The 2002 pace car
What could it be?  What should it be?
An editorial by Marc Lieberman, Webmaster

The 2002 Indianapolis 500 is less than five months away, and the announcement of the 2002 pace car is just around the corner.  The 2002 model year has seen the resurrection of one American legend and the demise of two others — the Chevy Camaro and Pontiac Firebird — making all three top contenders for the prestigious honor of Indy Pace Car.  There are other possibilities too, including the all-new 2003 Cadillac CTS, the powerful Chevy Corvette Z06, the redesigned Dodge Viper, or perhaps an offering from the final Oldsmobile line-up.  Perhaps a truck/SUV hybrid, such as the Lincoln Blackwood, Chevy Avalanche, or the 2003 Cadillac Escalade EXT?  The possibilities are endless, but a few strong contenders stand out.  Here's what one pace car fan thinks about this year's offerings.

The 2002 and 2003 model years provide several good choices for the 2002 pace car.  And while the selection of the pace car often comes down to money and corporate marketing, I like to believe that the car selected to pace the Indy 500 will be the one that deserves the honor.  While there are some great contenders, a few cars seem to stand out to me.

First let me say that this year's pace car ought to be just that — a car.  I'm all for change and for trying something new, and Oldsmobile's Bravada proved to be worthy of "Pace Vehicle" status.  So while there's nothing wrong with a truck pacing the Indy 500, I'd like to see the pace car program return to what it used to be — sometimes raw power, sometimes a mixture of refinement and technology, but always a head-turner.

Unfortunately GM has decided that it is time to get rid of two of the most well-known American performance cars, the Camaro and Firebird.  In past decades these cars were shunned as "gas guzzlers", but it was lack of sales that eventually led to their demise.  (This as SUVs continue to get bigger and get lower gas mileage.)  Although one or both of these cars could return in 2004, their "final model year" status certainly makes them a strong choice for the 2003 pace car.

With Chevrolet's sponsorship of the Brickyard 400, the Camaro become the darling of the Brickyard.  It has seen action as a pace car or parade car at the Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 several times in the past decade.  Although the Camaro served as a festival car for the 1999 Indy 500, it has not led the race since 1993.  In fact the fourth-generation Camaro convertible has never been used as a pace car — both the '93 Indy 500 and '97 Brickyard 400 pace cars were hardtops.  This is also the 35th Anniversary of the Camaro, making it an even more appropriate choice, and the color scheme of the 35th Anniversary Collector's Edition car is practically ready for the track.

2002 Pontiac Firebird
The Camaro's F-body sibling, the Pontiac Firebird, will also halt production after 2002.  The Firebird is also 35 years old, introduced in 1967, yet it was not until 1980 that the car was chosen to pace the Indy 500, and it has led the race only twice in its history.  In my opinion the Firebird is certainly the most overlooked nameplate when it comes to choosing the pace car.  I thought the white-and-blue 30th Anniversary Trans Am was the perfect choice for the 1999 Indy 500, which was instead lead by the 2000 Monte Carlo.  (The Trans Am was used as the Daytona 500 pace car.)  Pontiac will also produce a "Collectors Edition" with special graphics, making it an ideal choice for the Indy 500 pace car.

Although the Firebird is named for the mythical phoenix, it is another "bird" that has risen from the ashes this year — the Ford Thunderbird.  Ford's revival of this American legend closely echoes the styling cues of the original 2-seater, making it an instant classic.  The rear-wheel-drive car is powered by a 3.9L V8, which should give it enough power for pace car duties.  This retro sports coupe definitely deserves a shot at pace car duties, if not this year then some time in the near future.  Unfortunately Ford has shown little interest in the pace car program in recent years, despite their involvement in NASCAR and open-wheel racing.

Another new car that is worthy of consideration for pace car duty is the 2003 Cadillac CTS, which will become available in January 2002.  Although not a sports car, Cadillac's newest offering appears up to the challenge with a 220-hp, 3.2L V6 engine, a 5-speed manual transmission, and cutting-edge styling.  Cadillac is no stranger to the Brickyard, leading the Indy 500 three times previously.

The demise of the Camaro and Firebird leave just one muscle car from each of the Big 3 automakers — the Chevy Corvette, Dodge Viper, and Ford Mustang.  All three are possible choices for this year's Indy pace car.  Chevy brings to the table its 385-hp Corvette Z06, while Dodge has unveiled a redesigned 2003 Viper (the first significant redesign since it debuted in 1991) that produces a whopping 500-horsepower.  The Mustang comes in a variety of flavors, including the SVT Cobra (4.6L/320-hp), and SVT Cobra R (5.4L/385-hp), as well as aftermarket offerings from Roush and Saleen.  All three of these cars would be at home on the racetrack, but each has led the Indy 500 within the past six years and none offer any dramatic changes since their last visit.

So which car do I think should be the 2002 Indy 500 pace car?  There are great reasons to pick any of the seven cars listed above.  Last year at this time my first choice was the Thunderbird, which was just entering production, and it may have been my first choice this year except for the demise of the Camaro and Firebird.  While I love the new offerings from Ford and Cadillac (and the redesigned '03 Viper), I'd rather send the F-body out with a bang.  And between the two, my choice would be the Firebird, simply due to the fact that the Camaro has paced the Indy 500 four times and the Firebird only twice.  Also, if either car were to return to production, it would most likely be the Camaro.  Plus,  the Camaro can always pace the Brickyard 400.

Unfortunately what seems to make the most sense is not always what happens in life, especially when dealing with the complexities of large corporations and their advertising budgets.  GM has been the most heavily involved in the pace car program over the past decade, so it seems likely that the pace car will once again be from GM, but which one?  As someone said last year (in reference to the Olds Bravada), "why promote a car line that being shut down?"  The same could be said about the Camaro or Firebird running at Indy.  And then there's Oldsmobile, who has been heavily involved in the Indy Racing League over the past several years.  GM may surprise us all by nominating the Alero or Intrigue for the job.  Perhaps it's Cadillac's time to return to Indianapolis, or maybe GM will bring the Corvette back for its fifth visit.  Or maybe Ford or Chrysler will be given the opportunity to return to the track this year.  It's anybody's guess, but with the new year upon us, the official announcement can't be far away.

What do you think the pace car will be?  Be sure to stop by the homepage and take our poll!

 

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