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1966 Mercury Comet Cyclone GT - Pace Cars Get The Party Started
And They Got Started at Indy!
Distinctive enough to have its own die-cast model, the '66 Cyclone GT pace car combined style, handling, and performance along with the prestige of leading one of the world's most famous races. The original was driven by Benson Ford, head of Lincoln Mercury at the start of the 1966 race. Before we tell you all about this particular example, it's important to know how the pace car came to be.
Almost as old as the automobile itself, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway began as a gravel and tar track in 1909. Racing conditions were hazardous and after several fatalities, track president, Carl Fisher, decided on a very expensive safety measure; paving the 2.5-mile track with an astonishing 3.2 million bricks! The gamble paid off and the smoother surface gave "The Brickyard" an enhanced status among the racing circuits of the day. To properly publicize his new track, Fisher focused on creating one major event, a 500-mile, 200-lap race that would test the endurance of both driver and car. On Memorial Day, May 30, 1911, the first "International 500-Mile Sweepstakes Race" (quickly abbreviated to the Indy 500) drew 80,000 spectators and established an annual tradition that continues today. During that race and every Indy 500 since, a pace car was used to control the pack, creating a parade lap to showcase the cars for the crowd and it allowed for a rolling start—something that Fisher considered safer for the drivers and spectators. He was behind the wheel of the very first pace car, a Stoddard-Dayton.
Pace cars continue to control the field today on the initial start, as well as on restarts, after caution periods. Rules prevent the drivers from passing the pace car or any other car during the yellow flag cautionary periods. While the pace cars quickly proved their worth on the track, they soon took on a life of their own, becoming sought-after choices by manufacturers eager for the publicity and prestige of having their vehicles in front of such a large audience.
Chosen two months prior to the event, the pace cars were always the highest horsepower versions available to ensure they could achieve the speeds necessary during the parade lap. Heavy-duty suspensions with slightly lower springs, beefy antisway bars, bigger brakes, and premium rubber were added in the early years to ensure that the cars could negotiate Indy's high-speed corners. While the race exposure was great publicity that spurred sales, it was also a double-edged sword with manufacturers going to great lengths to ensure that their cars performed well on the track during their moment of glory. Any type of failure at that point could be disastrous.
As you might expect, the amount of pre-race modifications for a pace car was not greatly publicized, since consumers expected the cars to be reliable without any special preparation. That was not always the case, however. When the Chevrolet Camaro was selected in 1969, a fleet of 130 pace car replicas was created to be used as courtesy and support vehicles during the event. Most of the changes were cosmetic, but the pair of actual pace cars received extensive modifications. Equipped with 375 hp, L89 V-8s and automatic transmissions, the cars were shipped to the GM Tech Center where the engines and transmissions were disassembled, thoroughly inspected, and reassembled. Aluminum heads were replaced with L78 cast-iron heads, a special 6-bolt COPO torque converter was installed, and JL8 four-wheel disc brake axles with 3.31 gears completed the mechanicals. All suspension components were magnafluxed and treated to ensure they would not fail during the race. They even went so far as to install pre-stretched drivebelts and aircraft-type hose clamps. As the automobile continued to evolve, however, fewer changes were necessary. Modern cars like the '10 Camaro selected last year needed virtually no pre-race performance enhancements to qualify, although all receive a careful inspection along with a distinctive paintjob that incorporates the traditional pace car logo on the sides and a specially designed light bar with strobes.
As a further nod to safety in the early years, seasoned race car drivers were chosen to lead the pack. In recent years, well-known celebrities have been allowed to drive the pace laps, although once the race is underway, a trained official always drives the in-race pace car. Almost all Indianapolis cars are convertibles with a few notable exceptions like the four-door, '97 Oldsmobile Aurora, the first four-door since the '47 Nash Ambassador. Olds was selected that year thanks to its 100th Anniversary and the fact that more than half of the Indy cars were using a highly tuned version of the Aurora powerplant. It was the first time the same engine design was in the pace car and the winning car!
Maybe one of the best perks concerning pace cars is the fact that the winner of the race gets one! Fullsize replicas of the annual pace cars are always hot sellers with dealers vying for them as attention-getters in their show rooms and enthusiasts lining up for manufacturer-sponsored purchase ceremonies.
Bill Leachman, a realtor and developer living in Daytona Beach Shores, Florida, has always been interested in the uniqueness of pace cars. He is a member of Pioneer Antique Auto Club and over the years, he has owned several interesting vehicles, including a '69 El Camino, an '02 Thunderbird, and an '08 Shelby Mustang GT500. He was thrilled to find this '66 Comet Cyclone GT convertible offered for sale at last year's Daytona Turkey Run. A complete rotisserie restoration had been accomplished a few years before and the car has had minimal show miles on it since.
The '66 Cyclone GT's were comparatively rare cars, numbering 13,812 hardtops and only 2,158 convertibles. Of that number, only 100 S-code pace cars were built, all convertibles and all painted Candy Apple Red with Parchment interiors. The car in the photographs has changed hands several times over the years, and while Bill hasn't been able to find definitive documentation saying it was a true pace car, he loves it anyway, driving in three to four times every week.
Correct except for a white tonneau cover instead of red and an updated set of rims and modern rubber instead of the original Styled Steel wheels and red line tires, Bill's Comet features Parchment bucket seats, matching Sports console, and SelectShift floor shifter for the C6 automatic. Color-coordinated seatbelts and carpet completes the look, while an aftermarket Grant wheel and Alpine stereo add to the fun.
Comfort options include power steering, power brakes, and a power top. Appropriately enough, we photographed Leachman's Cyclone in a race car setting, during the 2010 Turkey Run at Daytona International Speedway.
Powered by Ford's popular 390-cid/335-hp V-8, this Cyclone GT has the optional handling package, front disc brakes, and Merc-O-Matic transmission with console-mounted shifter. Dual exhausts were standard along with a fiberglass hood with twin nonfunctional air scoops. GT badging, side stripes, and the Indianapolis 500 logo make the car a stand out in any crowd. Capable of 0 to 60 times in the 7-second range and quarter-mile runs in the high 14s, it was quick back in 1966 and is still a high-performance ride today.