Tom Beeler is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and occasional car collector. He is a senior editor with the racing news group, Racing Information Service and is slated to share his Pace Car collection with fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Pace Car Reunion on Saturday, May 21st. Read below to discover more about Tom’s passion for his collection….
Growing up in Indianapolis during May in the 1960s was a special time. Part of that was that excitement was the arrival of the pace cars to the streets of Indy.
I loved it. Powerful cars in garish paint with huge letters painted on the doors and fenders. What’s not to love?
The first pace car to really catch my attention was the 1969 Chevrolet Camaro. Sexy, white and “Hugger” orange, cowl induction hood, houndstooth interior, hideaway headlights. To this day, it’s one of the most iconic Indianapolis 500 pace cars, as evidenced by the choice of this year’s pace car.
To a child of the ‘60s, growing up in Indy, pace cars were mystic and powerful – emblematic of America’s car culture.
Years later, I understand the marketing, but the appeal of driving a car that looks like it paced the greatest race in the world still makes me smile.
Getting the fans involved in the pace car culture began in 1953, the 50th anniversary of the Ford Motor Company. The Ford Crestline Sunliner was chosen to pace the 500. Ford anticipated demand for the car and built about 2000 replicas of the actual pace car, the first time this was done.
Two of the most-popular pace cars continue to be the 1969 Camaro and the 1978 Corvette.
It wasn’t until I had the cash to have a “spare” car that I could enter the mystical order of pace car owners. My funds were modest, so I aimed for the 1984 Pontiac Fiero. Pontiac made 2000 replicas of the Fiero pace car. It looked fast sitting still.
That year, I bought tickets to the 500 Festival Mayor’s Breakfast, which was then the only way Average Joes like me could drive a lap on the Speedway. Doing that in a pace car made it even better.
Years later, I made the unintended transition into “car collector” when a friend asked me, “Are you still looking for a ’69 Camaro pace car?” Enter my second pace car replica.
In 2006, both cars were parked amongst their brightly-colored, gaudily-lettered brethren along Hulman Boulevard during the first Pace Car Reunion.
Knowing that the centennial running of the 500 would likely bring another reunion at the Speedway, I started hunting for uncommon pace cars to bring.
My third pace car – quite possibly the ACTUAL pace car – was the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser. This was the pace car given to race winner Sam Hanks and his wife, Alice. “Turnpike Cruiser” – the name screams 1950s America. Parking it is like docking an aircraft carrier.
My 1953 Ford Sunliner pace car joined the herd last year.
The 1992 pace car, which was actually a 1993 model, was the Cadillac Allante. The Allante appealed to me because of its Northstar engine and beautiful Pininfarina body work.
The 1992 Allante
My most-recent pace car is one of the actual 2003 Cheverolet SSR pace vehicles, Vehicle Identification Number 4. Electrical problems the day before the race demoted the car to support on Race Day, but it was the vehicle in which race winner Gil deFerran took his victory lap around the track.
The SSR was missing the strobes, belts and extinguisher, but some detective work and dedicated friends helped get all the requisite pieces reinstalled and running.
I’ll be bringing four of my pace cars to the Speedway this week. I’m jazzed to see so many pace car owners who share my passion for these cars similarly dedicated to sharing their cars with fans of this great race.
Whether they’re Corvettes, Mustangs, Cutlasses, Challengers, Vipers, Champions, Bonnevilles, Comets, Furies, Adventurers and a host of other model names, they are a big part of the culture of the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race.
And a lot of us love keeping them on the road.