The Bettenhausens: Tough Choices & Hard Luck

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Last week in the comments section regarding the grid of thirty-three winners at the Speedway, Ron Ford, a longtime reader from the Milwaukee area said that the 1951 winner, the Belanger Special was his favorite. He went on to wonder how Lee Wallard got the ride, because Tony Bettenhausen drove the same car to the National championship that season. The answer is simple. It was a choice by Tony Bettenhausen.

In fact, Tony Bettenhausen made a few career-altering decisions along the way that may have cost him a shot at at least two victories in the Indianapolis 500.

The 1947 Indianapolis 500 came down to a controversial finish between teammates. Lou Moore, a former diver who was one of the top owners at that time, owned the front-drive Blue Crown Specials driven by Mauri Rose and Bill Holland. They dominated the race with Holland, a thirty-nine year old rookie, leading 143 laps and running away in the late stages, with Rose running second. With the race seemingly in hand, Moore had the “EZY” sign displayed to his drivers. Holland nodded while leading and backed off. Rose, who was running second and a half lap behind Holland, nodded but didn’t back off. On lap 193, Rose caught up with Holland who waved him by, thinking Rose was a lap down. Rose cruised to his second of three victories.

The Holland car had originally been assigned to Tony Bettenhausen, who had become very active in ASPAR – the American Society of Professional Auto Racing. ASPAR was a participant’s association devised to increase percentages of purses at tracks – specifically, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and it looked as if there may be a participant’s strike. Lou Moore was not associated with ASPAR and neither was Mauri Rose. When it came time to practice, Moore went to Bettenhausen and essentially said either forget about ASPAR or he would have to get another driver for the 500. Tony B. balked and stayed with ASPAR which was finished before the drop of the green flag. This led to the hiring of Bill Holland for the other Blue Crown Special. Had it been Bettenhausen out front in the late stages of the 1947 race, it is highly unlikely that he would have been as generous as Holland and let Rose by.

The second career-altering choice for Bettenhausen came in the winter following the 1950 season. He had driven for Lou Moore in the 500 in the front-drive Blue Crown Special, but completed only thirty laps and finished thirty-first. Tony B. then drove Murrell Belanger’s dirt car for the rest of the 1950 season, winning three races and finishing fifth in points. During the off-season, Belanger was trying to finalize his plans for 1951 and asked Bettenhausen if he would be on board for the following year. He said he would be, except he wanted to drive a front-drive again for the 500 because he didn’t think he could win Indianapolis in the dirt car. Perplexed at his answer, Belanger was left wondering what he could do for a driver at the Speedway. Bettenhausen recommended his good friend Lee Wallard.

As fate would have it, Bettenhausen never led in the race and dropped out on lap 178 finishing ninth, while Wallard went on to victory in the car that Tony B. had passed up. Bettenhausen went on to win eight out of the remaining thirteen races in the Belanger Special on his way to the 1951 championship.

Tony Bettenhausen’s real name was Melvin E. Bettenhausen, but he acquired the nickname “Tunney” (after heavyweight boxer Gene Tunney) as a child because he was always getting into fights. That later evolved into Tony. His racing nickname was the “Tinley Park Express”, in reference to his hometown just outside the south side of Chicago.

Bettenhausen went on to become a crowd favorite. He never won at Indianapolis, but started and finished second in 1955. His career at the Speedway spanned fourteen races from 1946 to 1960. In 1961, on the Friday before pole day qualifying, he had been getting closer and closer to the record everyone was chasing – the unbroken 150 mph barrier. He was considered a lock for the pole the next day. In a late afternoon test-hop for his old friend Paul Russo, Bettenhausen was fatally injured on the front stretch.

Tony Bettenhausen had become one of those that the Speedway crowd loved. He never won, but always seemed to be in the mix – and was popular off-track, as well. I would put Tony B. in the same category with Lloyd Ruby and (so far) Tony Kanaan – both extremely popular drivers who came close but could never get a victory at Indianapolis. His demise came about four years before I started going to the race, so I never knew that much about him growing up.

What I did know was that his oldest son, Gary, was racing at Indy in the late sixties. In fact, Gary’s career spanned from 1968 through 1993. Gary B. was one of the many drivers who was driving during my years as a child attending the 500 in the sixties, and was still driving when I returned as an adult after a long absence in the early nineties. He attempted to qualify for the 1994 Indianapolis 500, but failed to qualify. He also drove in the CART 1996 U.S. 500, where he finished twenty-first out of twenty-seven cars.

Gary had four top-ten finishes at Indy, with a top finish of third in 1980. Gary B. was also the fastest qualifier for the 1991 500, albeit as a second-day qualifier and started from the fifth row. For a while, it looked as if he might win the 1972 500, while driving for Roger Penske. After Bobby Unser fell out on lap 31, Gary Bettenhausen dominated for the next three quarters of the race. On lap 182 however, Bettenhausen was victimized by a faulty ignition and settled for fourteenth place – yielding the victory to his Penske teammate Mark Donohue.

Merle Bettenhausen, the middle son of Tony, had his Indy car career cut short before it barely got started. In his first Indy car appearance in 1972, on the third lap of a race at Michigan, Merle was involved in a fiery crash with Mike Hiss. Trying to climb out of the burning wreckage while the car was still moving; Merle’s arm was trapped between the car and the wall and was ripped off – effectively ending his driving career right there.

The youngest son of the Bettenhausen clan was Tony, Jr. Although he made his first appearance at the Speedway in 1979, he didn’t make the race until 1981, when he had a career best finish of seventh. In 1985, Tony Jr. became an owner-driver. For years, Tony Bettenhausen drove mid-pack or worse, until he made the decision to step out of the cockpit in the middle of the 1992 season. That is when he hired Stefan Johansson to drive his AMAX sponsored year-old Penske chassis. For 1993, Johansson remained the full-time driver but Tony drove in one more Indy 500. This year, they had new Penske chassis – the same as the Marlboro cars. Johansson qualified sixth, one spot better than the highest starting Marlboro car driven by Paul Tracy.

After Johansson was involved in the accident that took the life of Jeff Krosnoff in 1996, Johansson hung up his helmet at the end of the season. As an owner, Bettenhausen gave many promising rookies their start; including Helio Castroneves, Patrick Carpentier and Michel Jourdain, Jr.

On Feb 14, 2000, while returning from Spring Training at Homestead, Tony Bettenhausen, Jr. and his wife Shirley, who was the daughter of Indy driver Jim McElreath, and two business associates; lost their lives when their plane, piloted by Bettenhausen, crashed in Kentucky – most likely after encountering icing conditions.

The Bettenhausen family is entrenched into the lore of the Indianapolis 500, but their story is star-crossed. Their family has the distinction of having the most combined starts in the Indianapolis 500 without a victory. Tony Sr. lost his life while driving, Tony Jr had retired but lost his life traveling back from an event as an owner, Merle lost his arm in his first Indy car race and Gary also has limited use of his arm from a sprint car accident. But there have been many highs and near misses for the popular family. It has been fifteen seasons since a Bettenhausen drove in an Indy car race, after an era that spanned fifty years. When I talk to younger fans who haven’t followed the sport very long, they look at me like I have two heads when I mention the Bettenhausen name. They have never heard the name. Somehow, I find that just a little sad.

George Phillips

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5 Responses to “The Bettenhausens: Tough Choices & Hard Luck”

  1. Thanks for that post. And all the others.
    So many good reads, so little time. Damn it.

  2. The Lapper Says:

    Excellent George. Excellent. I was well aware of Tony Sr. from my parents who, like all of us, talk about their favorite drivers, past and present. Same about Bill Vukovich. They spoke of them with reverent tones, too. The name Bettenhausen is very much a part of the great history of The 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

    By the way, I would include Eddie Sachs in the group of the great drivers who never won Indy. Sachs could very well have been the best of that group.

  3. billytheskink Says:

    Its a tenuous connection, especially after they stopped using the traditional #16 after Milwaukee in 2002, but Tony Jr’s team does still live as HVM Racing.

    I find it pretty remarkable, actually, that the Bettenhausen team was able to survive after that terrible plane crash (the CART/IndyCar community lost too many too soon in 99-00) and that it is still running. Especially now that we’ve seen former IndyCar stalwarts like Dan Gurney, Pat Patrick, Jim Hall, Carl Hogan, Derrick Walker, Gerry Forsythe, and Bobby Rahal shutter their teams.

  4. Thanks for the excellent piece about Tony Bettenhausen George. Don Davidson quality! I learned some new things about Tony’s career. Tony Bettenhausen was a beloved racer here in the Milwaukee area. For many years the 200 mile race at the Milwaukee mile was named after Tony.

    Year after year my dad and I would go down to Indy thinking this will be Tony’s year to win; kind of like Cub fans I suppose. Like many other good drivers, it was bad luck and bad choices that kept him from winning. Much like Tony Kanaan and Greg Moore, he was often electrifying to watch.

    Fire was an ever-present danger in those days and left many drivers dead, scarred or otherwise injured as what happened to Merle Bettenhausen. Seeing Simona’s car on fire this year brought back horrible memories of the Eddie Sachs fire at Indy and the Ed Elisian fire at the Milwaukee mile.

    Thanks again for the trip down memory lane. It should be interesting and fun to see what the Speedway has in store for us during this 100 year celebration.

  5. Jim Stringfellow Says:

    As a young man I saw Tony drive at Milwaukee many times. He not only was the 1958 USAC Indy Car National Champion, but finished third in points for the 1960 USAC Stock Car season. My Dad really enjoyed watching Tony ride the rim when the Milwaukee Mile was a dirt track.

    Ironically Tony drove the number 98 Agajanian Special at Indianapolis in 1953 – one year too late.

    Great story that brought back a lot of memories.

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