INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, March 30, 2001 - An auto-racing era came to an end March 29. George Connor, at 94 the last surviving pre-World War II Indianapolis 500-Mile Race driver, died March 29 in his hometown of Hesperia, Calif. Connor's...
INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, March 30, 2001 - An auto-racing era came to an end March 29.
George Connor, at 94 the last surviving pre-World War II Indianapolis 500-Mile Race driver, died March 29 in his hometown of Hesperia, Calif.
Connor's death comes only 31 days after Duke Nalon, the other surviving pre-World War II driver as the year 2001 began, died in Indianapolis. Nalon was five days shy of his 88th birthday.
Connor drove seven of his 14 500's before the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was shut down from 1942-45 due to World War II. He first came to the track in 1934 at age 28 and during the height of the Great Depression.
Connor, a daredevil native of Rialto, Calif. (born Aug. 16, 1906), passed his rookie test in 1934 but said in a 1999 interview that politics prevented him from being allowed to make a qualifying attempt. Before coming to Indy, he had raced motorcycles and even learned to fly a "Jenny" just prior to Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic Ocean. He took up auto racing in 1926 at the urging of a friend, who told him it would be fun.
There was no keeping Connor out of the 1935 race and only the war stopped him again until he retired in 1954, at age 48, after failing to qualify for the second consecutive year.
"I've got a picture of (fellow driver) Henry Banks and me hanging our helmets on the wall," he said in 1999. "My wife (Vanelia, affectionately called 'Neely') said 48 was enough, so I quit and went to work with Ford for seven years working with jet engines."
Connor drove his first five Indianapolis 500's for owner Joe Marks. His riding mechanics were Albert Opalko in '35 and Ed Kaelin the next two years. His best finish in the pre-war segment of his career was ninth in 1937.
"It was a brick course and it really shocked you," Connor said of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during those years. "The year Wilbur Shaw won for the first time (1937), he told me he weighed himself before the race and after it, and he was 12 pounds lighter."
Connor drove the Blue Crown Special to third behind winner Bill Holland in 1949. Holland also drove a Blue Crown car. Connor placed eighth in the Federal Detroit Engineering Special in his final 500, in 1952.
After retirement, Connor worked 15 years on the Mobil Economy Run and served as an official at the Bonneville Salt Flats speed trials in Utah. He and his wife eventually settled down on a 20-acre plot of land near the mountains beyond Santa Barbara, Calif. He was still fixing his roof at 85 and driving a car in his 90's.
Connor's wife died four years ago, and she was interred in Floral Park Cemetery, just west of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He made arrangements in 1999 to allow a burial next to her in Indianapolis.
"I'll get back there one last time," he said.
Survivors include grandson David Bolick III of Laguna Niguel, Calif., and nephews John Eakin of Helotes, Texas, and Don and Clarence (Butch) Watson of the Indianapolis area.
Services will take place at 1 p.m. (PDT) Monday, April 1, at the Kern Hesperia Mortuary, 16120 Main St., Hesperia, Calif. 92345. There will be a private burial in Indianapolis.