Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Bill Vukovich dubbed him “Buffer Red.” Everyone else simply called George Francis Patrick Flaherty — Pat.
The ginger-headed Irishman earned Vukovich’s moniker during the 1953 Indy 500. Nearing exhaustion, he crashed his vivid red, Peter Schmidt Special in the north short chute and buffed the wall with a long red streak as the car ground to a stop.
Aside from his new nickname, Flaherty achieved little at Indianapolis that year and, in fact, left the speedway disillusioned with the race.
Born in Glendale, Calif., on Jan. 6, 1926, Flaherty discovered Rex Mays’ Bowes Seal Fast Special garaged across the street from his elementary school. He hung around after school and when the celebrated Mays engaged the shy youngster, Flaherty began dreaming of becoming a racer.
World War II and serving in the Army Air Corp. dimmed those dreams until Flaherty struck up a friendship with Al Kenny, who raced at the original Ascot Speedway. Kenny’s recounting of his exploits there rekindled Flaherty’s childhood fascination and motivated him to race for the first time in an outlaw roadster race at Bakersfield in 1946.
Future 500 starter Bayliss Levrett befriended him and helped him toward that goal. “Bayliss became a good friend, who taught me a lot about racing,” insisted Flaherty.
With Levrett’s mentoring, Flaherty moved to the California Roadster Ass’n in 1948, driving for Troy Ruttman’s former roadster owner Del Baxter, as well as Ralph Chapelle and Rudy Ramos.
Flaherty became a winner. His success in the CRA caught the attention of Andy Granatelli, who recruited Flaherty for his Hurricane Hotrod Ass’n.
Despite a sometimes tumultuous relationship between the two, Granatelli acknowledged Flaherty’s exceptional talent and hired him for Indianapolis in 1949. He passed his rookie test in the Granatelli’s Grancor Mercury/Miller but couldn’t get it up to speed. In 1950, he made the race for Granatelli and finished 10th.
Following the 1950 500, Flaherty ran afoul of the AAA because he continued running the Hurricane Roadsters. That killed any opportunity for Indy. He won the Hurricane championship in 1951 and ’52 but was unable to compete at Indianapolis until 1953 when he was back in the AAA’s good graces.
After his dismal 1953 performance, he struggled to find a decent championship ride. In 1954, he tried two cars at Indianapolis, including a Chrysler-powered Kurtis roadster. Neither was fast and he only drove a handful of relief laps for fellow Hurricane racer Jim Rathmann.
Flaherty encountered one good stroke of Irish luck that year, however. He met Harry Dunn, who signed him to drive his odd-looking, white roadster. He finished 10th with it at Indianapolis in 1955 and raced it to victory at The Milwaukee Mile that August.
That caused others to take a fresh look at Flaherty, including John Zink’s builder/mechanic A.J. Watson. When 1955 500 winner Bob Sweikert left Zink in a contract dispute, Flaherty landed with Zink and Watson.
Driving Zink’s Watson roadster, he grabbed the pole and led 127 laps to win the 1956 Indianapolis 500. Evidently, the shamrock painted on his helmet brought him good luck, because as he flashed under the checkered flag, the throttle broke.
Remarked Watson with a shrug, “We build these things to last 200 laps, not 201.”
Victory at Milwaukee followed and a pair of fifth-place finishes put Flaherty solidly in the national championship hunt. But then his Irish luck soured.
Flaherty crashed the Zink dirt car in Springfield, Ill., on Aug. 19 and sustained a broken jaw, a broken shoulder and a shattered right arm.
The arm was the problem. It never healed properly. Flaherty wasn’t recovered for the 1957 500 and failed the physical in ’58. He made Indianapolis in 1959 and led some laps before crashing.
As late as 1960, he was still undergoing bone grafts, but by 1963 “Buffer Red” had slipped quietly away from racing. He tended bar in his popular Chicago pub and raced pigeons to quell his competitive urges. He died on April 9, 2002.