For two brief, shining moments, Chicago was in the spotlight, in the winner’s circle, after “The Greatest Spectacle In Racing,” the Indiana-polis 500.
Two drivers who lived in Chicago at the time of their victories were Billy Arnold in 1930 and Pat Flaherty in 1956.
Arnold was born in Chicago in 1905 and, at the time of his win at age 24, was living at 5710 S. Went-worth, where the Dan Ryan Expressway’s eastern retaining wall now stands. While his Indy career was but five starts, he was the man to beat. In 1930, he started from the pole and led 198 laps — still a race record. From 1928 to 1932, he led the race three times for a total of 410 laps. In 1932, he started second and finished second, after which, at the insistence of his wife, he retired from racing.
His 1930 win landed him a small speaking part in James Cagney’s racing movie “The Crowd Roars.” During World War II, he distinguished himself by serving as the chief of maintenance for the U.S. 8th Air Force and was mustered out as a lieutenant colonel. Moving to Oklahoma, he built luxury homes and shopping malls. Later, he became a pioneer in the water-ski industry. He died in 1976, at 70.
Born George Francis Flaherty Jr. in Southern California in 1926, the red-headed Irishman raced as Pat Flaherty. He spent most of his adult life in Chicago. At the time of his 500 win, Flaherty, then 30, was living at 1858 N. Sheffield Ave.
He came to Chicago in 1948, joining West Sider Andy Granatelli’s Hurricane Hot Road Association, which raced mainly at Soldier Field. Granatelli took Flaherty to Indy for the first time in 1949, but he failed to qualify.
Flaherty lucked into his 1956 ride when the contracted driver bolted in a contract dispute. Unlike today’s safety-minded pilots, he drove the race in slacks and a T-shirt. And, defying the racing superstitions of the day, he had a large green shamrock painted on his helmet.
His car — the John Zink Trackburner Special — was the first Watson roadster to drive into the speedway’s victory circle. Until Jimmy Clark’s rear-engined Ford Lotus won in 1965, the Watson roadsters were the class of the Indy fields.
Flaherty made six Indy starts from 1950 to 1959, including starting from the pole in his winning drive. During his career, he raced in midgets, sprint cars, Indy cars, stock cars and whatever else had four wheels, winning in all.
Retiring from racing in 1963, he remained in Chicago, opening a bar at 3150 W. Irving Park Road.
While his four-wheel racing career may have been over, Flaherty, according to Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson, still raced — with pigeons, for some 20 years from coops at his Chicago home.
“When I was researching his life, I went to the Sheffield address and happened to meet a neighbor who remembered him and his pigeons,” Donaldson said. “But when I told him he had won the Indy 500, the man was astounded, as Pat never talked about his racing career.”
Shortly before his death in 2012 at 76, Flaherty moved back to California to be near his children,
Another Chicago native who had a far less illustrious Indy career was Arthur Greiner. Born in 1884, Greiner participated in the first Indianapolis 500 in 1911. His claim to fame (or maybe infamy) was that he was the first driver in the race’s history to finish last. At the time, 40 cars started the race, and Greiner came home at the tail end.