Pontiac, politics, and the pace car that broke the mold at the Indy 500

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Posted at 7:26 PM, May 24, 2024

SPEEDWAY — John Callies says it began with a phone call.

“Bob Dorn was the chief engineer of Pontiac, and he called me in September of '83,” Callies said. Dorn told Callies, then-manager of Special Events Engineering at Pontiac, ‘‘We’re going to be the pace car at Indy.”

The car selected was the brand new 1984 Pontiac Fiero. It was the first mass-produced mid-engine sports car in America. But the Fiero’s journey to the assembly line began not as a sports car, but as a fuel-efficient economy car. Plans for the two-seater originated several years earlier during the energy crisis that gripped the country.

Pontiac produced 2,000 pace car replicas for the 1984 Indianapolis 500.

“All we had was a Bonneville to beat gas mileage, which didn't work, and so this was our entry,” Callies said. “We wanted something that was sporty looking.”

Sporty is exactly what consumers wanted, too. The folks at Pontiac saw the Indianapolis 500 as an opportunity to lean into the car’s sporty image.

“It was just a huge promotion to launch the car,” Callies said.

The only problem — the stock Fiero didn’t stand a chance at the 2.5-mile oval, and it was up to John Callies to build a car up to the task of pacing the field at The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

Forging a race-ready Fiero 

Callies knew the assignment and immediately went to work. He began with a phone call to J. C. Agajanian of The United States Auto Club, or USAC.

“He was in charge of the pace car, so I called him [and asked] ‘What is it going to take to be a pace car?’”

Callies was given two requirements. The Fiero needed to be capable of going 125 miles per hour and needed to be able to stop in 500 feet.

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The Pontiac Fiero is pictured at a dealership.

“That was a real problem with the original car,” Callies said.

The Fiero was in need of some modifications, which wasn’t an uncommon practice for pace cars at the time, according to Midwest Fiero Clubs president Fred Bartemeyer.

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John Callies is pictured with Indy Fiero 2.

“The Fiero was definitely on the tail end of the cars being prototype,” Bartemeyer said. “Not too long after that, there started being production cars with very light modifications. Technology progressed enough that we didn't need to modify them too much.”

But at the Fiero’s first track test in November 1983, it was clear changes were needed.

“Everything was going great,” Callies said. “I was up to speed and came off turn four and the transmission broke, [the] engine fell back, but I didn't crash my test car, luckily.”

Callies knew he needed help from outside General Motors.

“In GM, there was no transmission anywhere that could handle the torque,” Callies said.

Callies connected with an aftermarket supplier who built a transmission in 30 days. But the Fiero’s modifications didn’t stop there.

The Fiero interior is pictured.

“I had to produce the engine block, cylinder head, crank shafts, everything in a very short period of time,” Callies said. “And I had some very good people working with me. We did everything we weren’t supposed to do to make it happen.”

Making it happen

In just six months, John Callies and friends built three prototype Fiero pace cars for the 86th running of the Indianapolis 500. Pontiac produced 2,000 pace car replicas for the event with 131 of those appearing at the track during the month of May, according to Bartemeyer.

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David Hasselhoff was the grand marshal of the 500 Festival Parade on May 26, 1984.

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Colts coach Frank Kush rides in a Pontiac Fiero parade car on May 26, 1984.

“There wasn't a part in the back, in the engine or the car, that wasn't replaced or touched,” Callies said.

Callies himself led the “Field of 33" to the green flag on May 27, 1984. It was the first time a pace car powered by a four-cylinder engine led the field since Carl Fisher piloted a four-cylinder Stutz in 1912.

While the Fiero performed as everyone hoped it would, it wasn’t without some stress for Callies, who noted some unusual noises toward the end of the race.

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A Fiero pace car sits in the pits at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

“It would have been awful if something had happened,” Callies said. “If I had had a flat tire, it would have been a total failure for Pontiac. It was very successful day. The car did good. I don’t know how anybody could read a non-success out of that.”

Farewell Fiero

Not long after Rick Mears took the checkers, the three Pontiac Fiero pace cars went their separate ways.

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Rick Mears is pictured inside the Fiero pace car after winning the 1984 Indianapolis 500.

“They were just material to General Motors,” Bartemeyer said.

Indy Fiero 1 went back to General Motors. While it wasn’t the Fiero used during the Indianapolis 500, it did pace a different race later that year at Pikes Peak.

“That poor car got thrashed on really, really hard, to the point where it was not running and it was torn up really bad,” Bartemeyer said. “After the Pikes Peak pace car duties, the car went back to the holding yard in Pontiac and it fell into a serious state of disrepair."

Three Pontiac Fiero pace cars are pictured at the 40th Fiero Anniversary Celebration.

Bartemeyer says that in 1997, a curator at the GM Heritage Center restored the car to the way it was on race day. Indy Fiero 1 remains in the Heritage Center collection today.

Indy Fiero 2, the car Callies drove during the 500, went to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum where it remained until 2022 when Roger Penske took ownership of it.

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Rick Mears is pictured on the front stretch of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway

“That car remains 100% the way it was run on race day,” Bartemeyer said. “I did have the opportunity to drive that car on track at IMS in 2006, which was a huge thrill for me.”

Indy Fiero 3 was donated to the PPG IndyCar World Series pace car fleet, according to Bartemeyer. It received PPG graphics and was used until 1987.

Indy Fiero 3 is pictured at the 40th Fiero Anniversary Celebration.

“When PPG was finished with the car, they sent it back to back to the GM fleet and General Motors donated it to the Chicago Science and Industry Museum,” Bartemeyer said.

And that’s where it sat for 20 years until it went to auction in 1998. The winning bidder was none other than Bartemeyer.

“That car is the pinnacle of my collection,” Bartemeyer said.

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Fred Bartemeyer and John Callies are pictured with Indy Fiero 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Bartemeyer currently owns 26 Fieros. It's a fascination with Fiero that began in 1985.

“I bought a new one for my high school graduation in 1985,” Bartemeyer said. “I've always had a Fiero in my possession since that car. The collection has blossomed into some very significant cars, but the most important aspect of it all is being able to spend time and meet people like John [Callies] who actually built the car. These guys did things that they really weren't supposed to. I think without the efforts of these guys, there would have never been a Pontiac Fiero because there was too much resistance from the corporation.”

Pontiac, politics and the Corvette

Callies believes the threat of competition among the manufacturers within General Motors is what ultimately killed the Fiero after just four years.

“Chevrolet worrying about competition and the future of the Corvette,” Callies said. “They had more power down at the boardroom than we did and that's what killed it.”

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The Pontiac Fiero is pictured at a dealership

“Nothing was ever produced, that would be anything to top that other plastic car,” Bartemeyer said.

However, the Fiero was not without its own faults. The first model year had a design flaw that made it susceptible to fires.

“They reduced the size of the oil pan to reduce production costs,” Bartemeyer said. “With a mid-engine car, the maintenance regimen [is] significantly more than a stock configuration.”

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The Pontiac Fiero is pictured at a dealership

Complicating matters, Bartemeyer says Pontiac also used a cheaper connecting rod. If it failed, the rod could puncture the oil pain located above the catalytic converter. This resulted in a fire. While the issue impacted only a small portion of Fieros, damage had been done.

“When there's fire in the car, I don't care whether it's one car out of 400 thousand cars, it’s still a fire [and] still a serious situation,” Callies said. “But they fixed it and went on and then politics got in the way down the road.”