The 1971 Dodge Challenger Pace Car
Much has been written about the 1971 Dodge Challenger Pace Car over the years. As an owner of one of the fifty original cars, documented by Eldon Palmer, I have done quite a bit of research on the subject.
Mr. Palmer sent me a list of the fifty cars by VIN; decoding the VINs, there were two 383 four-barrel cars, the actual pace car and the backup car. Three were 383 two-barrel equipped, three were 340 cars (these cars were used during the festivities by three of the dealers), and the remaining 42 were 318 cars. This list was recently published by another party in the April 2001 issue of Mopar Collector's Guide.
I have many pictures that I purchased from the Indy Photo shop of the race and festivities. All fifty of the cars had flat hoods. The reason that they were not “loaded” models was that Chrysler did not supply the cars. None of the manufacturers wanted to supply cars that year as the muscle car market had dried up and publicity was being directed toward Dusters, Vegas, and Pintos. So the four local Indy dealers (led by Eldon Palmer, of Palmer Dodge) purchased the fifty cars themselves.
In the Indianapolis Star articles of the day, there is absolutely no mention of anyone being killed as a result of the accident. The most seriously injured person was a doctor from Argentina; I have heard that he was a guest of the Indy 500 for many years after the accident, and passed away about two years ago.
The Star also reported that Palmer had put up a flag to judge his spot to begin braking, and that it was removed on race day. (An orange cone must have become part of the legend.) Looking at an official photo of the crashed pace car, it is evident that it was far from totaled and that the car was traveling about 20 mph when it collided with the press stand. The car sat at Mr. Palmer's residence for many years and was restored a few years ago. Looking at pictures of the cars, you can see that all of them had decals on cling material (none hand lettered). I spoke with an Indiana Dodge dealer who gave Eldon Palmer an extra set of decals “rolled up in a tube” when the car was restored.
My car, which was assigned to Dr. Robert Tarplee (a member of the board of directors of the Indy 500), was documented by Mr. Palmer as one of the cars that was used during the festival parade and on the track during the pre-race parade on race day. It is pictured in the October 2001 issue of Collectible Automobile magazine in front of the Yankee Candle Car Museum. It was also featured in the invitational display at the Chrysler Nationals at Carlisle.
The 1971 Dodge Challenger Pace Car was the only one to date that was wrecked during the Indy 500 race after it paced a yellow flag. The last Dodge pace car before this one was the 1954 Dodge Royal 500 Convertible.
Four area Dodge dealers (Capitol Dodge, McGinty Dodge, Palmer Dodge, and Shadeland Dodge) supplied the official pace car, its backup, and replicas. They were all painted EV2 Ceramic Red and had the usual options, but with manual drum brakes.
Everything went well during the parade lap, but coming out of turn four on the pace lap, [with the flag that told him when to hit the brakes missing, he faced] a temporary grandstand filled with photojournalists at the end of the pit area. Re-entering the track with race cars zooming by was not the way to do things, so Eldon slammed on the brakes as hard as he could. In the car with him were Astronaut John Glenn, sportscaster Chris Schenkel, and raceway owner Tony Hulman. The skidding pace car struck a track patrolman and hit the press stand, causing 19 injuries.
Eldon kept the car and has since restored it, and owns it to this day.
Jason Smith later wrote: A man in Indy now owns the yellow Charger prize car, along with the pace car, and the backup car, the Palmer car, and the Queens car. I own a restoration shop in Danville, and we restored the prize car and the backup car, and are currently doing the Queens car.