Pace cars for the Indianapolis 500 have been driven by actor James Garner, singer Marty Robbins, test pilot Chuck Yeager, car dealer Eldon Palmer and the Ford family--Edsel, Henry II, W. C. and Benson--but mostly they’ve been driven by old race car drivers.
Carroll Shelby, once a race car driver but now a performance car builder and consultant, will be behind the wheel of the Chrysler LeBaron convertible that will lead the 33 cars on their way Sunday in the 71st Indy 500.
“It’s more an honorary thing, but you don’t want to screw it up,” Shelby said. “There’s a lot of people going to be watching.”
Shelby never raced here, although he was one of America’s greatest road racers in the ‘50s.
“I came back once, in 1958, and took my driver’s test, but (Chief Steward) Harlan Fengler told me that two people couldn’t take the test in the same car.
“My car was back in California getting ready, and I took my test in Jack Ensley’s roadster to save some time. There wasn’t anything in the rule book about it, but Fengler had a hard nose against road racers and what he said went.
“I didn’t want to get into a beef--it wasn’t worth the effort--so I packed up and went to Belgium and drove in the Grand Prix.”
The year before, Shelby had won 19 straight races and his second Sports Car Club of America championship. In 1959 he helped the Aston-Martin team win the world manufacturers’ championship and was a co-driver in the winning Aston-Martin at the 24 Hours of LeMans.
“I kind of wish I’d tried it (Indy) again, but so many good things happened to me that I can’t look on it as a bummer,” Shelby said. “I might have tried again, but it was only two years later that I had to give up racing.”
Shelby, who is in his mid-60s, had a heart attack in 1960 and retired as a driver.
He made one other foray here in 1971, as a car owner, when he bought an Eagle from Dan Gurney’s All-America Racers.
Shelby bought the car to give Danny Ongais, then a drag racing phenom, an opportunity at Indy car racing. Ongais crashed while practicing at Phoenix, though, and was unable to drive. Shelby put Jerry Grant in the car, but he was bumped from the 500 field after qualifying at 168 m.p.h.
So for Shelby, that was it for Indy until he was named to drive the pace car this year.
After he quit racing, Shelby turned to designing and building a sports car--the Shelby AC-Ford Cobra--to compete with the Europeans. It was a combination of a Ford V-8 engine from the United States and an AC chassis from England.
In 1965 the Cobra became the first, and still the only, American car to win the FIA manufacturers’ championship for Grand Touring cars.
Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, an old friend from their days at Ford, called on Shelby in 1982 to help develop a special performance version of production cars. Shelby had designed the Shelby Mustang, which finished 1-2-3 at LeMans, when Iacocca was president of Ford.
“That’s how I got the (pace car) ride here,” Shelby said. “I was working with Iacocca when they picked the LeBaron as the pace car, and they figured I was the logical guy to drive it.”
When Shelby was the scourge of American road racing circuits, he became famous for wearing striped bib overalls when he drove.
“I was working as a chicken farmer back in Oklahoma, and sometimes I’d drive straight from work to a race and didn’t have time to change my clothes, so I just raced in my overalls,” he said with a laugh. “The fans loved it, so I started doing it all the time.”
There will be no bib overalls, however, when Shelby leaves pit road Sunday with Iacocca and Gerald Greenwald, Chrysler chairman, as his passengers.
“They’re kind of serious guys,” Shelby said. “I think it’ll probably be a coat-and-tie day.”
Shelby has logged about 100 laps in testing the car and himself for his three laps--two parade laps and then the pace lap, on which he will turn the field loose for its charge into the first turn.
“I’ll be doing about 90 until I get to the third turn on the third lap, when I’ll pull away to 115. The toughest part is pulling into the pit lane. They want you to wait until the last minute in case there’s a problem and (Chief Steward) Tom Binford or (starter) Duane Sweeney wants me to take them around for another lap.
“Like I said, it’s hard to mess up, but it’s happened.”
It happened in 1971, when Palmer, an Indianapolis car dealer, pulled into pit road and didn’t stop until he had crashed into a photographers’ stand at the end of the pits. Several photographers were injured. The Speedway was censured for having an inexperienced driver at the wheel.
“It turned out it wasn’t that guy’s fault at all,” Shelby said. “Every time he went out to practice, they told him to look for the flag pole as the cutoff point to start braking.
“The day before the race, they took down the flag pole and no one told the guy. He comes in hot, about 115, and he’s looking for the flag pole and it isn’t there. By the time he realized it was gone, it was too late and he was into the stand.
“He really got blistered about it, but it wasn’t his fault. I don’t want anything like that to happen to me. I’ll have several references for my cutoff point.”
Shelby has been in Los Angeles for several days for a medical checkup of a nagging lung infection. He will be back here Thursday for the drivers’ meeting and a final dry run with Binford and Assistant Steward Bob Cassaday.
The 500 will be only part of a busy weekend for Shelby.
Sunday afternoon, about the time the race is over, he and Iacocca will be flown out of the Speedway grounds by helicopter to nearby Indianapolis International Airport for a flight to Monaco.
There, Shelby will drive a Chrysler-Maserati sports car as part of the Grand Prix of Monte Carlo.
“They don’t have a pace car in Grand Prix racing because they use a standing start,” Shelby said. “But they have what they call a chase car. It follows the field around for the first lap.”
So Shelby will be pacing here and chasing there.