Crushing Pace Car Calamities Uncommon But Costly

Detroit Grand Prix. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

Detroit Grand Prix. © [Andy Clary / Spacesuit Media]

By Allan Brewer

Eighty year old Johnny Rutherford was not around on Sunday in Detroit to coach General Motors executive Mark Reuss around the Detroit Grand Prix course on Belle Isle. Had he been there it is likely a crash into the concrete barrier at the inside of Turn 2 of the 2-mile course would have been avoided. Rutherford has, most people would agree, the most and best experience to help a non-racer briskly cover a tricky track—including crashing in the pace car himself.

Rutherford’s brush with pace car disaster came in 1999, at the Indy Racing League event hosted by Texas Motor Speedway outside Fort Worth. Rutherford, a veteran racer with three Indianapolis 500 victories under his belt, was summoned on-track to pace the field following an accident that brought out a full-course yellow. As he came up through the field a competitor drifted left into the pace car, which did a Joey Chitwood-esque roll over on its two left wheels and wobbled and lurched for 50 yards before returning upright to the pavement. The back-up pace car came out and served duty the remainder of the event.

Rutherford also recalls a high-profile celebrity he taught how to conduct the Corvette pace car around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005—General Colin Powell. A Corvette owner himself, the famous military man trained on the legendary 650 hp C6 model under Rutherford. “I started out by taking a few laps with him in the passenger seat and showing him where to run, and then I let him drive the car,” Rutherford recalls. “We got that part over with. Then it was race day, and time to go out for the start and get the command, “Pace car, move out.’”

Three laps later in front of a quarter of a million people and even more on television, Rutherford remembers coming off of Turn 4. “He was going 130 mph through the pit gate. I see the speed; he’s just right, 120 to 125. Then he drives right by the pit entrance.”
“I said, ‘General, you just missed the pits.’ He went stiff as if coming to ‘Attention,’ and said, ‘I guess I was just having too much fun.’”

Colin Powell’s faux pas is not the only embarrassing pace car incident ahead of an IndyCar competition. In 1971 none of the Big Three auto manufacturers chose to supply a pace car for the Indianapolis 500, as the muscle car market had dried up in the wake of the first oil embargo and marketing efforts were shifted elsewhere. Local Indianapolis Dodge dealer Eldon Palmer won the honor of pacing the race in the Dodge Challenger 383-4V pace car by virtue of his leadership in acquiring the brace of cars the Speedway requires from private Dodge dealers in Central Indiana.

Everything went fine up until the point where Palmer crashed into a photographer’s stand at the south end of the pit area, injuring 29 people. Immediately after pulling off the track onto the pit lane to start the race, Palmer realized he was going too fast and rather than dangerously going back on to the racing surface, he stood on the brakes (the car was equipped with drum brakes) and lost control. The stand collapsed when he struck it head-on at roughly 60 mph.

Two-time Indy 500 champion Arie Luyendyk took a brief turn behind the wheel of the series’ pace car in 2014. Luyendyk was shepherding the IndyCar field around the track in the pace car during the Honda Indy Toronto when he got hard on the brakes on a wet track heading into a right turn, locking up the brakes and skidding sideways 100 yards onto a safety run-off chute. Luckily, Luyendyk did not hit the barrier wall and was able to make his way back onto the race track after he waited for some IndyCar drivers who didn’t spin out to pass him.

Mark Reuss, GM’s executive vice president for Global Product Development, Purchasing and Supply Chain and a passenger, IndyCar official Mark Sandy, were taken to the track medical center after Reuss steered the 2019 Corvette ZR1 around turn two of the parade lap at the Raceway on Belle Isle. Reuss lost control of the 750 hp car when turning left onto a short straightaway. With wheels still turning, he swerved hard to the left, corrected the front wheels, but still found himself going forward at high speed and hitting the wall. The front of the car smacked the concrete hard, the airbags deployed and the car skidded to a halt on the racing line. The race was immediately stopped to clear the wreckage and clean up the carbon-fiber debris.

The aftermath proved embarrassing as well as costly. Imagine being the person who drove a $120,000 Corvette pace car into a concrete wall right under a Chevy banner that reads “Find New Roads.” “We are thankful that there were no major injuries,” Chevrolet said in a statement. “Both the pace car driver and the series official were taken to the infield care center, where they were checked, cleared and released. It is unfortunate that this incident happened.”

“I felt really bad for him. Where it happened is such a bad corner. It’s real easy to do,” said Will Power (via Auto Week), the winner of last week’s Indy 500 and the second-place finisher Sunday. “Come to the races, you’ll see anything,” longtime team owner Roger Penske said. Someday Mr. Reuss will have a chuckle at his experience driving the IndyCar pace car, but not today and probably for some time to come.

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