 model. The car also came with the $2,709 Pace Car Preferred Equipment Group, which added a performance axle ratio, six-way adjustable power leather sport seats, a Delco/Bose stereo and climate control. All of the Pace Cars were fitted with four-speed automatic transmissions, but given the fact that the base LT1 engine packed 300 horsepower, the car offered plenty of performance.

Fifth-Generation Pace Cars

When the next Pace Car Replica was released in 1998, the fifth-generation Corvette was just in its infancy—the second year of its seven-year production run. As in 1986, Chevrolet used the Indy 500 to debut a new convertible version of the Corvette. This time, Chevrolet decided to pair purple (Radar Blue) with yellow. It sold more replicas (1,163) at a lower premium ($5,039), but outfitted them with nearly every option available, save for the 12-CD changer and magnesium wheels. The model could be had with either an automatic transmission or a six-speed manual, but the latter added $765 to the Z4Z package.

Photo: Setting the Pace 5

Five years later, a C5 paced the Indy 500 again. Instead of preparing a special version for the event and subsequent sales to consumers, Chevrolet instead got a head start on celebrating the Corvette’s 50th anniversary, and sent 2003 50th Anniversary Edition coupes and convertibles out to Indianapolis for the race. No replicas were sold, but a $495 Indy 500 graphics package was made available, with decals that mimicked those worn by the actual pace cars.

Though a Chevrolet SSR paced the 2003 Indy 500, Corvettes performed the honor for the following five years. As in 1986, Chevrolet chose to have celebrities get behind the wheel during the parade laps (former Indy winner Johnny Rutherford was usually driving during caution periods in the race). In 2004, actor Morgan Freeman drove a C5 convertible; in 2005, General Colin Powell piloted a C6 convertible; in 2006, cyclist Lance Armstrong pedaled a Z06; and in 2007, actor and budding race-car driver Patrick Dempsey drove a C6 convertible. However, only the 2007 pacing was commemorated with a replica.

Sixth-Generation Pace Cars

Again given the Z4Z option-code designation, the ’07 Pace Car was painted Atomic Orange (an extra-cost option on other models) and featured an Ebony interior. A total of 500 examples were built, all of them droptops. The MSRP for the heavily optioned car was $66,995, a healthy $14,085 premium over the standard convertible.

Photo: Setting the Pace 6

In 2008, when Emerson Fittipaldi steered a Corvette around the 2.5-mile oval, Chevrolet released another pace-car special edition. The ’08 Indy 500 Pace Coupe and Pace Convertible were not replicas, though: The Brazilian F1 and Indycar champ drove an ethanol-fueled Z06 at the event, not a standard C6. With an ethanol-fueled Corvette not ready for prime time, Chevrolet instead offered a pair of pace cars that honored the ’78 original. To that end, the cars were painted silver and black, and had silver-colored interior accents.

Sold as distinct models, not option packages, the ’08 Indy 500 Pace Coupe base price was $59,090, while its convertible sibling went for $68,160. Both included Z06 rear spoilers and the usual decals kit, as well as a bevy of options: the 3LT package, the Z51 Performance Package and dual-mode exhaust. Each of the 234 coupes and 266 convertibles were signed by Fittipaldi.

Though SS Camaros paced the Indy 500 in 2009 and 2010, Chevrolet has relinquished the honor to Ford for the 2011 running of the race, with a Mustang GT to set the pace. No doubt a Corvette will return to Indy, perhaps when the C7 debuts in a few years, and we expect more Pace Car replicas will be built.

Photo: Setting the Pace 7
Photo: Setting the Pace 8
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