The opportunity to serve as the official pace car for the Indy 500—“the greatest spectacle in racing”—is marketing gold. It’s a rolling advertisement, driven on the pace lap by a big celebrity or a famous racing driver, leading a pre-race procession of thundering Indy racers around the Brickyard. The whole thing is a lofty endorsement of the car’s worthiness to be on the track alongside real competitors, and the winning driver even receives the car as a prize.
But are pace cars all that special just because marketing departments say they are? What about valuable? Do collectors buy in to the notion that these mechanically ordinary vehicles have a significant historical cachet?
Corvette is the last word in pace cars
Even though it never served as the Indy pace car until 1978, the model with the most pace laps under its belt is America’s sports car—the Corvette. To date, the Corvette has paced the 500 more than any other model as a whole, and makes up half of Chevrolet’s total of 28.
The Corvette’s debut year as pace car in 1978 not only started the tradition of Corvettes pacing the 500, it also established a tradition of pace car collecting. The 1978 model introduced the Corvette’s new fastback rear as well as a new interior, but all the attention was on the pace car replica. What had originally been planned as a small batch for public consumption quickly ballooned into a run of one car for just about every Chevrolet dealer in the country and a grand total of 6502. An article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Few Want to Drive This Car, but Many Are Eager to Buy It” fanned the flames by touting the pace car’s potential as a valuable collectors’ item, so plenty of examples were snatched up for well over the original MSRP to be put away as instant collectibles.
Chevrolet sold an official pace car replica version for many of the fourteen years that Corvette paced the Indy 500, but certainly not all of them, and that’s what makes the group of Corvettes at Mecum’s upcoming Indianapolis sale particularly special. Indy will feature a complete collection of all years of Corvette pace cars, including all the ones that were never put into production, and it is represented as the only complete group in private hands. Mileage varies from extremely low to almost nonexistent. First, bidders will have the opportunity to purchase the whole set. If they fail to meet reserve as a group, which is the most likely scenario, then each car will cross the block separately and sell at no reserve.
Pace cars are just the tip of the marketing iceberg
In addition to the pace cars themselves, manufacturers have also touted track cars (used by race officials and VIPs for the event) and festival cars (used in the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade) that are often similar to the actual pace car. Pace cars frequently sell well and they all become collectible eventually if not right away. And when those festival or track cars aren’t given out to execs or VIPs, they can be highly valued by collectors as well.
In the world of pace car replicas, there have been DeSotos, Mustangs, Camaros, Firebirds and even Fieros, and the tradition has been for the cars to be festooned with graphics, decals and loud paint until they’re about as subtle as a forest fire.
Collectible or not?
Corvette pace cars have varied but have gotten roughly similar treatment from collectors. When the Corvette convertible returned for 1986 and paced the 500, Chevrolet didn’t introduce a separate pace car replica but instead sold all 7315 1986 Corvette convertibles with Pace Car decals. In 1995 another Corvette Convertible paced the 500, but a separate model was produced again this time and was built in much smaller numbers, with a total of 527. The 1998 Chevrolet Corvette pace car is among one of the more famous ones due in large part to its almost retina-searing combination of purple and yellow, and 1,163 were built. The only other years when a significant official run of pace car replicas were sold to the public were 2007 and 2008, with 500 built for each year.
The collectibility of these series-produced pace cars is significant. The 1978s may not have been the gold mine that some thought they would be when they came out, but a condition #2 (excellent) car is worth $38,600 in the Hagerty Price Guide, well over the $19,800 for a base car. For a 1995 pace car, the number is $25,700 compared to $20,700 for a base convertible, and for a 1998 it’s $33,000 compared to $22,500.
From there, things aren’t quite as straightforward. The group of three 2004 cars out of this collection headed to Indy with Mecum is significant, since two were track cars and the other was given to that year’s race winner, Buddy Rice. The 2003 and 2005 pace cars out of the collection were track cars as well and are special, but not quite as special as the cars that actually paced the race. The 2006 and the 2013-17 cars are even more unusual in that they aren’t official pace car replicas (because GM never sold any) but they aren’t official track or festival cars used for the race, either. Instead, they are all standard production Corvettes, just applied with official graphics from the race. (This was the seller’s idea, who got special permission from GM and the track itself.)
Placing a value on many of these cars that have never been put on the market is tough, but Mecum has reasonably placed the highest presale estimates on the official track cars and the one-offs reproduced with permission. As for the more “ordinary” pace cars, Mecum’s estimates seem very ambitious even for cars with such low mileage. After all, they’re standard Corvettes to anyone who isn’t an aficionado or racing buff. Then again, just about anybody in the country interested in adding pace cars to their collection will be watching this auction and the cars cross the block on Saturday, so bidding competition will likely be heavy.
The auction is in Indy, after all.
Corvette Pace Car Collection to be auctioned off May 19th, 2018