The Indiana Pacers—it’s a sporty enough name, and it fits well for a basketball team. Without outside knowledge or a strange knack for putting two and two together, there wouldn’t be any reason to question it. But, as far removed as the two sports are, the Pacers actually got their name from the Indianapolis 500.
Happy Sunday! Welcome to Holy Shift, where we highlight big innovations in the auto and racing industries each week—whether they be necessary or simply for comfort—and, on occasion, weird car history.
It was 1967 when the Pacers played their first season in the American Basketball Association, and the original investor group backing the team had the honors of deciding on its name. Per the NBA website, the “Pacers” designation came from two sources: the state’s long history of horse racing—particularly the harness-racing pacers—and the Indianapolis 500 pace car. The pace car, of all things.
Perhaps it was some type of metaphor for pacing the field, or for leadership. Or, perhaps that was the only commonality the investors could find between two of the state’s largest sporting events. Who knows.
Surprisingly, the “Pacers” half of the name was the easy part for the investors. The actual challenge, the NBA website cites investor Richard D. Tinkham as saying, was deciding which geographical region to pair with it—Indianapolis, the team’s home base, or the entire state of Indiana. The original idea was for the Pacers to have a base in Indianapolis and travel around the state to play, so the investors decided to go with “Indiana.” The team plays at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis these days, but kept the original name.
When the Pacers made their debut in 1967, drivers down the road ran a rather strange Indianapolis 500. That was the year a car powered by a jet engine, the STP-Paxton Turbocar, nearly won the race in its debut with Parnelli Jones at the wheel. According to Gizmodo, the car had neither a gearbox nor a clutch—with the car idling at 50 percent throttle, Jones simply had to take his foot off the gas in order to pull away. In qualifying, Jones ranked sixth at 166 mph.
Had it not been for a torque-converter failure with three laps to go, the jet engine-powered car that dominated the race likely would have won the it. The STP team tried again the next year, only to have a late-race failure once again.
As for the Pacers, their original basketball league—the American Basketball Association—wasn’t incredibly successful. The league started the same year as the Pacers did and included 11 teams for its inaugural 1967 season, according to History. It was an alternative to playing in the NBA, and History cites a fan as saying that people could “could do a lot of things [the NBA wouldn’t] let [them] do” because it was a “looser atmosphere.” The cheerleaders wore bikinis, the players got into fights—sounds like it was a real show.
By the end of the 1976 season, the Pacers were one of just four teams left in the league. According to History, the teams left—the Spurs, the Nuggets, the Pacers and the Americans, which later became the New Jersey Nets—merged with the NBA and the players who were left unattached became free agents for the league as well.
As odd as it is, the players out on that Pacers court owe their team name to an automobile that leads a bunch of other, faster automobiles around a track in one of the biggest races in all disciplines of motorsport. There are certainly worse things to be named after, that’s for sure.
If you have suggestions for future innovations or historical notes to be featured on Holy Shift—in street cars, the racing industry or whatever you’d like—feel free to send an email to the address below or leave them in the comments section. The topic range is broad, so don’t hesitate with your ideas.