The Most Infamous Pace Car in Indy 500 History
The car is beautiful, today. Orange paint, white leather interior, big brown steering wheel straight out of the 1970s. The demolished front end has been restored, leaving no trace of the mayhem this Dodge Challenger caused, the terror it struck at the 1971 Indianapolis 500.
It sits today in a warehouse in Fishers, low to the ground but long, sleek, its hood jutting over the grill like the overbite of a tiger shark.
This is the most notorious pace car in the history of the Indianapolis 500.
Well, it almost killed someone.
* * *
Russ Lake was taking pictures, like he always does.
His business was selling automotive chemicals in North Prairie, Wis., but his hobby was photography and his heart was here at the Indy 500. Since 1963 Russ Lake has been credentialed to shoot pictures at the 500.
He talked his way into that first IMS credential, just as he talked his way into the hobby that became his life's passion. Here I'm referencing a 1951 race at the Milwaukee Mile, where Lake captured a crash with his Kodak Duaflex - imagine a shoebox with a lens - and sold that photo to the local paper for $7.50. He was 15.
Counting the 100th Indy 500 this weekend, which Lake will shoot at age 80, he will have missed just two Indy 500s in the last 53 years. One was in 1975 when he got it in his head to open a restaurant in North Prairie. He spent race day in that doomed and empty diner, watching the Indy 500 by himself.
The other one he missed? Well, sort of missed. It was 1971 and he was there for the start, on the second tier of the three-tier camera stand just past pit road. The orange Dodge Challenger led 33 race cars around the oval, peeled off into the pits and headed toward the camera stand.
"I saw the pace car coming," Russ Lake was saying this week, "and figured he'd stop."
The brakes of the Challenger, driven by a local Dodge dealer named Eldon Palmer, locked up. Palmer, who splits his time these days between Florida and Indianapolis, says the Indy 500 starter had told him to cross the starting line at the same time as pole-sitter Peter Revson.
"It was much faster than I had practiced," Palmer was saying this week. "He was going 125 mph."
Palmer mashed the gas one last time, then hit the brakes. Nothing. Sitting next to Palmer was IMS owner Tony Hulman Jr. In the back seat were astronaut John Glenn, the future U.S. senator from Ohio, and ABC sportscaster Chris Schenkel.
They plowed into the camera stand at an estimated 60 mph.
Nobody in the car was badly hurt, but that 1971 Dodge Challenger took out the camera stand, tumbling photographers to the concrete below. Russ Lake figures he fell about 8 feet.
"I landed on some guy and knocked his teeth out," Lake says.
Lake suffered a broken leg and hip. He was hospitalized six weeks, on crutches for six months. The hip still bothers him - the rod broke in 2013, causing another surgery where the surgeon chipped away at his hip to get the old rod out - but he claims no psychological damage from May 29, 1971.
"That's my claim to fame," Lake says. "How many people can say they were on a photo stand hit by an Indy 500 pace car?"
Not many. And just one person can say he owns the car.
* * *
Like Russ Lake, Steve Cage attended his first Indianapolis 500 in 1963. He was a kid on the east side, the son of a metallurgist at the old Chrysler Foundry on Tibbs Avenue.
Cage went to Lawrence Central, was a 13-6 pole-vaulter, went to Berry College in Rome, Ga. He was home the summer of '71, sitting on the opposite side of the track, when that orange Dodge Challenger toppled the camera stand.
Cage is 63 now, owner of Stratosphere Quality, a Fishers-based quality assurances business that employs more than 2,000 in 20 states, Canada and Mexico - and is a sponsor on the James Hinchcliffe No. 5 car. He collects vintage automobiles, muscle cars mainly but a few Ferraris. He calls it the RPM Collection.
Through his dad Cage came to know Eldon Palmer, who owned Palmer Dodge at 38th and Keystone. When he heard Palmer still had that '71 pace car, well, Steve Cage wanted it. The winning driver usually gets the pace car, but this one was damaged - so winner Al Unser Sr. was given a Dodge Charger instead, yellow with black interior.
Cage talked Palmer out of the pace car. Here's how:
"I invited Eldon for a tour of the (vintage) cars," Cage says. "At the end of the tour there was an easel with a picture of (the 1971 pace) car. Framed up. And I said, 'Eldon, I'd like to have your car here.'"
"He doesn't say a word. Two days later he calls me. He says, 'Come get the car.'"
It was 2006. The purchase price was $200,000.
"I've never told anyone what I spent on that car until now," Cage says.
He does other things with his money. He gave $10 million for an athletics facility at Berry, which the school named the Cage Athletic and Recreation Center.
Cars are another passion. He also has the queen's car from 1971, the two backup pace cars - identical orange Dodge Challengers - and even that Charger (yellow, black interior) once owned by Al Unser Sr.
Cage found one of the backup pace cars in a backyard in Fort Wayne, two small trees growing through the floorboard.
* * *
Russ Lake has a picture of the orange Challenger as it takes out the camera stand. It's framed in a dark brown shadowbox, pinned there underneath two pieces of metal and several surgical screws.
"You see this guy right here, holding a camera?" Lake was asking me this week inside the IMS photographers' room. He's pointing to the picture - to a man suspended in the air, flailing, falling near the front of the Challenger.
"That's me," he says, smiling.
The two pieces of metal in the shadowbox are the original rod, now broken, that held together his hip. The screws, well, you can guess what the screws are.
Palmer visited Russ Lake in the hospital. So did Tony Hulman.
"Tony Hulman came in and said, 'Oh, you've got the golf tournament on,' and sat on the bed!" Lake says, hollering at the end. He loves telling this story, every little bit of it. "He damn near sat on my hip."
The Dodge Challenger that ran into him on May 29, 1971? Lake has run into it twice since then. The first time was by happenstance, at a car show a few years ago in Chicago.
The second time was Saturday at the Speedway, where collectors held a pace car reunion. Russ Lake limped over to the orange 1971 Dodge Challenger and met Steve Cage. They shook hands. Posed for pictures. Told jokes.
"Had a good old time," Lake says.
And then Russ Lake limped back to the track, claiming his usual seat in a riser next to the famed bricks of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Lake sits just a few feet off the track.
He takes pictures, and he does not flinch.