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Pat Flaherty, 76; Southland Native Won '56 Indy 500

April 12, 2002|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pat Flaherty, who won the 1956 Indianapolis 500 wearing slacks, a T-shirt and a helmet emblazoned with a green shamrock, died Tuesday at his home in Oxnard after several years battling emphysema. He was 76.

Flaherty, a colorful redhead, defied all racing superstitions when he showed up with green on his helmet. At that time, anything green was considered likely to bring the worst kind of luck.

A native of Glendale, Flaherty spent most of his adult life in Chicago before returning to Southern California in October with his wife, Marilyn, to be near their children.

In the accident-marred race May 30, 1956, Flaherty drove to victory in a pink and white car built by his longtime friend A.J. Watson, leading in 127 of the 200 laps. The car, owned by John Zink, was the first of the famous "Watson roadsters." It was built for Bob Sweikert, who won the race the year before, but Flaherty got the ride when Sweikert quit the team over a contract dispute. In qualifying, Flaherty set records of 146.056 mph for one lap and 145.590 mph for four laps.

Indy 500 historian Donald Davidson recalls the run:

"Flaherty thrilled the crowds with some of the most spectacular driving ever seen at the old Speedway. He barreled into the turns so hard that the front left wheel would lift right off the ground as if it were a midget on quarter-mile track. He would slide out of the turn at a fantastic angle with the wheel still dangling in the air, then tromp back on the throttle upon entering the stretch and charge for the next turn in order to perform the feat again."

Flaherty averaged 128.59 mph for the 500-mile race. Shortly after he crossed the finish line, the throttle linkage broke.

Two weeks later, he won a 100-mile race in Milwaukee and was leading the U.S. Auto Club national championship points race when he suffered a serious arm injury on a dirt track in Springfield, Ill. He was sidelined for two years from the injury.

When Flaherty made his comeback, on Aug. 21, 1958, in a USAC stock car race in Milwaukee, he scored an emotional win. After that, he raced only occasionally and made his final championship start in 1963 at a 150-mile race in Milwaukee.

Once he ran his last race, he seldom went to races or old-timers' gatherings. Speedway officials said they believed that his last visit to the 500 was in 1969.

Flaherty appeared in six Indianapolis 500s, once as a relief driver, between 1950 and 1959. He finished 10th in 1950 and 1955, hit the wall while running fourth in 1953 and led for 11 laps in 1959 before spinning out while running fourth late in the race.

Flaherty began his career in 1946 in Southern California, racing against hot-rodders such as Troy Ruttman, Dick and Jim Rathmann, Jack McGrath, Manny Ayulo, Don Freeland, Jimmy Davies and Andy Linden.

In 1948, he moved to Chicago and became part of Andy Granatelli's Hurricane Hot Rod Assn., racing mostly at Soldier Field. Granatelli took Flaherty to Indy for the first time in 1949, but his qualifying speed was not sufficient to make the race.

Flaherty first attracted national attention in 1955 after his 10th-place finish at Indy, his third-place finish in the June 100-mile race in Milwaukee and his victory in a 250-mile race on the same track in August.

In 1956, in addition to winning in Indianapolis and Milwaukee in an Indy car, he showed his versatility by winning a USAC sprint car race in Williams Grove, Pa., and a stock car race in Hinsdale, Ill.

Besides his wife of 47 years, Flaherty is survived by sons James of Fresno and John of La Crescenta; a daughter, Colleen of Oxnard; and numerous nieces and nephews.

Visitation is today at James A. Reardon Mortuary in Oxnard, with burial Saturday at Santa Clara Catholic Cemetery in Oxnard. Memorial donations may be made to the Livingstone Memorial Visiting Nurse Assn., 1996 Eastman Ave., Suite 101, Ventura, CA 93003.

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