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Indianapolis Motor Speedway Fatalities

1958 INDY 500

Pat O'Connor - driver

Pat O'Connor 1958
Pat O'Connor - May 1958

Dick Rathmann and Ed Elisian had been dueling for speed honors during practice and qualifying for the 1958 Indy 500. They started the race 1-2 with Jimmy Reece on the outside of the front row. Pat O'Connor started behind them in the middle of row two. Their duel continued as they both jumped the start of the race, with Reece following them infront of the pace car. When the pace car did not speed up, the three were waved ahead and this caused all pandemonium to break out. After the parade lap, the planned pace lap, and the whatever-it-was lap, the front row sort of got back in position and the race started. Rathmann and Elisian went wheel to wheel around the track. Neither driver backed off as they went into Turn 3 and Elisian spun, collected Rathmann and sent them both into the wall, starting a 15-car pileup.

Pat O'Connor flipped his car in the melee and it caught on fire. Though O'Connor's Sumar Special burned, Speedway medical officials said that he was probably already dead of a fractured skull. O'Connor's pit crew locked the garage door and refused to talk about the accident. He was 29 and at the peak of his racing career. Pat had said he'd retire if he ever won the Indy 500. The accident had similarities to Bill Vukavich's from three years prior. Both drove blue #4 cars that started from position 5. Both climbed another car, flipped and burned. Both drivers were blameless, their accidents caused by other cars.

Pat O'Connor was buried in Vernon Cemetary, just a few feet from Wilbur Shaw. O'Connor had won the Darlington 200 in 1956, the Larry Crocket Memorial in Salem in 1955, the track championship in Ft. Wayne in 1954, the Illiana at Hammond in 1953 and the 1953 Sprint Car Championship. Pat was survived by his wife Analise and his 18-month old son Jeffery.

Pat O'Connor's Indy 500 Record

Year Car# Car Laps completed Start Finish
1953 28 Slick Racers failed to qualify
1954 35 Hopkins 181- spun 12 21
1955 29 Ansted-Rotary 200-124.644 19 8
1956 7 Ansted-Rotary 187-flagged 3 18
1957 12 Sumar 200-132.281 1 8
1958 4 Sumar 0-wrecked 5 29

A.J. Foyt Talks of the Accident

In his 1983 book "A.J.", Foyt recalls the first Indy 500 he competed in - 1958. He spoke about how the only veterans that would help him were Pat O'Connor and Tony Bettenhausen. O'Connor gave him tips and showed him the best lines around the speedway. Here is an excerpt about the 1st-lap accident:

"They got to the turn. Rathmann backed off slightly, and Elisian, who was in the groove - that's the only reason Rathmann backed off; there was no place for him to go- well, Elisian was in too deep and too fast. I saw Elisian's car bobble slightly. That's the sign of trouble at Indy. There just wasn't time to turn the car. He slammed into Rathmann and the force took both cars into the concrete retainer wall. Rathmann's car was chopped in two; parts from Elisian's car were sailing everywhere.
I saw Reece slow down, and then Bob Veith hit him, sending Reece's car directly into the path of Pat O'Connor. Son of a bitch. O'Connor's car went up and over and sailed fifty feet in the air, and when it hit the track on the other side, upside down, it burst into flames.
Everything was happening so fast. But I could see everything, and I remembered everything I had heard in the driver's meeting. 'If you see a car spinning on the start, look for a place to go,' they had said. 'Be careful of the first lap,' they had said. 'Watch the lead cars," they had said. I did all of those things, and it was happening. Just like they had said.
I thought, Oh, shit, I've come this far and it's all over. I didn't even make a lap.
I looked for a place to go. There were cars sideways in front of me, so I spun my car to keep from hitting them. There was a hole and I sort of pulled myself up straight in the seat, trying to make myself as thin as I could. Somehow I thought it might make the car thinner. While I was sideways, I saw a car go up over another car and flip right out of the Speedway. I found out later it was Jerry Unser going over Paul Goldsmith.
My car was still sliding through the hole between Johnny Parsons and Tony Bettenhausen. I got through without touching a thing. The slide had scrubbed off a lot of my speed, like I hoped it would. The car was still spinning to the right, so I turned the wheel right and it started to straighten out. And then I saw it. A clear track ahead.
I had made it.
The yellow lights were all on, of course, so I kept it at about 100 miles an hour. When I got back around to the crash scene, I counted fifteen cars that were involved. They were sending traffic above, below, through, anyplace you could go without hitting a car or a broken part or a tow truck or an ambulance.
O'Connor's car was still burning.
I tried hard not to look at it. Goddamn it, I didn't want to look at it.
The next time I came around, the fire was out, but it was still smoking. I looked. Shit. Why did I look? Pat's arm was frozen in midair. Everything was black. His car, his helmet, his uniform, everything.
Son of a bitch, I thought. I wasn't sure I was tough enough for Indianapolis. It was going to take some thinking.
It took them twenty laps under caution to clear the debris from the track. Long after his car and his body were taken away, I could see Pat's arm sticking up in the air. I felt sick. When I came by the pits, I could see Ed Elisian sitting on the pit wall. His helmet was off and his head was in his hands.
I wondered how it could have happened. But I knew the answer just as well as any of the drivers. You race all month with a guy and you build up this rivalry. It almost becomes a hate. But it isn't. Only race drivers feel it. Maybe som people feel it on the highway. There are just some people who don't like to be passed. But in racing it builds up so much stronger. It becomes an obsession. I guess that's what happened to Elisian and Dick Rathmann. They just got overcome with the obsession to beat each other.
The rest of the race was hollow for me. I was running as hard as I could, but I wasn't comfortable. I was petrified, to tell you the truth. And I've never said that before. I ran hard; I just didn't feel like I had in other races. The spirit wasn't there."
"I vowed one thing when I left Indianapolis: I would never get close to any race driver again. And I've stuck to it. I've never run around at night with any of the other drivers. I've always been by myself. A lot of people think I'm stuck-up at times, but it's not true. It's a bad thing to see a driver get killed - real bad - but you just have to walk away from it and not let it play on your mind. You can't have something like that on your mind when you're out there going 180 miles an hour. I found that out."

58 wreck

In the picture above you can see Jerry Unser, who would die at Indy the following year, running over another car and shooting over the wall. He dislocated his shoulder, although his car did land right side up.

Elisian was suspended by USAC for an error in judgement, assuming he went into the turn too fast. He would die a year later at Milwaukee.

After the restart, Tony Bettenhausen, who would die at Indy in '61, had one of his best days at the speedway, leading 24 laps and finishing fourth. The day however belonged to Jimmy Bryan, a three-time National Champion, who drove the Salih roadster Sam Hanks drove to victory in '57. Rookie A.J. Foyt spun on lap 149 and ends up 16th.

Another interesting detail about this race is that the great Formula One champion, Juan Manuel Fangio, attempted to run the race. He had trouble in practice, he spun, but could not get up to speed. He couldn't get a handle on the oval-track roadster. He finally gave up and returned to Europe. The consensus was that Indy car racing was too tough for the Europeans. But soon, a crack was found in his car, one which allowed the chassis to flex. Fangio had been right, the car was messed up.

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