Pat O'Connor was born in South Vernon,
Indiana in 1928.
He 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
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 in
front 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, the biggest in
Speedway history. Not since 1930's seven-car
smashup had tragedy struck so violenty.
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
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 Cemetery,
just a few feet from Wilbur Shaw. Pat was
survived by his wife Analise and his 18-month
old son Jeffery.
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
|Vernon Cemetery, Vernon, IN
|Pat O'Connors 1957 Sumar Special
Ed Elisian is skidding backward toward
the wall with Dick Rathmann on the
outside of him.
Bob Veith heads through the middle with
a bashed-in front end.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Reece is skidding
and O'Connor's car is climbing over
that car, becoming airborne, where it
would land upside down and then flip
over onto its tires.
Other drivers involved in the smash up:
Paul Russo, Paul Goldsmith, Art Bisch,
Len Sutton, Mike Magill, Shorty
Templeman, Johnnie Parsons, Jerry
Unser, Bill Cheesbourg and Johnny
In the accident, Jerry Unser rode
over Paul Goldsmith's car and
bounced eight times (once as high
as 50 feet) before he stopped over
the wall on his wheels, still strapped
in his car. He was lucky to have
only a dislocated shoulder.
O'Connor gave him tips and showed him the best lines
around the speedway. Here is an excerpt about the 1st-lap
"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, any place you could
go without hitting a car or a broken part or a tow truck or an
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
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 some 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
"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."
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
A.J. Foyt Talks of the Accident
|Pat O'Connor after winning the pole position on May 18, 1957
|Pat O'Conner is upside down
Pat O'Connor and Jimmy Reece
compare notes after each turned
the 2 1/2 mile oval at Indianapolis
Speedway at unprecedented
speeds in the pre-race practice
period, May 9, 1958.
O'Connor's speed was 144.9 mph
and Reece clocked in at 144.7 mph.
|The Indianapolis Motor Speedway
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