Corvette: Indy 500’s Favorite Pace Car, Part One – “The Early Years”

America’s favorite sports car, the ‘Vette. To those of us who love and admire Chevy’s two-seater, it’s not hard to understand why it paces the Indy 500 so often. In fact, more than any other car ever has. Which begs the question, why?

Any Corvette enthusiast answer would be a simple, long understood “Of course!” As if, there is no question about it, and we agree!

Even with such competition as Lamborghini, Ferrari, Aston Martin, and Dodge Viper, America’s favorite sports car remains a force to be reckoned with. No other car draws the attention, the looks, and instantaneous admiration as the legendary Corvette.

Boasting 13 appearances as an Indy pace car, the Corvette is followed closely by the Chevrolet Camaro–with eight appearances– while the Mustang, TransAm, or Viper have only appeared two or three times. So we decided to dig a little deeper into the history of Corvette and Indy 500, a love affair that started in 1978 and continues to this day.

The Indianapolis 500 has fielded a pace car every year since its beginning in 1911. The car serves the purpose of leading the starting grid around the track for a warm-up lap. After that, it accelerates out of the field to signal the start of the race. The pace car also intervenes during yellow flag periods by entering the track, catching up to the leader and holding the field at reduced speed.

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1978 Corvette C3 – 25th Anniversary

It was 1978 when 1960 Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann drove a C3, the first in a long line of Corvettes to pace and grace the Indy 500.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 9.26.02 AMIt was the 25th Anniversary of Corvette and Chevrolet had introduced the most extensively redesigned ‘Vette since 1968.

Only 300 replicas of this extraordinary Corvette were planned but Chevrolet eventually had to produce one for every dealer for a total of 6,502 replicas. The 1978 Indy 500 race winner was the legendary Al Unser in his First National Chaparral Lola/Cosworth.

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Air Force General, Chuck Yeager and the 1986 Corvette C4 Pace Car

It was quite an exciting event when the first Corvette paced Indy 500 in its 25th Anniversary, but it would take almost 10 years for Corvette to once again take the pace lap.

The year 1986 brought the return of the convertible to the Corvette lineup. On its second showing at the Indy 500, the 1986 C4 convertible was driven by famous test pilot and retired Air Force General, Chuck Yeager.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 10.52.21 AMThe C4 was the first street-legal Corvette to pace Indy 500, since the 25th Anniversary C3. It was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show in the fall of ’85 and incorporated the new ABS braking system that became standard in all 86′ Corvettes.

Chevrolet issued no specific replicas of this C4, choosing instead to designate all 1986 Corvette convertibles to be Pace Car replicas regardless of color.

The 1986 Indy 500 race winner was Bobby Rahal in his Budweiser/Truesports March/Cosworth.

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1995 Corvette C4 Pace Car

And, once again, it took nearly 10 years for Corvette to pace Indy again. The third time Chevy brought out a 1995. Aside from mandatory safety features, no modifications were needed to meet pace car specifications.

The C4 was in a holding pattern with minor upgrades like larger brakes, traction control and optional run-flat tires. However, the big news was it’s selection to once again pace Indy 500, and it was the second time Chevrolet would build a number of pace car replicas for the general public.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 1.14.16 PMThe 1995 Corvette pace car was piloted by Chevrolet General Manager, Jim Perkins. Chevrolet produced 527 replicas with the exact same option package sported by the pace car.

1995 Indy Pace Car Option Package

  • 5.7L LT1 Engine
  • 4-Speed Automatic Transmission
  • Performance Axle Ratio
  • 9.5″ Front and Rear Argent ZR1 Wheels
  • P275/40ZR17 B/W Tires
  • Coated ZR1 Rotors
  • Electronic Air Conditioning
  • Delco/Bose Music System
  • Power Driver and Passenger Seats
  • Convertible Dark Purple Metallic over Arctic White Two-Tone paint
  • Special Indy Decal Package and Emblems
  • Black Interior
  • Black Leather Adjustable Sport Bucket Seats with Purple Insert and Indy Logo on Headrest
After the subdued paint scheme for the ’78 pace car, Chevy threw caution to the wind with the paint scheme for the ’95 pace car. A two-tone Dark Purple Metallic with Arctic White featuring a broad red strip across the front that transformed into flags on the sides of the car, not for the faint of heart.

The 1995 race winner was Jacques Villeneuve, driving the #27 Ford Cosworth XB.

For the next Corvette pace car experience, we didn’t have to wait too long.

Only three years passed before the next ‘Vette paced the Indy. The 1998 model year saw the return of the convertible and Corvette paced the Indy 500 for the fourth time.

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The 1998 Indy 500 Corvette C5 Pace Car

The ’98 C5 pace car was an eye-catcher with Radar Blue exterior paint, bright yellow wheels, and black and yellow leather interior. A yellow graphics package with a checkered flag motif stretches from the front grill to the tail.

Screen Shot 2015-12-10 at 2.17.47 PMBecause the 345 horsepower Corvette engine needs no modifications to handle the Indy 500 pace laps, the replicas were identical to the original pace car.

Adding to the reintroduction of the convertible with the ’98 C5 was an impressive Active Handling Chassis Control System, known today as “Stability Control.”

The new system incorporated a yaw sensor, a lateral accelerometer sensor, and steering angle sensor working together with the ABS system to enhance the Corvette’s handling with accident avoidance capabilities. The 1998 Indy 500 race winner was Eddie Cheever Jr., driving the #51 Oldsmobile Aurora.

From the ’70s to the ’90s, Corvette left a lasting impression at the Indianapolis 500. The only car without any performance modifications to stand-up to the pace car duties of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

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After the 1998 Corvette Pace Car, can you identify the remaining years?

The 2000s only came to solidify Corvette’s position as Indy 500’s favorite pace car. Our next article in this series will focus on the years 2000 and up until today, as we continue to explore the history of the Corvette Pace Car.

About the author

Luz Boyer

Luz was born in Panama City, Panama. Upon arriving in the U.S., she discovered a passion for cars and pursued a career as an Automotive Technician. She was a GM technician for eight years before she started teaching automotive technology, is a Bureau of Auto Repair Certified Smog Instructor, and a true Corvette enthusiast.
Read My Articles

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