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Blog / Historic Moments

Pace Cars of the 1960s

Detroit’s finest iron led the NASCAR race cars to the green flag during the wild and wooly decade that was the 1960s

The 1960s was an unprecedented and utterly unpredictable decade in American history, as fashion musical tastes and technology all changed the world permanently.

From Woodstock to the first moon landing, from the Amazin’ Mets to miniskirts and the Mustang, the 1960s saw rapid changes and evolution on any number of fronts, including automobile racing.

Detroit’s Big 3 automakers – General Motors, Ford and Chrysler – still sold plenty of convertibles in the 1960s, and those droptop muscle cars made ideal pace cars for NASCAR.

And it gives us a perfectly reasonable excuse to write about some of the most wonderful cars ever to roll out of the Motor City.

So here goes:

Larry Carrier, one of the founders of Bristol International Speedway, drove this Ford Thunderbird pace car prior to the track’s first race. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

1961 Ford Thunderbird

For the 1961 model year, Ford Motor Co. unveiled its third-generation Thunderbird personal luxury car, available as a coupe or convertible. Bristol International Speedway (now Bristol Motor Speedway) used a T-bird convertible as the pace car for its very first premier series race, the Volunteer 500 on July 30, 1961.

A Pontiac Bonneville was the 1962 Daytona 500 pace car, and Fireball Roberts won the race in a ’62 Pontiac Catalina. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center via Getty Images

1962 Pontiac Bonneville

The 1962 season was the high-water mark for General Motors’ Pontiac Division, which that year won 22 premier series races and its only Manufacturers’ Championship. Daytona Beach native and Hall of Famer Fireball Roberts (2014) drove Pontiacs to a sweep of all three points races he competed in at Daytona International Speedway.

Track President Paul Sawyer employed a Pontiac Bonneville for the 1963 Richmond 250. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center via Getty Images

1963 Pontiac Bonneville

My how things change: In 1963, NASCAR raced in Richmond, Virginia, on a half-mile dirt track known as Atlantic Rural Fairgrounds, with Joe Weatherly (2015) winning ahead of fellow Hall of Famers Ned Jarrett (2011) and Rex White (2015). Today, that property is known as Richmond Raceway and the track is a 0.750-mile paved oval with a D-shaped frontstretch.

The 1964 Old Dominion 500 proved to be a historically significant race. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center via Getty Images

1964 Mercury Marauder

The first hardtop in this group is an important one, in that this white Mercury Marauder paced the 1964 Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville Speedway, NASCAR’s oldest track. That race was the first one in which Martinsville gave the winner – Hall of Famer Fred Lorenzen (2015) – a 6-foot tall Ridgeway Clock as a trophy. Today, Martinsville’s clocks are among the most prized trophies in all of NASCAR.

Now here’s an oddity: for a 1965 race at North Wilkesboro Speedway, the track employed a Ford Thunderbird borrowed from Bristol International Speedway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

1965 Ford Thunderbird

Just two weeks after North Wilkesboro Speedway hosted the 1965 Gwyn Staley 400, Bristol International Speedway staged the Southeastern 500. So the folks at Bristol wisely provided a pace car to North Wilkesboro to promote the later race.

Another interesting cross promotion came prior to the 1965 Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center via Getty Images

1965 Chevrolet Impala

Lincoln Speedway in New Oxford, Pennsylvania, used Daytona International Speedway to tout its upcoming Grand National race in the 1965 season. Unfortunately for the northeastern track, its 1965 premier series race would prove to be the seventh and final one it ever hosted.

The Daytona-Permatex 300 had its own official pace car in 1966. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center via Getty Images

1966 Mercury Comet

NASCAR has always run multiple divisions during Speedweeks each February at Daytona International Speedway, and 1966 was no exception. For the 1966 Permatex 300 NASCAR Modified/Sportsman Division race the sanctioning body was able to secure a Mercury Comet convertible to lead the field to green.

For the 1967 model year, Pontiac introduced a sporty new model known as the Firebird. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center via Getty Images

1967 Pontiac Firebird

New model introductions are a great opportunity to get some publicity via the pace car route. Such was the case at the 1967 Daytona 500, where Pontiac’s all-new two-door Firebird coupe served as the pace car for the Great American Race. This pace car was autographed by many of the world’s top racing personalities who were in Daytona for Speedweeks.

Actor James Garner was a huge auto racing fan. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center via Getty Images

1968 Chevrolet Camaro

This one wasn’t NASCAR, but it was at Daytona International Speedway with a famous driver, so we’re going to allow it. Actor James Garner, well-known for his love of all things related to motorsports and fast cars, drove the pace car for the 1968 24 Hours of Daytona (now Rolex 24) sports-car endurance race.

Back in the day, NASCAR sponsors used models to promote their products. Photo courtesy of NASCAR Research & Archives Center via Getty Images

1969 Chevrolet Camaro

For the 1969 World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600) weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, sponsor Union Oil Co. employed a group of models it called the Union 76 Girls to engage the massive crowd and take part in the festivities connected with the race weekend.

Tom Jensen

Tom Jensen

Tom is the Curatorial Affairs Manager of the NASCAR Hall of Fame and a veteran of more than 20 years in the NASCAR media industry.

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