INDIANAPOLIS, Wednesday, April 10, 2002 - Colorful Pat Flaherty, who was dressed in slacks and a T-shirt when he won the 1956 Indianapolis 500 and whose well-worn Cromwell helmet was emblazoned with a green shamrock, died April 9 at his home in Oxnard, Calif., at the age of 76.
Flaherty had been battling emphysema for several years.
Born George Francis Flaherty Jr. on Jan. 6, 1926, in Glendale, Calif., as Pat was a nickname, he had lived for most of his adult life in Chicago and had returned with Marilyn, his wife of 47 years, to California only last October so the couple could be close to the residences of their children.
Flaherty competed in six Indianapolis 500-Mile Races - once as a relief driver - finishing 10th in 1950 and 1955 in addition to his win. He hit the wall while running fourth at 115 laps in 1953 and charged from 18th to lead for 11 laps before spinning out while running fourth at 164 laps in 1959.
His 1956 win for car owner John Zink came in a car built by another longtime friend, A.J. Watson, this being the very first of the so-called Watson "roadsters." Intended for defending "500" winner Bob Sweikert, who quit the team after a contractual disagreement during the winter, the lightweight car, which employed magnesium parts and weighed only about 1,700 pounds, was then turned over to Flaherty. The red-haired Flaherty proceeded to thrill the spectators by hiking the left-front wheel several inches above the ground as he dirt-tracked the flexible chassis around the Speedway, winning the pole position in this fashion and raising the one- and four-lap qualifying records to 146.056 mph and 145.590 mph, respectively.
Flaherty led 127 of the 200 laps on his way to winning the accident-marred "500" at an average speed of 128.590 mph and had the throttle linkage break just a few seconds after he had taken the checkered flag. He won the very next major race, a 100-miler less than two weeks later at Milwaukee, and he was leading the USAC National Championship point standings by a considerable margin when a serious arm injury, suffered Aug. 18 in an accident on the dirt track at Springfield, Ill., forced him to the sidelines for exactly two years. His long-anticipated comeback, in a 200-mile USAC Stock Car race Aug. 21, 1958, at Milwaukee, resulted in an emotional win.
Never particularly robust in appearance, Flaherty was an extremely fair-skinned and thin 6-footer, who rarely weighed more than 160 pounds in racing trim. He began his career in California in 1946, racing "hot rod track roadsters" in a hotbed of activity against a variety of future Indianapolis 500 standouts, including Troy Ruttman, Dick and Jim Rathmann, Jack McGrath, Manny Ayulo, Don Freeland, Jimmy Davies and Andy Linden, in addition to at least a dozen others.
Flaherty moved to the Midwest in 1948, along with several of his fellow California competitors, and became part of Andy Granatelli's Hurricane Hot Rot Association, racing "track roadsters" at several Chicago area tracks, the most notable being Soldier Field, where he won many races. Granatelli brought Flaherty to the Speedway for his rookie test in 1949, although the qualifying speed with their stock-block Ford did not hold up.
Flaherty first began to attract national attention in 1955 when he followed up his 10th-place finish at Indianapolis with a third place in the June 100-mile race at Milwaukee and then won a grueling 250-mile race at the same track in August. He was the eighth-ranking driver of 1955 when hired by Watson and Zink, and he demonstrated his versatility by winning a USAC Sprint Car race at Williams Grove, Pa., and a Stock Car race at Hinsdale, Ill., shortly after his 1956 triumphs at Indianapolis and Milwaukee.
He raced only occasionally after 1959 and made his final championship start in a 150-mile race in June 1963 at Milwaukee. He drifted away from motorsports completely and became deeply involved in pigeon racing, where he enjoyed considerable success. It is believed that his final visit to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in May 1969.
Survivors include his wife, Marilyn; sons James of Fresno, Calif., and John of La Cresenta, Calif.; daughter Colleen of Oxnard, Calif.; and numerous nieces and nephews.
Funeral arrangements for 1956 Indianapolis 500 winner Pat Flaherty, who died April 9 at his home in Oxnard, Calif., at age 76 are:
4-8 p.m. (PDT) April 12
James A. Reardon Mortuary
511 North A St.
9:30 a.m. (PDT) April 13
Santa Clara Catholic Chapel
Ventura Boulevard (at Ventura Freeway) and Rose Avenue
Burial will follow
Santa Clara Catholic Cemetery
2370 North H St.
Memorial donations may be made to:
Livingston Memorial Visiting Nurse Association
1996 Eastman Ave., Suite 101
Ventura, CA 93003