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The Luck - and Skill - of the Irish in the Indianapolis 500

All things Irish are celebrated in the United States and around the world on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. At least for one day, life’s too short not to be Irish, as the saying goes.

Drivers of Irish heritage also have celebrated on Memorial Day weekend in late May in Indianapolis while standing in Victory Lane for the Indianapolis 500.

Jimmy Murphy was an early winner of the “500” among drivers of Irish descent, speeding to Victory Lane in 1922 in the No. 35 Murphy Special Duesenberg/Miller in a then-record average pace of 94.484 mph.

Murphy was born in 1894 in a poor, predominantly Irish section of San Francisco. Murphy’s Irish immigrant parents owned a fuel and feed store in the city. His mother died when Murphy was 2, and his father was killed in the earthquake and fire in 1906 in San Francisco, leaving Murphy an orphan.

1956 winner Pat Flaherty was one of the more prominent Indianapolis 500 champions of Irish descent. Flaherty was born in 1926 in Los Angeles as George Francis Flaherty Jr. but was nicknamed “Pat.”

The red-haired Flaherty, who won from the pole in 1956, wore his Irish heritage on his sleeve – or more accurately, his head. His well-worn, white Cromwell racing helmet featured either a large green shamrock or four-leafed clover, both symbols of Ireland.

The Irish theme continued the year after Flaherty’s victory when Pat O’Connor won the pole for the 1957 Indianapolis 500 in the Sumar Special before finishing eighth.

While Murphy, Flaherty and O’Connor each were born in the United States, an Irish breakthrough was made in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” in 1983. Derek Daly became the first driver born in the Republic of Ireland to compete in the Indianapolis 500, qualifying 28th and finishing 19th.


Daly, born near Dublin, made six career starts in the “500” between 1983-89, with a best finish of 12th in 1985. He went on to become a motivational speaker, author, motorsports driver developer and manager, and popular racing analyst on television. Daly’s son Conor, born in the Indianapolis area, will attempt to make his fourth Indianapolis 500 start this May, driving for A.J. Foyt Racing.

Michael Roe attempted to become the second Irish-born driver to race in the Indianapolis 500, in 1985. But he failed to qualify in a Hemelgarn Racing entry.

But 1985 did feature a winner of Irish descent who used some of the famous “luck o’ the Irish” to earn a piece of racing immortality and a spot on the Borg-Warner Trophy. Danny Sullivan, born in Louisville, Kentucky, spun in the short chute between Turns 1 and 2 after passing Mario Andretti for the lead. Sullivan miraculously kept the car off the wall and recovered to win.

While drivers of Irish descent have enjoyed success in the Indianapolis 500, a man whose nickname was “Irish” is believed to have made “500” history, too. IMS Public Address announcer John Francis “Irish” Horan was the first person to make the formal command to start engines before the start of the race, believed to be in 1950.

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