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NASCAR, Indy stars shine on Woodward

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Call it the Woodward Dream Cruise 500.

On Thursday afternoon (smack in the middle of rush hour, of course), 12 Indy car winners and a couple of NASCAR hot shoes jumped into Roger Penske’s historic collection of 16 Indy pace cars for a Woodward dream lap. Bobby Unser in a 1987 Chrysler LeBaron. Sam Hornish Jr. in a 2006 Corvette. Helio Castroneves in a 2009 Camaro SS. None of them smacked the wall, none of them dove into the pits for tires, none of them did doughnuts at the finish.

Though a few of them couldn’t help the occasional burnout. “Al Unser Jr. and I were having a little fun,” said NASCAR star Joey Logano sheepishly. Lucky for them, no tickets were written. Credit the good behavior to a police escort — and the pace car at the head of the field driven by the captain himself, Penske, the most successful Indy owner ever (who also calls Metro Detroit home).

Presidential motorcades don’t pack this much talent. On a day when the crowds began to descend on Woodward with cars, tents, and stacks of lawn chairs in anticipation of Saturday’s official Dream Cruise, the stars were out.

And not just the Penske armada. Just across the street from Penske Cruise HQ (between A.J. Desmond & Sons Funeral Home and Art Van furniture), Chevy was hosting 2014 NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick and his just-restored, ground-shaking, 575-cubic-inch, 1969 Camaro SS. That’s 575, as in 9.4 liters — a full 30 percent bigger than a Corvette Z06.

Did you feel an earthquake tremor about 2 p.m. today? That was Harvick firing up the SS as he took me out onto Woodward for a lap of his own.

“Been a long time since I’ve been at a car show, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Harvick with a grin as we rattled windows from 13 Mile to 11 Mile and back.

“This is a project I’ve had for years and I just thought it would be fun to have,” he said, sounding like any motorhead on Woodward. “A buddy of mine put on the exhaust because he wanted to see how it would sound on a 572 motor.

“I sold a ’55 Bel Air and that’s how I started my racing career,” said the 39-year old, who got his start in California as a high school racer. “I wanted a stock car and had to sell the ’55 to pay for it.” He’d like to get that car back someday — maybe for his next cruise. Along with Logano and Brad Keselowski across the street at Penske, Harvick dropped by the Cruise on his way to this weekend’s Michigan 400 in Brooklyn.

But like the thousands of fans who cheered Penske’s pace cars, he was star-struck by the Indy winners.

“Rick Mears was my idol growing up,” he says of four-time Indy 500 winner Mears, one of Penske’s pace car stars. “I have a signed picture from him in my office from the first year he sat on the front row at Indy. It says: ‘I hope to see you someday here at Indy.’”

Two hours later, I was sitting next to Mears in the Dodge Viper pace car that he and Penske won in 1991. More ground shaking. More great tales from yesteryear.

“My brother and Harvick’s dad used to work together when he was a kid,” says 63-year old Mears of young Harvick. “I remember going back to Bakersfield and seeing him when he was starting out in short track.”

Standing next to their pace car cruisers, the Indy car drivers talked about what they’d bring to the Cruise to drive. For a day, these pro hot shoes are Cruisers dreaming of what they might bring to Woodward.

“My 1959 Cadillac El Dorado,” says Logano standing next to the 1993 Chevy Camaro SS pace car.

“Probably the 2001 Oldsmobile I got for winning my first Indy 500,” says three-time Indy winner Castroneves.

“I have the first Corvette ZR1 ever made,” says Mears of the legendary 1989 ’Vette. “It’s painted yellow. I’d definitely bring that.”

And the captain? Whose endless car collection includes a Porsche 918 hybrid and a LaFerrari?

“I got a lot of nice toys, but this year, I brought my 16 Indy pace cars, which are probably my best cruisers,” says Penske. “And I’d have to say my factory is the ’72 Hurst Olds, which was the first car we won with Mark Donahue back in 1972. This is muscle car history.”