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STRANGE OLDE INDY 500 PACE CARS - 1961 FORD THUNDERBIRD

OFFICIAL PACE CAR AND ALTERNATE PACE CAR

Ford Motor Company was given the honor of providing the Pace Car for the 1961 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. The Thunderbird, with its unmistakably new styling was the obvious choice. This would be the 50th (Golden) Anniversary of the Indianapolis 500 Race, although it was not actually the 50th running of the race; during World War II the race was suspended. Ford would provide a total of thirty-four 1961 Thunderbird Convertibles, including one Official Pace Car, one alternate Official Pace Car, and thirty-two Official "500" Festival Cars.

All would be painted a unique shade of Gold that was not available on any other car, not even other Thunderbirds. All of the cars featured White convertible tops and either Black Leather or Black Vinyl interior trim, Firestone brand whitewall tires (they sponsored the race), Rear Fender Shields, and 3.00:1 Rear Axles.

The Official Pace Car differed from the others in that it was equipped with a Light Pearl Beige Leather interior. This car had specific markings on it that identified it as the Official Pace Car. These included "THUNDERBIRD OFFICIAL PACE CAR" lettering on the doors in black block lettering, with "Thunderbird" above the crease on the door, and "Official Pace Car" below the crease. "Thunderbird" was also in slightly larger lettering. Below "Official Pace Car" were two 1/2-inch wide horizontal red stripes running the full length of the door. On the rear quarter panel, centered high above the rear wheel opening, were the words "GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY" in small black block lettering. At the crease, "INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY" appeared with "MAY 30, 1961" just above the rear wheel opening in matching lettering. The alternate Official Pace Car would serve as a backup, in case the Official Pace Car developed mechanical problems that would prevent it from operating to begin the race. The alternate car was identical except it had a black interior. Mechanical modifications to the two Pace Cars might have been made prior to the race, but no documentation has turned up to date indicating this actually happened.

THE OFFICIAL "500" FESTIVAL CARS

The 32 festival cars filled their official capacity by appearing in the parade the week before the race, and to carry the race car drivers around the track during introductions held before the race. The 32 festival cars plus the alternate Pace Car represented the 33 drivers that would start the race. These festival cars all featured Black Leather or Black Vinyl interiors. Specific markings appeared to identify these cars, including a large blue square frame about an inch wide, the center of which was clear and displayed "OFFICIAL CAR" in large black block letters at the center top of the door. Below, "500" appeared in large red numerals, just above the crease on the door. "FESTIVAL" in black script outlined in white was just below the crease, and below that "MAY 30, 1961" again in black lettering with a white outline. On the rear quarter panels, centered above the rear wheel opening and above the bodyside crease appeared "COURTESY OF" in black script, followed by the name of the Ford dealership sponsoring that particular car in black block lettering just below the bodyside crease. After performing their duties at the race, these 32 festival cars were returned to the sponsoring dealers who, in turn, probably sold them. They might have been repainted due to the decals that had been affixed to them—or in order to sell them—and the fact they once held a special place in automotive history was quickly forgotten.

HOW TO IDENTIFY THE INDY 500 CARS

Of the 34 cars, only 6 have been located and documented over the years. The Official Pace Car is believed to have been given to A.J. Foyt as part of his winnings, and some believe he in turn later gave the car to his Mother, but this is speculation, no one seems to know for sure. To date no documentation has turned up that sheds any light on the history of the car after the race. However, Automotive Mileposts is attempting to determine what happened to the Pace Car after the race, and when we are able to document those events, they will be included on this page.

Unfortunately, one of the 6 documented cars was destroyed in a devastating fire at the Wisconsin Dells in December 1999. The remains of the car apparently still exist, and due to the extremely unique nature of the car, the possibility exists that it might be rebuilt someday. Two of the surviving cars are in Indiana, one is in Wisconsin, one in Arkansas, and the final one is believed to be in Iowa.

For unknown reasons, the survival rate of the 1961 Thunderbirds as a whole seems to be very low. However, the possibility exists that the identity of a few unknown surviving Indy 500 cars might be obscured by repaints using another color. Here are a few facts that will enable you to identify these cars:
 

STRANGE OLDE INDY 500 PACE CARS - 1961 FORD THUNDERBIRD






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