Penske Parades Pace Cars on Woodward, TTAC Talks Toilet Seats With Bobby Unser

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

Here’s a little bit of racing trivia you may not have known. In addition to getting a check with a couple of commas in the amount, the winning driver of the Indianapolis 500 is also awarded the pace car for that year’s race. I’m not talking about one of the thousands of replicas they sell at the dealers or even one of the dozens of courtesy cars with pace car graphics that they use at the race. I’m talking about the actual vehicle used to pace the drivers as they come into formation for the flying start and then functions as a safety car when yellow flags are unfurled. That means that racers driving for Roger Penske’s team have won sixteen of those pace cars.

Apparently those drivers’ contracts give the team the right to buy the pace car if they win because Roger owns all sixteen paces cars from the years that his team has won the 500. To celebrate this year’s edition of the massive Woodward Dream Cruise, the Penske organization paraded their collection of authentic Indy 500 pace cars from the Penske Corp’s hospitality tent in Royal Oak all the way up to Pontiac and back, with the spiff that many of the cars were being driven by current and former Penske racers.

When I saw the announcement at one of the Detroit dailies’ website about the parade, it mentioned that some Penske drivers would be there. I figured since NASCAR is having a Cup race at Michigan International Speedway this weekend, Joey Logano and some of the other stock car drivers were what they were talking about. Logano was there, but Penske also brought in current IndyCar drivers Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, as well as former driver’s of his such as Rusty Wallace, Gil de Ferran, Rick Mears, Sam Hornish Jr., and the Unsers — Bobby, Al and Al Jr. In addition to the racers, Penske Corp. executives drove some of the cars. The Oakland County Sheriff’s Department provided a police escort, which may explain why Sheriff Michael Bouchard got to drive one of the cars. Roger Penske led the parade in the Hurst Olds Cutlass that paced the 1972 race, which the late Mark Donohue won for the team’s first Indy win.

Joey Logano (far right), Simon Pagenaud (3rd from right), Bobby Unser (4th from right), Al Unser Sr. (left)

There hadn’t been much publicity about the Penske pace car parade so there weren’t that many members of the general public lining up behind the barricades where the cars were corralled by a furniture store. There also were very few members of the media; a relative handful of photographers and videographers. The result was it was essentially a private event for the Penske team and corporation family. I got a chance to introduce myself to Walt Czarnecki, Roger’s #2 guy since their first car dealership. I had interviewed him not long ago about his time as a 24 year old running American Motors’ performance car program, but we’d never met. According to Czarnecki, the parade with the pace cars and the racers was all Roger Penske’s idea and Czarnecki described the experience as “very cool”. As head of Penske Racing, he’s probably done a few cool things before, so he knows about what he is talking.

After the parade, the drivers were hanging out with each other. The mood was casual and relaxed. I tell people that the second best part of this job is that I get to do some very special car guy things, including special access to events and people. How many chances will you get to see Rick Mears talking shop with Brad Keselowski? “Once I’m out of the pits, I accelerate on the apron and pull out onto the track, everything else is outside of my hands. I just have to drive.”

Considering that most of them have made their livings driving at ~200 mph, they were all pretty geeked up about the parade speed jaunt on Woodward.

Al Unser Jr.

Remember, pace cars are chosen based on business deals, so not every pace car has been exactly a sporting machine. Sure, there are some Vettes, two V8 powered Mustangs, a turbo T-topped Buick (from whose loins the mighty Grand National sprang), and a 1980 Turbo Trans Am, which I believe was GM’s first forced induction V8, but some were more mundane. The 2001 pace car for the Indy race was an Oldsmobile Bravada SUV. It didn’t matter what they were driving, however, the race car drivers thought the parade was extraordinary.

Bobby Unser was briefly standing by himself so I told him that I saw him run in the 1974 race at Indy. That was the only time I’ve been to the 500. Unser came in 2nd that year. I drove down to the race with my best friend Stevie Margolin, whose family owned a wholesale plumbing supply. We had just finished our sophomore years in college, one of our first road trips without parental supervision. We had terrific seats, about half way up in the grandstand on the main straight, between the start/finish line and the first turn. The start of that race is still the single most exciting thing I’ve ever experienced in sports. Even more tense than the seventh game of a Stanley Cup playoff in sudden death overtime. I could see my heart pounding.

Brad Keselowski (right), Ford product chief Raj Nair (facing camera)

We were cheering for Unser because of Steve’s family business. The tickets had been comped to the plumbing supply by Olsonite Toilet Seats and Unser was driving a Dan Gurney-built Olsonite Eagle. Ozzie Olson’s father had started Swedish Crucible Steel in the early 20th century and by the time the younger Olson started his career, the company’s products included hard rubber toilet seats, like you’d see today in a commercial or institutional setting. Homeowners and builders could choose those, which weren’t exactly decor friendly, or traditional wooden toilet seats, which could split, pinch or splinter. Ozzie had the idea to make solid plastic toilet seats in a variety of colors. They were a huge hit. For more than a decade the Olsonite brand had a monopoly on something that was found in almost every American home. Olson was a very wealthy man and he loved racing. His sponsorship allowed Dan Gurney to build his Eagle race cars. When Gurney retired from active racing in 1970, Unser got his USAC/Indy ride.

In the 1974 Indy 500, as the race neared its end, Bobby Unser was in second place, the only other car on the lead lap besides Johnny Rutherford. Unser seemed to have the faster car and was closing the gap, originally at about 20 seconds, and we cheered him on, but we had done the math and realized there weren’t enough laps left. Still, it was fun and a great memory.

1972 Hurst Olds Cutlass pace car from the first Indy 500 Roger Penske won as a team owner. He drove this car in the parade.

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Rutherford at the Detroit Grand Prix and we talked about that race. At the Penske parade, I asked Bobby Unser about about his checkered flag ring. Johnny Rutherford had shown me his, describing it as not gaudy like the ring given to current winners, but rather a relatively simple ring “back when a local Indianapolis jeweler awarded it to those joining the ‘Ring of Champions'”. Unser had a similar ring. He pointed out that it was embossed with three dates, for his three Indy victories. I told him about watching him race in 1974, sitting in seats supplied by Olsonite. “I still have some of those toilet seats at home,” he said and laughed. When I asked him what he thought of driving in the parade, he replied, “It was very cool.” When a three time Indy 500 winner says that something car related is cool, you can rest assured it was cool.

Photos by the author.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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2 of 11 comments
  • Corey Lewis Corey Lewis on Aug 19, 2015

    I really like the custom wheels on the Cutlass there. Those are pretty slick. The Calais is a joke other than the wheels as well. I can't decide if I think the worst item for a pace car is the LeBaron, or that Stealth. Probably the LeBaron since it was simply -not- sporty or good, really.

  • Autojim Autojim on Aug 20, 2015

    A lot of those cars are Festival/replicas, not the actual pace cars. The '79 Mustang Cobra, for instance, has a sunroof, while the actual pace car driven at the start of the race by Jackie Stewart, had a T-roof (which would not be production-available on the Fox Mustang for a few more years). The Fiero doesn't have the ram-air scoop the real one did (all the Festival/replica cars were badged "Fiero Indy"), and the various N- and GM-10 bodies are also replicas or Festival vehicles. The Stealth was never a pace car. It was supposed to be in '91, but there was so much stink about a Japanese-built car pacing the Indy 500 that Chrysler brought out a Viper prototype (not the production car shown in the pics here) to be the pace car, with the Stealths functioning as Festival vehicles.

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