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Despite what the history books say, Dodge’s Stealth R/T was the true Indy 500 pace car in 1991

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Photos courtesy Mecum Auctions.

There have been plenty of lame and forgettable Indy 500 pace cars, but only a few qualify as infamous, among them the Dodge Stealth R/T, the sports coupe slated to pace the 75th running of the race before a pre-production Viper replaced it at the last minute. Yet, it functionally ended up serving as a pace car where the Viper couldn’t, as shown by the Stealth pace car replica in a collection of two dozen other pace cars coming to auction this month.

The Stealth, introduced in 1991 as a replacement for the Mitsubishi Starion-based Conquest, had plenty of performance-car bonafides: Its twin-turbocharged and intercooled version of the dual overhead-camshaft 24-valve 3.0-liter V-6 put out 300 horsepower, more than what one found in a contemporary base Corvette; its all-wheel-drive system propelled it to a sub-five-second 0-60 time; and its 0.33 coefficient of drag bests that of a Ferrari F40.

As Dodge noted in its 1991 full-line brochure, the Stealth more than held its own in terms of acceleration and handling when compared to several of the world’s best sports cars, including the Porsche 911 Carrera 4, the Lotus Esprit Turbo SE, and the Nissan 300ZX Turbo. “Make no mistake about it, the Stealth is one terrific car,” Chrysler’s vice president of marketing, John Damoose, said at the time.

However, Chrysler’s selection of the Stealth as the 1991 Indy 500 pace car proved controversial. Though Chrysler branded the Stealth as a Dodge and had Dodge designers style it, the Stealth rode on Mitsubishi’s Z16A platform, the same platform that the Mitsubishi GTO/3000GT used, and came from the same Nagoya, Japan, plant that built the 3000GT. Thus, many observers saw the Stealth as nothing other than a Japanese car, and, while no rules forbade foreign cars from pacing the Indianapolis 500, none have before nor since.

As Doron P. Levin wrote for The New York Times, the Gulf War had launched a wave of patriotism across the country and union leaders mounted protests against the Stealth’s selection as a pace car for what is commonly called “America’s race.”

So, even though Chrysler executives began preparations in the fall of 1990 to send the Stealth to Indianapolis in May, by that February (making it “practically a last-minute decision,” Levin wrote), they switched gears and decided to accelerate the Viper prototype program to get one on the track as the ceremonial pace car. Carroll Shelby would drive it. Face would be saved.

Except Chrysler provided just that one Viper. And that one Viper, considered too valuable to risk any further use, would only pace the one lap leading to the start of the race. Indianapolis race officials required backup pace cars as well as pace cars during caution laps and about 160 more cars for use as festival cars, roles all filled by the Stealth. Race winner Rick Mears took home a Stealth, not a Viper (Roger Penske reportedly gave him a Corvette ZR1 instead). So, even though it didn’t get the exposure that the Viper did, the Stealth still did the majority of the labor that the Indy 500 calls on a pace car to do.

In addition, because the Viper didn’t actually enter production until late in 1991, Dodge chose the Stealth as the basis for the pace-car replica. While some of the Stealths used at Indianapolis were painted pearl yellow, the showroom replicas were all pearl white R/T Twin Turbos.

Perhaps the most pristine of the Stealth pace cars, the one that Mecum will offer as part of its Kissimmee auction, has just 29 miles on its odometer. The Stealth is one of 23 Indy pace car replicas coming out of the Wilson McMillion collection — a grouping that also includes a 1993 Cadillac Allante pace-car replica, a 1998 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme pace-car replica, a 1990 Chevrolet Beretta GT pace-car replica, and a 1987 Chrysler LeBaron pace-car replica.

The Stealth is expected to sell for $20,000 to $25,000.

Mecum’s Kissimmee sale runs from January 3 to 13, 2019. For more information, visit Mecum.com.