Flaherty, Dean to be inducted into racing hall

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Former Indianapolis 500 winner Pat Flaherty and former car owner Al Dean will be inducted into the Auto Racing Hall of Fame at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway next month.

Flaherty, who drove at Indianapolis six times, set one- and four-lap qualifying records and won the race from the pole in 1956.

He won a 100-miler at Milwaukee two weeks after his win at Indianapolis but suffered a severe arm injury two months later in a crash in Springfield, Ill. He came back in 1959, his final start at Indianapolis, and led several laps before finishing 19th.

Flaherty died in 2002.

Dean’s cars won 38 Indy-car races from 1953-67, including 17 each with Mario Andretti and Jimmy Bryan. Other drivers for Dean included A.J. Foyt, Eddie Sachs and Bob Sweikert.

Dean, who died in 1967, never won at Indianapolis, although his drivers finished second twice, with Bryan in 1954 and Sachs in 1961.

Flaherty and Dean will be inducted during the annual Oldtimers Club banquet May 20.

A driver’s Big chance

There’s “American Idol” for wannabe divas and rock stars. “The Apprentice” looks for a few good tycoons-in-waiting.

Now drivers wanting to grab fame and fortune have their own chance at creating a new reality: “Operation Big Chance.”

There’s no TV deal – yet. And there’s no tour, recording contract or job.

But Dollar General, a local race track and Kevin Harvick have teamed up to offer one driver from the historic Music City Motorplex something just as important with the chance to drive Harvick’s truck in March 2007 at Martinsville in NASCAR’s truck series.

Local truck racer Nicholas Formosa of Nashville called it an opening.

“This is the opportunity that everybody’s working for, and everybody’s going to be racing hard to get it,” he said.

The prize is a one-race ride, not a season-long contract. But the lure of even one race on the lowest of NASCAR’s three series is powerful because of the chance to attract the attention of someone looking for new talent.

“To be on the same track with all the great drivers out there and running with them and get the experience and the knowledge, it would take you a long way and help out your chances of going to the next level tremendously,” said the 20-year-old Formosa, who has been racing at the Nashville track for five years.

For Harvick, he knows 99 percent of drivers don’t get that chance.

He remains appreciative of the chance Richard Childress gave the then-truck racer to drive a Busch car in 2000.

He had a similar idea a couple years ago that didn’t work out and recently put Burney Lamar into his second Busch car for the 2006 season after seeing him race in a shootout at Irwindale, Calif.

“Big Chance” should shake out a similarly talented driver.

“That’s the biggest question mark in the whole deal. If you can race for a championship at your local race track, you’re a lot more qualified than a lot of the guys that have a lot of money and just buy their way into the sport,” Harvick said.

“It is a different way of scouting. It is something where you’re going to get a champion.”

But “Operation Big Chance” isn’t an act of charity.

Dollar General, which is based just north of Nashville in Goodlettesville, already advertises at the track that was once a regular stop on NASCAR’s Grand National Series with drivers like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Darrell Waltrip, Sterling Marlin and Bobby Hamilton are among the drivers who honed their skills here.

Executives had been talking with track promoter Joe Mattioli about how to attract drivers and fans. Mattioli thought back to a gimmick he used at Pocono to help introduce NASCAR to fans used to Indy cars by letting them vote for a favorite local short-track driver with the winner drive in the first race.

Dollar General, which sponsors Lamar’s Busch car, brought on Harvick.

The competition is open to drivers in the track’s top two series each Friday night: late models and super trucks. The driver with the most points at the end of the season wins the ride. Dollar General is offering discounts on tickets to fans who want to watch.

“Our hope is that drivers from across the country who are looking to make that step from weekly racing to the big time will come out and play in our playground,” Mattioli said.

Mattioli has inquiries from companies wanting to televise what the promoter calls “reality reality.”

“It’s kind of a cross between American Idol’ and The Beverly Hillbillies’ where you go from nowhere, here’s somebody making their debut on a national stage,” Mattioli said.

Simply winning the season title won’t assure that driver will be starting at Martinsville. NASCAR will have to approve the driver – who also must qualify for the race.

Nicky Formosa, crew chief for his son who won five track championships himself when he raced against Hamilton, Marlin and Earnhardt, isn’t sure this promotion will help the local drivers. He’s seen personally how looks, polish and money count more than talent but hopes he’s wrong.

“I don’t care if it’s not my son. I hope they go forward. That’s what I tried to do, and what I’m trying to do with him,” he said of his son. “Just don’t have a lot of money to do it. He has the talent. It’s a money thing.”

Lamar knows that challenge only too well after stressing over money, parts and races for years, hoping to make his dream come true. He loves the promotion.

“I’ve been in their shoes, and it’s hard,” Lamar said. “It’s great to see somebody at least have that opportunity.”

Start those engines.

AP-ES-04-19-06 1319EDT

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