Despite the multitude of mishaps to other drivers in the race, Pat Flaherty's "500" was an honest, truly earned victory. Pat started from the pole position with the fastest qualifying time in 40 years of Indianapolis racing—145.596 mph. Before taking the lead for good at the end of 185 miles, he never lagged more than a few seconds behind the leader and frequently was himself the leader. Except for 81 seconds in the pit and an hour and 15 minutes under the yellow caution flag, Pat pushed his slim white roadster through some of the quickest laps ever recorded at the Brickyard. Once in charge, he drove his last 315 miles without a hitch or falter, never sparing himself or his car. No one had to fold to make room for this winner.
This is an article from the June 11, 1956 issue
But when the kissing and coronation ceremonies were over, and the cars—12 of them crippled—were back in their stalls in Gasoline Alley, the trade talk quickly shifted from the victorious redhead and focused on one subject: tires. The old hands could never remember a race when the tires—if that's what it was—had caused such grief. The roll call of drivers who had suffered included the very cream of U.S. racing: Paul Russo, who had been the first victim when an apparent blowout sent him careening into the wall on the 22nd lap; Ray Crawford on the 49th lap; Jim Bryan, the 1954 AAA national champion and probably the most consistently fine chauffeur on the tracks today, on the 94th lap; Don Freeland on the 98th; Bob Sweikert, the defending champion, on the 131st; Jimmy Daywalt in a really vicious crash on the 135th lap; Tony Bettenhausen in an equally bad smashup on the 161st and finally Dick Rathmann as he was going through the south turn after completing the entire race. Fortunately the injuries were relatively minor, and in the cases of Bryan, Freeland and Sweikert the drivers even rejoined the race; but that hardly lessened the concern of the men who have to ride in the cars.
In the post-mortems around the garage, the drivers were unanimous in the opinion that either blowouts (as with Russo, Sweikert and Bettenhausen) or blisters or just peeling rubber had been at the root of their trouble. But why this year? Certainly the greater speeds of 1956 were heating up the tires more than ever, but that could hardly be the whole story. Some thought it was the abrasiveness of the new track, nearly half of which had been repaved during the winter. Others blamed it on the way many of the cars were suspended this year with more weight on the right side for added speed in the turns.
All this was long ago anticipated by Firestone, the only U.S. company with the daring to put its reputation on the line by building a racing tire. In creating a special tire for the Indy track, Firestone has helped raise the speeds year after year without sacrificing safety. Although this Indy tire is a far cry from the one worn by the passenger car, many of its best features, tested in the racing laboratory, eventually filter down to general use.
When new, the Indy tire has only a small amount of tread on the right side, none on the left, thus providing maximum grip on the turns plus minimum friction in the straightaway. Its coating of rubber, particularly on the side-walls, would never accommodate the family sedan, but it has to be thin to avoid building up tremendous internal heat. One of its many peculiarities is that it carries nitrogen rather than oxygen, since nitrogen has a lower coefficient of expansion and is lacking in moisture which might heat into steam.
Early this spring Firestone ran some tests on the Speedway's new pavement, turning lap averages up to 145 mph. They quickly discovered that last year's tire was blistering on the new surface, so they designed a new one. They beefed it up to hold 60 lbs. pressure in place of the previous 40 lbs. to give the cars more stability on the curves. Otherwise there was no visible difference.
To a firm that has as much at stake in racing as Firestone, the muttering about this year's tires after the race was highly distressing, and company officials were by no means convinced. Before the sun had set on Memorial Day, Firestone employees had collected all the scraps of broken tires and wheels they could find anywhere on the Speedway premises, along with all the 272 tires that had been used on the 33 cars in the race, and rushed them back to Akron for a closer look. It was a puzzle with no quick answer; plenty of contradictions and very little evidence except the opinions of the drivers.
Among the contradictions, for instance, was the performance of Pat Flaherty. He had traveled at an average speed of 128.490 mph for the full 500 miles on only eight tires—a bare minimum for any year—and with no trouble at all. (Sam Hanks in second place has done likewise.)
Part of the credit for Flaherty's performance belongs to the car, of course, and the credit for the car must surely go to a solemn 32-year-old mechanic with a college-boy crewcut named A. J. Watson. "A. J." (the initials are all he has for a name) is chief mechanic for John Zink, a Tulsa furnace manufacturer with a yen for racing. Last year after A. J. saddled the winning car for Sweikert, he and Sweikert and Zink began thinking about the dream car they would like to have for 1956. Early this year A. J. built the car in his garage in Glendale, Calif. and No. 8 was the result—a lower, narrower, 200-lb.-lighter version of the Kurtis and Kuzma roadsters that have ruled the Brickyard since 1953. When Sweikert decided to sign with another owner this year, Zink picked Pat Flaherty to drive A. J.'s dream car.
As soon as the starter's green flag released the eardrum-splitting blast of nearly 12,000 hp breaking for the first lap, only seven of the 32 other cars provided George Francis Patrick Flaherty with any serious contention. At the beginning it was a three-car race between the men in the front row. Jim Rathmann, a pudgy-faced tow-head, and the younger brother of Dick, jumped ahead at the first turn and led for three laps in the dark blue Hopkins Special in which Bill Vukovich died last year. At every turn and down the straightaways, Rathmann was barely nosing out the yellow Ansted-Rotary Special driven by Pat O'Connor, a 30-year-old with the kind of ruddy, cheerful face and curly black hair that suggest Erin. Equally close was Flaherty—thin, redheaded, freckle-faced and sporting a jaunty shamrock on his white helmet. At the fourth lap O'Connor grabbed the lead at a pace of better than 140 mph—five miles faster than any previous average at the same point—while a red Novi Special crept up on the leaders.
The "blood-red Novi," as the press had already agreed to call it, was putting the crowd in a swivet. Very few of the 110,000 in the stands, and perhaps 25,000 more in the infield, could have avoided knowing something about this Novi, whose supercharged V-8 engine was supposed to be the fastest thing on the track. Adding to its excitement was its high whine, easily distinguishable from the throaty growl of the four-cylinder Offenhauser engines which pushed the rest of the cars. Also, there was something thrilling and flashy about its low Kurtis chassis with the trailing fin—a sort of car of tomorrow and a relief from the sameness of the other roadsters. The driver too was different; in such a young man's world Paul Russo was defying the laws of gerontology by driving his 10th "500" at the age of 42.
A swarthy, chunky man and a grandfather to boot, Russo had the crowd with him as he took the lead on the 10th lap and held it for the next 30 miles by just a few yards over O'Connor and Flaherty. He had all the best of the speed on the straightways, where his V-8 could make full use of its higher horsepower. On the turns and in the traffic, where the immense torque of the Offies gave them a greater surge at lower speeds of 135 mph or so, Russo would lose ground.
By the 20th lap it had become a three-car race between Russo, O'Connor and Flaherty, with the average speed now above 141 mph, some three miles faster than the record, and the chief question seemed to be whether the V-8 with the veteran at the helm could hold the pace over 500 miles. In case Russo tired, another veteran—Duke Nalon, who almost came to grief a few years ago with the same engine in a front-wheel-drive Novi—was standing by as a replacement.
It was on the 22nd lap that Russo's Novi gave indications of the kind of race this would soon be. Russo had just screamed across the rough bricks which, for tradition's sake, still cover the stretch in front of the main grandstands and the pits. He was entering the southwest turn when the car went out of control. It spun toward the two-foot concrete retaining wall, struck it head-on with a terrifying puff of smoke or dust, spun backward with flames spouting from the rear end and stopped in battered distress, still on the track midway through the turn. It seemed impossible that anyone could survive such a jolt unharmed, particularly with flames still dancing out of the rear of the car, but Grandfather Russo spryly hopped from the cockpit and made a dash for the safety of the infield before some speeding driver should unavoidably plow into the wreckage.
No sooner had the yellow cautionary flag gone up than pandemonium took charge. Approaching the Russo wreck two cars braked, swerved and locked' wheels. Both spun on the smooth new asphalt surface, one striking the wall with its rear end. Troy Ruttman, the 1952 winner, was following, and he spun into the infield to avoid the collision, thus eliminating his pink John Zink Special in which Bob Sweikert won last year's race.
While other cars threaded their way safely through the confusion, Johnny Thomson in No. 88 stomped on his brakes some 200 yards up the track. His car started spinning toward the pits and a crew of mechanics working on the engine of Johnnie Tolan's Trio Brass Foundry Special. It was a sickening sight to watch, for it seemed impossible he could avoid mangling at least several people. Yet some form of providence scattered the mechanics' and a fractured leg for one of them was the only injury.
It was 15 minutes before the wrecks and debris were cleared from the track and racing could resume in earnest. With Russo out, it was now a two-car battle between O'Connor and Flaherty—a now-it's-yours, now-it's-mine duel for 20 laps.
Suddenly, with the leaders in their 49th lap, the yellow flag again interrupted the race. Ray Crawford, the 1954 Pan-American Road Race winner, had spun out of the northwest turn with no one near him and mangled his car on the wall. Here, while the pace was relaxed, many drivers—Flaherty included—took time for their first pit stops, to pick up more fuel and a change of tires. As inevitably happens at this stage in the race, the lead was scrambled, with Johnnie Parsons, the 1950 winner, and Don Freeland each holding first place briefly until they too had to make their stops.
By the 75th lap all the contenders had had at least one service stop, the green flag was again flying, the full-speed roar was on, and it was again possible to take some sensible bearings on the standings. It was at this point that Pat Flaherty put No. 8 in front for good. From there until he took the checkered flag, one simply kept track of his pursuers.
For a while the order of pursuit was Freeland, Bob Sweikert and Sam Hanks, whose left front wheel was slightly askew after tangling with another car in the four-car mix-up following Russo's crash. On the 98th lap Freeland dropped back to fourth when his car spun on the backstretch and scraped the wall. Hanks having passed Sweikert, the order of pursuit became Hanks, Sweikert and Freeland as the cars swept through the 100th lap and half the race was over.
As the race wore, on, it grew abundantly clear that the hare-and-hounds between Flaherty and the rest of the field was heavily loaded in favor of the hare. By the 131st lap, when Bob Sweikert took his spin on the backstretch—one of the day's 12 such accidents—none of Flaherty's immediate competition except Johnnie Parsons and Pat O'Connor had avoided some kind of crack-up.
"I knew if my luck held," Flaherty reminisced afterward, "my only concern would be to keep plenty of distance between myself and the second car. Then I could stick to the pace we had planned, while the guys behind me would have to take the chances by hurrying into the turns and pressing their luck." Which is exactly how it turned out, with Sam Hanks never closer than 15 seconds (more than half a mile) to the lead. As if to prove that old saw about the luck of the Irish, Flaherty broke a throttle rod—on his way to the bullpen for the winner's kiss from Miss Virginia Mayo of Hollywood.
It was a great break for Flaherty, another Glendale boy, since he had never run better than 10th in three previous starts at Indy. Although he has driven everything from runabouts and midgets to the big championship cars during his 10 years on the tracks, Pat has always sat in the shadows of the glamour boys of racing. In the off seasons and when rides are hard to come by, he has had to fall back on his saloon on Chicago's North Side—a place called Pat Flaherty and Swede's Lounge—to help support his wife Marilyn and their 8-month-old daughter.
Now that the big payoff has come, Flaherty looks forward in his unassuming way to his year in the sun. Through the summer he will be driving Zink's dirt car on the championship circuit, with A. J. on hand to keep it sharp, so his prospects for a national driving championship are bright. Then there are all those TV and radio and banquet appearances. And just when he needs it least, Pat Flaherty and Swede's Lounge is suddenly filled with customers who want to shake the hand of the slim, 6-foot champion of the "500." Whenever he gets a few days off from his new responsibilities, Pat will be at his usual place behind the bar to satisfy the thirsty clientele.
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