The man who once played quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts, who coached Andrew Luck in Stanford University before eventually becoming the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, will return to Indianapolis, only this time it has nothing to do with NFL football. Instead, he has been chosen to drive this year’s Indianapolis 500 pace car on Sunday.
Harbaugh, along with five other owners, owns Panther Racing, an IndyCar Series team that has met with considerable success since its founding in 1997. From 2008–2011 Panther Racing drivers took second place in the Indy500. The main car for the team bears Harbaugh’s old jersey number, 4.
He has performed admirably in pressure situations in the past. Back in his days with the Colts, he received the AFC Player of the Year honor and was voted to the Pro Bowl in 1995.
On Sunday, he will lead 33 cars to the green flag before a crowd of a quarter million race fans. This year’s car is also quite special. Not only does it represent an entirely new generation of Corvette, but it is the first time in 46 years that a Corvette has born the Stingray badging.
Driving a pace car on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway might sound simple, but there are guidelines that must be followed to ensure the race proceeds without incident. It will take practice to get it right.
“I’ve already had a dream about it,” Harbaugh told The Star today. “I kept the car out on the track and won the Indy 500. I know my heart is going to be beating out of my chest,” he said.
As a former professional athlete, Harbaugh knows the thrill of winning. He says that watching Scott Goodyear, Sam Hornish Jr. and Tomas Scheckter win IndyCar races were some of his life’s most thrilling moments.
But there have been disappointments too. He said, “It’s cool, too, to be there for times when you have disappointment. You watch the team fix the car and move on.”
Panther Racing is powered by Chevrolet. This year’s crew will field JR Hildebrand driving the No. 4 car, in addition to Townsend Bell (No. 99) and Oriol Servia.
Harbaugh is well aware of the storied history of the Indy pace car drivers that precede him. It is a collection that includes such all-time greats as Chuck Yeager, Carroll Shelby, Bobby Unser and Parnelli Jones. He said it was a real thrill to even be considered in the same company.
He will arrive in Indianapolis late on Thursday. There is a special significance to the No. 4 car this year. It just so happens to also represent the number of record-tying Indy500 wins Helio Castroneves and Dario Franchitti will both be competing for Sunday. There are 4 former race winners participating in this Sunday’s race, in addition to 4 rookies and 4 female racers in Simona De Silvestro, Ana Beatriz, Pippa Mann and Katherine Legge.