May 25, 2018
Chicago—With the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 only days away, let’s take a quick look at the “Chicago Connection” regarding the “World’s Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Two Chicago drivers have won the Indianapolis 500 – Billy Arnold in 1930 and Pat Flaherty in 1956.
Arnold cut his “racing teeth” at many small dirt tracks in the Midwest, including the Chicago area. Arnold, who lived on Chicago’s South Side and was part of the “Hyde Park Gang,” was involved in a crash at the Lake County Fairgrounds half-mile dirt oval in Crown Point, Ind., in July of 1926 that took the life of popular Chicago Heights racer, Sonny Talamont. Prior to the crash at Crown Point, Arnold turned in a couple of second-place finishes at Illinois’ Thornton Speedway and Roby Speedway in Indiana. A year later (1927), Arnold won a 25-mile event at the Crown Point track.
Arnold made his first “500” start in 1928 and finished seventh after starting 20th. A year later, he lined up seventh and came home in eighth place. Driving for team owner and former racer and 1926 national champion Harry Hartz, the 24-year-old Arnold sat on the pole for the “500” in 1930 in Hartz’s Miller Special and then went on to lead 198 laps of 200 to score his Indianapolis 500 win. The 1930 race saw the role of riding mechanic return to the race with “Spider” Matlock on board with Arnold during the victory run as Arnold’s No. 4 machine finished more than seven minutes ahead of the second place finisher. It was reported that while Arnold was winning the race, his personal car was stolen from an Indianapolis street.
Arnold continued his dominance at Indianapolis for two more years. In his three Indy 500 starts between 1930 and 1932, Arnold led 97.4 percent of the 421 laps he completed. He crashed out of both the 1931 and 1932 races, finishing 19th and 31st respectively. In 1931, he led 155 laps but crashed on lap 162 while holding a five-lap lead, suffering serious injuries along with his riding mechanic Matlock. A tire came off the car, bounced over the fence and killed a young boy playing in his front yard outside the track. In 1932 Arnold led 57 laps before crashing on lap 59. He suffered a broken shoulder and riding mechanic Matlock suffered a broken pelvis. At the urging of his wife, Arnold retired from racing after the 1932 season. Having become a racing celebrity, Arnold played himself in the 1932 auto racing movie, The Crowd Roars, which starred James Cagney.
During World War II, he served with Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as Chief of Maintenance for the U.S. 8th Air Force and left the service in 1945 as a Lieutenant Colonel. Following the war, Arnold worked at Fretwell Desoto then entered the construction business, building upscale houses and one of the first shopping centers in Oklahoma, where he had relocated. Between 1950 and 58, he developed water skis and was among the pioneers of the sport. His AquaKing water skis became the official water ski of Cypress Gardens in Florida.
Arnold died on November 10, 1976 at the age of 70. After his racing career, Arnold made few appearances at Indianapolis. Some 12 years after his retirement from the sport of speed, Arnold was quoted as saying, “If there was one thing I hated when I was racing, it was racing. Racing was a business to me. I made money. Racing was good to me. I quit when I was on top and ahead. I started out on the dirt tracks in 1921. Race drivers were a swell bunch of fellows. Race drivers go into a town now and what do they get? They are treated like a bunch of bums. Things just aren’t what they used to be. It (auto racing) doesn’t pay the money it did. Maybe that’s why.”
Associated Press reported on Monday, May 31, 1956: “Indianapolis – Pat Flaherty, a red-haired Irishman from Chicago’s tough roadster ranks, outgunned the veteran Sam Hanks in a stirring two-man driving duel Wednesday to win the wreck-spattered 40th annual Indianapolis 500. Flaherty, 30, barely avoiding a serious accident in the final 30 miles, drove his snub-nosed cream and rose machine across the finish line just 22 seconds ahead of the 41-year-old Hanks from Burbank, Calif., making his 11th bid for America’s premier auto racing price. Flaherty’s Irish luck held, for on his insurance lap—the one the winner takes to guard against a miscount—the throttle arm on his car broke. If the three-eighths inch rod, which operates the fuel injector, had snapped the lap before, Flaherty would have been a spectator at the finish.”
Born George Francis Flaherty Jr. on January 6, 1926 in Glendale, Calif., as Pat was a nickname, Flaherty had lived for most of his adult life in Chicago and had returned to California with his wife of 47 years, Marilyn, only months before his passing away on April 10, 2002 at the age of 76.
Flaherty got into roadster (hot rod) racing in California around 1946 after serving in the Air Force during World War II. With Andy Granatelli presenting big purse hot rod races at Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1948, Flaherty, along with future Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann, his brother Dick, Don Freeland and a host of others, migrated to Chicago for the big money. Flaherty was a regular on Granatelli’s Hurricane Hot Rod Racing Association circuit, which included weekly stops at Soldier Field, Illinois’ Rockford Speedway and the quarter-mile dirt oval at the Wisconsin State Fairgrounds near Milwaukee. Flaherty captured a roadster feature win at Soldier Field on August 4, 1948 for his first Chicago win.
Flaherty was the hot rod champion at Soldier Field in 1949 with Granatelli starting to replace the hot rods with stock cars during the 1950 season and Flaherty, along with the Rathmann brothers, were on hand for the action. Flaherty won 100 lappers in both hot rod and stock car competition at Soldier Field in 1950 with a reported 35,680 fans witnessing Flaherty capturing the 100-lap Season Championship stock car race on September 24, 1950.
Flaherty competed in six Indianapolis 500-mile races, including a relief-driving appearance in 1954. He made his rookie start in 1950, driving for Granatelli and ending up 10th at the finish. Running some non-sanctioned “outlaw” races, Flaherty got in trouble with the American Automobile Association, who sanctioned the 500 back then, and found himself running short track stock car races at places like Chicago’s 87th Street Speedway in 1952, winning three feature races on the tight, paved oval.
Flaherty was back at Indy in 1953 (finished 22nd) and 1955 (finished 10th). Suffering serious injuries at Springfield, Ill., in August of 1956, Flaherty appeared in only one more “500” with a 19th place finish in 1959, leading 11 laps until crashing after completing 162 laps.
Not really looking much like a race car driver, Flaherty was an extremely fair-skinned and thin six-footer, who probably weighted a little more than 160 pounds in racing trim. Flaherty’s trademark was a green shamrock on the front of his white Cromwell-style racing helmet with Flaherty having the distinction of being the last “500” winner not to wear a driver’s suit. Flaherty’s racing wardrobe during his ’56 victory run behind the wheel of the A.J. Watson-prepared John Zink Special No. 8 was a simple pair of pants and a white t-shirt. Flaherty made his final racing starts in both Indy and stock cars in 1963. For a time, Flaherty was a partner in a bar in Chicago and, after his racing days were over, raised and raced pigeons.
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