Jeff O’Connor of North Vernon was 18 months old when his father Pat was tragically killed on the opening lap of the 1958 Indianapolis 500.
Jeff did not attend his first Indy 500 until he was a senior in high school in 1975. He said he was overwhelmed when he first stepped into the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that May.
“My dad died doing what he loved doing,” he said. “I know that most racing families say that as a cliché, but it’s the truth. When I first walked into the track, I became overwhelmed knowing that I personally knew someone that participated at the most famous race track in the world and sat on the pole for the greatest race in the world.”
Pat O’Connor was born and spent his early years in North Vernon. His family briefly moved to Indianapolis, where he graduated from high school. In the early 1950s the family moved back to North Vernon.
Story continues below gallery
O’Connor and North Vernon entrepreneur William Gegax then became investors in the Green Leaf Grill Restaurant and a Texaco gas station.
By then, O’Connor’s racing career had already begun. His first race was in Columbus in May 1948, and he drove a roadster. The same year he picked up the first feature win of his career.
O’Connor’s first attempt to make the Indianapolis 500 came in 1953. He failed to make the race during qualifications.
“After he didn’t make the starting field,” Jeff O’Connor said, “there were several car owners who came up to him and wanted him to drive their cars in the race, but it never materialized.”
Pat came back in 1954 and made the race, starting 12th and finishing 21st. In 1955, he started 19th and finished a career-best eighth place. In 1956, he started on the front row in the third position and finished 18th in the race.
For the 1957 Indianapolis 500, O’Connor won the pole position in qualifying and equaled his best finish, coming in eighth.
He started fifth in what his final 500 in 1958.
O’Connor was driving for Chapman Root and Bill Smith in the famous Sumar Special that day in 1958. The team, based in Terre Haute, was named after Root and Smith’s wives Sue and Mary. Root received a patent for his development of the 8-ounce Coca-Cola Bottle and Smith was a well-known banker at Terre Haute First National Bank.
O’Connor’s death came the same week he graced the cover of “Sports Illustrated.”
Jeff O’Connor was with his grandmother back in North Vernon on May 30, 1958, while his mother, Analice, was with Pat preparing for the Indy 500 that day. Later that afternoon, his grandmother received a phone call from his mom.
He was too young to realize what had happened. All he knew was his dad was not coming home.
“My family has never shown any anger or bitterness over what happened,” Jeff O’Connor said. “The start of the race was just crazy — there were cars going everywhere on the track, there was a 15-car pileup and my dad went over the tire of another driver and flipped several times. He most likely died instantly of head injuries and then the car caught fire.
“I have seen the video of the wreck several times and I always wondered, out of 33 cars, why my dad was the one who died. Jerry Unser (older brother of Bobby and Al Sr.) flipped out of the track and survived.”
Pat O’Connor was only 29 years old when he died that day. His death led to stiffer safety rules regarding the roll bar and helmets. Up to that point, the roll bar behind the driver was not mandatory. The next year, in 1959, roll bars were mandatory on all Indy cars. Helmet safety also was closely looked at and better rules were put into place.
The 1958 race had further significant meaning in the history of the Indianapolis 500. The race was the first start for A.J. Foyt, the first four-time winner of the Memorial Day weekend classic.
Jeff O’Connor had always wanted to meet the Texan after reading articles regarding what Foyt had said about Pat O’Connor after the fatal 1958 crash.
“(Foyt) had said he nearly quit racing that day when my dad died,” Jeff recalled. “My dad was a mentor to A.J. for that month, teaching him the intricacies of the race track. Later on, A.J. would say he would never get close to anyone ever again in racing after my dad’s death. I have met A.J. twice, and we have talked at length about my dad, and to hear him say those same words he spoke in those articles, it brought tears to both of us.”
Pat O’Connor built a reputation as a good, clean racer on the dirt and pavement tracks in the Midwest. He was especially fond of three tracks he called his “secret weapons.” Those tracks were Salem and Winchester in Indiana and Dayton in Ohio.
The biggest win of his career came on July 4, 1956, in Darlington, South Carolina. He won three sprint-car titles, with his last being in 1956, the first year of USAC sanctioning of open-wheel racing.
The Firestone company took O’Connor to Italy in early 1957 to test tires on the high-banked, 2-mile long oval at Monza. He averaged better than 170 miles per hour in the test sessions.
Pat’s widow Analice, now 82, is remarried. Analice accompanied her son Jeff to his first visit to IMS back in 1975. It was her first since that tragic day in 1958. Ever since ’75 they have returned each May for racing functions, practice, qualifying and the race.
O’Connor is buried in the Vernon Cemetery in Vernon along with fellow racers Jim Hemmings and Wilbur Shaw. Hemmings, from North Vernon, was 28 years old when he died in a racing accident in 1962 in Marion, Ohio. Shaw, a native of Shelbyville, was a three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. He was president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he died in a plane crash in 1954.
The three are buried in a “V” formation indicating “Victory.”