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Pat O'Connor

9th October 1928
North Vernon, Indiana
30th May 1958 (Aged 29)
Indianapolis, Indiana, Indianapolis 500
Most recent race (in database):

Pat O’Connor perished in one of the worst accidents in the history of the Indianapolis 500. The opening lap of the 1958 race was brought to an abrupt halt when Ed Elisian spun in Turn 3 and was hit by Dick Rathmann. Chaos ensued behind with 15 cars eliminated in the mêlée. Jerry Unser went over the wall and suffered a dislocated shoulder but worse befell O’Connor who was killed as his Kurtis KK500G-Offenhauser rolled and caught fire.

Elisian was blamed for the accident and Rathmann said, "I’ll never forgive Elisian for what he did. Pat O’Connor was the most honourable guy in racing". In the face of widespread criticism, Elisian was suspended but that was lifted within a week as the USAC directors said it was impossible to prove an error of judgment.

Early Sprint Car success

Pat O’Connor started racing roadsters while working as a car salesman in 1948. By the end of that summer, he had won his first feature race and he graduated to the AAA Midwest Sprint Car circuit two years later. Third in the 1952 series with a modified Ford-powered midget, he edged Bob Sweikert to win the 1953 title. He repeated that success in 1954 and won the now USAC-sanctioned series for a third time in 1956.

Indianapolis and the National Championship

Having failed to qualify for the 1953 Indianapolis 500, he returned a year later with Lindsey Hopkins’ Kurtis KK500A-Offenhauser and started 12th before spinning out of the race during the closing stages. Seventh in the 1955 AAA National Championship (now IndyCar Series) after a consistent season, he qualified on the outside of the front row at Indy in 1956. His Rotary Engineering Kurtis KK500D-Offy took an early lead but O’Connor again retired.

Indycar success soon followed however with O’Connor’s Chapman S.Roots-owned Blough-Offy winning at Darlington on July 4 1956. His growing fame spread to Europe when he topped 170mph average while testing for Firestone on Monza’s banked circuit. He was one of the North American stars to return to Italy for the 1957 Race of Two Worlds. He finished the opening heat at Monza in second position and led race two only to retire with a split fuel tank.

On pole position for the 1957 Indianapolis 500, he scored a second win at Trenton that autumn and was a career-best fourth in the National Championship. Determined to win America’s biggest race, O’Connor decided to stop racing sprint cars until after the 1958 Indianapolis 500. He qualified his Kurtis KK500G-Offy in the middle of row two and was clearly a favourite for the race – featuring on the cover of Sports Illustrated that week. But this popular Hoosier was the unwitting victim of the opening lap pile-up that was triggered by the Elisian/Rathmann crash.

O’Connor was buried in the same North Vernon cemetery where his racing mentor Wilbur Shaw had been laid to rest four years earlier.

Championship seasons