31 May 2016

DeSoto led the way at Indy 60 years ago

They don’t call it the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for nothing. Much like non-football fans who still watch the Super Bowl every year, plenty of non-motorsports fans likely caught a lap or two of Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Some of us watched all 200.

Indy’s allure was even stronger this year for the 100th running of the race, which was first held in 1911. (If you’re doing the math, you should know that the event was canceled in 1917 and ’18 due to World War I and 1942-45 during WWII.) A sellout crowd of 350,000 attended the race at the famed 2.5-mile oval. Race officials announced earlier in the week that due to fans’ overwhelming response, the traditional local-television blackout was lifted for the first time since 1950 so the entire state of Indiana could watch the race live.

“There’s no event in the world like the Indianapolis 500,” said Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles.

While most of Sunday’s focus was on the racecars, a 2016 Chevrolet Camaro SS was up front, pacing the field. The tradition is as old as the race itself. When then-Speedway President Carl G. Fisher used a privately owned Stoddard-Dayton passenger car to lead the field around the track to the waiting flagman for the start of the inaugural race in 1911, it is believed to have been the first mass-rolling start for any major automobile race.

The list of brands that have paced Indy is long. It includes Stutz, Packard, Marmon, National, Duesenberg, Cord, Cadillac, Lincoln, Chrysler, Ford, LaSalle, Hudson, Buick, Studebaker, Nash, Oldsmobile, Mercury, Dodge and Chevrolet – and those were all before 1956.

That year – exactly sixty years ago on May 30th – a gold and white DeSoto Fireflite convertible led the field. The car featured gold wheel covers, gold grille and gold medallions, as well as a gold-trimmed interior that was later used on the DeSoto Adventurer. Powered by a Hemi V-8 engine mated to a 3-speed push-button transmission, the DeSoto was chosen by Indy officials because of its “outstanding performance and superb handling characteristics.” It had a claimed top speed of more than 140 mph.

DeSoto management called the special-edition pace car the Pacesetter, but because it was never designated as a separate model, no accurate production records exist. It is believed that fewer than 500 were built; some believe that number is closer to 100. Base price was $3,565, the equivalent of about $31,463 in today’s economy.

The 1956 DeSoto Fireflite pace car could be had with a new-fangled Highway Hi-Fi record player, but we’re guessing the actual car that led the Indy field skipped it. Sorry about that, but why not listen to the racecars instead?

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