By Mike Payne
Long celebrated for its leading role in American motorsports, the pace car is an icon of automotive culture. With a celebrity at the wheel and thunder underfoot, it takes center stage for the ceremony of the race and the safety of the track. What’s the story behind this leader of the pack? Few know it more intimately than Jeff Chew, the guiding hand of Chevrolet’s pace car program for nearly 20 years. I spoke with Jeff recently about the history of the pace car and Chevrolet’s role as the dominant figure in motorsport leadership.
For 12 years straight, a Chevrolet has led the pack at the Indianapolis 500 as the official pace car of the race. How is the pace car for an event like this selected?
We’re fortunate to have a broad performance-car portfolio to choose from—our goal for the Indianapolis 500 is to showcase the best of our premier performance vehicles. Planning for an event is a year-long process, and we focus on new vehicles that will be launching around the time of the race. There are a lot of variables and the stars have to align to make it happen, but we take a lot of pride in our pace car program across the entire series, Indy and beyond.
What role does Chevrolet play in selecting the celebrity driver of its official pace car?
As with the selection of the vehicle itself, we start discussing celebrity driver options up to a year prior to the event. We compile a list of people whom we’d like to see behind the wheel and then, with Indy’s input, we decide on the driver for that race. The same is true with NASCAR events. In my years as Marketing Manager of Chevy Racing, there have been some great people associated with our program—more than I can count. The list includes Jay Leno, Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Robin Roberts, Ron Howard and many others.
What sort of preparation or training do these celebrity drivers undergo before they lead the pack for a race?
Our drivers understand that this is far from just a ceremonial loop around the track. Each one must undergo a physical, followed by rigorous training with pace car driver Johnny Rutherford. They’re taking a performance vehicle to speeds of more than 100 miles per hour before a big audience. They’re given a headset for communication and partnered with a race official in the passenger seat. It can be a lot more demanding than some drivers would expect.
In terms of the pace car itself, what kinds of engineering modifications are needed to prepare the vehicle for the track?
The vehicles we choose among all come from the factory fully capable of performing pace car duties—we don't have to modify engines or suspensions at all. We only need to do two things to the car before an event: We install a fully-integrated strobe system for use during caution and pace laps, and we enlist GM design staff to develop a unique paint scheme to commemorate the event. Quite honestly, we have had pace cars that were indistinguishable from the showroom model.
After the race, what is life like for a retired official pace car?
Every year, the official pace car of the Indianapolis 500 is retired to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum. All our pace cars from these last years are on display at the museum, as if they’d just left the track. For NASCAR events, we maintain our own collection at the GM Heritage Center. We use the cars in various displays as well.
Also, after certain events we offer limited-edition replica pace cars in select showrooms. In 2011, we produced a white Chevrolet Camaro with orange stripes, modeled after the pace car for that year, which emulated the 1969 Camaro. We have fans who collect these replica vehicles, which usually include the best performance options available.
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Mike Payne is founder and publisher of TheCoolist.com, the web’s finely curated encyclopedia of cool. Mike’s interest in design, technology and the study of trends is part of his nature, having grown up in a family of automotive designers and visual artists in Detroit. When he’s not managing TheCoolist, Mike moonlights as a commercial photographer, photographing architecture and food for hotels, restaurants, architects and corporate clients.