The Terrifying and Hilarious World of Pace Car Driving

Driving a NASCAR pace car is supposed to be chill, but the reality of it involves crashes, stolen cars, and a hypnotist.

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Feb 19 2015, 1:50pm

Image via Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When Vince Vaughn climbs into one of the grand marshal cars at Daytona International Speedway before the start of Sunday's Daytona 500, he'll be front and center on the most hallowed stock car grounds in the world. There will be nothing but empty track ahead, 2.5 miles of open concrete, just begging to be roared across at full throttle. No fuzz, no tickets, no traffic jams. Who wouldn't hit the gas hard?

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Sadly, the car will be required to stick to a strict speed limit: 70 miles per hour. Better safe than sorry, which in this case means wadding up a car on national TV. Thing is, that strict 70 mph limit isn't nearly as easy as it sounds. The track's four turns are banked at 31 degrees—which is kind of like driving across the roof of an A-frame house, and totally unlike typical highway driving. And even if the car manages to remain pointed in the right direction, there's the very real possibility that one of the racecar drivers cruising behind will run into it.

On purpose.

Not to wreck anything, of course, but to scare the bejabbers out of Vaughn. It's like that scene from Days of Thunder in which the crew chief (played by Robert Duvall) tells the driver (Tom Cruise) to hit the pace car because he's hit everything else. In the movie, the line was a joke; in real life, NASCAR drivers actually follow through.

"It's always fun because there are people in there—usually celebrities," says driver Clint Bowyer. "You want them to have the experience. You know they're going to go home and say, 'That lunatic, he hit me. The race hadn't even started, and he ran into me.'"

Alas, Bowyer won't start close enough to the front to make a run at Vaughn's car, so the actor is safe.

From Bowyer, at least.

Clint Bowyer keeps it 300. Image via Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Driving a pace car should be the easiest job in sports. All you have to do is drive in a circle. Except it's not, because if lunatics like Bowyer don't mess it up, something else will. Pace car drivers have been forgotten, kicked out of the car, and run into. Pace cars have been stolen, wrecked, and burst into flames. (Literally. Not metaphorically.) You thought the races themselves were dangerous? Only in NASCAR can a simple drive become so bizarre.

Here's how it's supposed to work: Pace car driver gets in car. Pace car driver drives a few laps. Pace car driver turns off the track, motors down pit road, and parks near turn 1 in what's known as "pit out." If he's NASCAR's pace-car driver, he stays there for the race, pulling back onto the track whenever a caution flag flies. If he or she is a celebrity, he or she gets out of the car, is greeted by an entourage of handlers and/or security, and goes to watch the race from a fancy suite.

Over the years, something has gone wrong in every step of that process.

Take, for example, "pace-car driver gets in car." What could go wrong? How about, the pace car wasn't there because it was stolen, and the guy who stole it was already driving it around the track, only at first nobody knew it was stolen because how would they?

It happened at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama in 1986. As best as track officials could determine, a man named Darren Crowder left his home in Birmingham, Alabama that morning to test drive a motorcycle he was interested in buying. He got caught up in race traffic, bought a ticket, found his way into the infield, slipped by security onto pit road, saw that the pace car was running and unlocked, stepped into it, and started driving. Seriously.

The start of the race was minutes away, so the pace car being on the track seemed normal—until someone asked over the radio communication system used by NASCAR officials and teams, "Who's that fucker in the pace car?"

All the crew men on pit road heard that and turned to watch Crowder turn the lap. Says Jim Freeman, who was Talladega's PR director at the time: "The teams are going crazy cheering him on: Go, go, go, go, go. Somebody said it's the first time everybody on pit road has been for the same car."

Maybe the crew men were impressed by the way Crowder handled the Pontiac Trans Am. Talladega's banks are even steeper than Daytona's. "I don't think I've ever heard an official reading," Freeman says, "but I've seen enough cars going around the track, giving track rides and stuff, to know he was doing between 80 and 100 miles per hour."

Local law enforcement officials were not impressed. They set up a road block on the track to stop Crowder. He locked the brakes and came to a complete stop. Police approached the car.

"They started playing a deal of lock the doors, unlock the doors. They apparently had another set of keys. They would unlock the doors with the key, and he would lock them back. Lock, unlock. Lock, unlock. Finally they managed to grab the door handle before he could lock it back one time," Freeman says. "They dragged him out of the car. Well, he didn't have a shirt on. They got a big fist full of his hair. One of these long-haired hippie guys. They grabbed a big fist full of his hair and pulled him out of the car. The crowd starts booing. Police brutality and all that sort of stuff. But they had nothing to grab onto except his hair."

Crowder was escorted from the pace car to a police car.

Also: All of this happened on live TV, during which a commentator described the crowd of 125,000 as "the largest gathering for a sports event in the history of Alabama."

Robert Griffin III before realizing what he'd gotten himself into. Image via Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III had an easier time driving the pace car at Richmond International Raceway last year. His laps (speed limit: a mere 41 mph, and no, Richmond International is not in a school zone) were uneventful. He drove off the track and down pit road, headed for the turn 1 pit out. The plan was for RGIII to park at the pit out and get out of the car so NASCAR's pace car driver, Brett Bodine, could take over. Once a race starts, the pace car driver becomes very much like a referee, so NASCAR does not want a celebrity to still be driving the car.

But Griffin never made it to the pit out. There was a wreck on the first lap, so NASCAR needed the pace car back on the track immediately. "They made him stop in the middle of pit road and 'kicked him out' of the car so Brett could get out on the track before the cars came around," Aimee Turner, Richmond's PR director, writes in an email.

"It was pretty funny [now], as his escorts were all waiting for him at pit out, and when we realized that he probably got 'dumped' somewhere on pit road, I started searching for him," Turner says. "Found him wandering pit road, hopping between the tires as fans chased him. I'm a pretty little person and ended up running security for him, which gave him a good laugh and is something he teased me about later that night and when he saw me at training camp last fall."

For his part, Bodine had an 18-year career at NASCAR's top level in which he won one race—but naturally, that victory came about when the pace car driver inadvertently pulled in front of him as the leader when he wasn't, and NASCAR never fixed the problem.

During last year's Sprint Unlimited, a preseason exhibition race at Daytona, the pace car caught on fire. As the car filled with smoke, Bodine veered onto the apron and slid to a stop. Flames burst from the back as he climbed out.

The fire started in the trunk, which contained, according to a completely unironic statement from Chevy, "a purpose-built auxiliary electrical kit to operate the numerous caution lights during the race."

The pace car isn't even safe after the race. At Darlington in 1988, driver Tommy Houston pulled off of the track to take his race car to the gas pumps. He didn't know there was a pace car on the other side of the track's inside retaining wall. Nor did the pace car driver know Houston was coming. The pace car pulled in front of him, and Houston T-boned it. Nobody was hurt, but the pace car was crushed.

Brett Bodine about to drop the most fire mixtape of 2015. Image via Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Pre-race events are scheduled to the minute. The flyover is timed so jets buzz the tracks exactly as the national anthem singer croons, "... of the brave." The celebrity pace car driver is escorted to the car at an exact time, they enter the track at an exact time, they exit the track at an exact time, and the cars take the green flag at an exact time. Nothing is left to chance.

At least, nothing is supposed to be left to chance. Still, keys get left in interns' pockets, people are late, details are overlooked.

It's the track PR director's job to manage all of that. At Michigan International Speedway a few years ago, Sammie Lukaskiewicz, a huge Red Wings fan, was thrilled to shepherd Red Wings defenseman Nick Lidstrom through his turn as the celebrity pace car driver.

Fifteen minutes into the race, Lukaskiewicz went to the suite to check on Lidstrom, to see how his day at the races was going. When he wasn't there, it dawned on her that she had never arranged for anyone to pick him up when he was done driving. Aghast, she immediately dispatched someone to go get him.

"It broke my heart, because he was awesome," she says. "The best people in the world to work with are hockey players, and Nick Lidstrom is at the top of the list."

Lidstrom spent the time watching the race and talking with fans. He had never been to a NASCAR race, never mind driven the pace car, so he had no idea he wasn't supposed to be down there by himself.

In the modern age, the pre-race pace car driver is usually a celebrity who is promoting something. It's a mutually beneficial relationship—NASCAR gets headlines about a famous person and the famous person gets headlines about being famous. But before NASCAR went mainstream, tracks would try just about anything to garner attention. And that's why Denis McGlynn, then the PR director, now the president of Dover International Speedway, hired Bill Neal, a.k.a. "The Astonishing Neal," to thrill the crowd before the Delaware 500 in 1975.

All these years later, McGlynn offers only this as an explanation for what happened that day: "I have no clue."

According to McGlynn, Neal put Play-Doh over each eye, then silver dollars over each eye, then tape, then a cotton pad, then a cloth blindfold, and then he pulled a black hood over it all. The Astonishing Neal then got into a car filled with reporters, plus the still photographer for Evel Knievel (another fact from the day McGlynn is at a loss to explain). Delaware Lt. Gov. Eugene Bookhammer supervised it all, lending official gravitas to the proceedings.

Neal drove down the track, avoided a car parked on the apron, swerved around orange traffic cones, all the while holding his hand out the window, claiming he could see through light sensitive cells in his hand. Still with Play-Doh, silver dollars, tape, a cotton pad, a cloth blindfold, and a hood covering his eyes, The Astonishing Neal navigated the track's four turns (banking: 24 degrees) and finally screeched to a stop. He was four inches past the start-finish line.

And then The Astonishing Neal backed up four inches.

Editor's note: Vince Vaughn is scheduled to be a passenger in one of the Daytona 500 grand marshall cars, not driving. This article has been updated accordingly.