Hard Times Followed The Bettenhausen Family

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Racing dynasties are always an interesting topic among race fans. It’s always a lively discussion to debate whether the Andrettis or the Unsers are the most regal among IndyCar royalty. The Vukovich family also had three generations to race in the Indianapolis 500. The Andretti family is known for its hard luck at Indianapolis. The Unsers had great success at Indianapolis, but have had their share of embarrassing issues off the track.

The Vukovich family was rather star-crossed. Bill Vukovich was one of the greatest and most dominating drivers in history. He won the 1953 and 1954 Indianapolis 500. He was dominating the 1952 race when his steering went out before harmlessly grazing the wall with only nine laps remaining. He was again leading the 1955 race when he was fatally injured coming out of Turn Two. His son, Billy II, had a good career and finished second in the 1973 Indianapolis 500. Though he never dominated like his father, he had six top-ten finishes in twelve “500” starts. His son, Billy III, showed promise in his three Indianapolis 500 starts. Unfortunately, he lost his life in a sprint car in 1990. Bill Vukovich II lost his father and son to racing.

Then there is the Bettenhausen family. In recent years, their name has fallen by the wayside with newer fans. There is one thing the Bettenhausen clan does not have in common with those other previously mentioned racing families – they never won the Indianapolis 500. But racing irony and tragedy has affected them in many different ways.

Before anyone by the name of Andretti, Unser or Vukovich ever turned a wheel at Indianapolis – there were the Bettenhausens. Tony Bettenhausen had his first start at Indianapolis in 1946, the first year the track reopened after the war. Although his real name was Melvin, he acquired the nickname “Tunney” – a reference to boxing champion Gene Tunney – as a child because he was always picking fights. Later on, it morphed into “Tony”. Since he hailed from Tinley Park, Illinois – he was also sometimes referred to as “The Tinley Park Express”.

Tony Bettenhausen had the opportunity to win the Indianapolis 500 a couple of times, but due to choices and circumstances, it never worked out. Had it not been for his support of the ASPAR boycott in 1947, Bettenhausen could have driven one of Lou Moore’s new front-drive Blue Crown Specials, which ended up winning the race for the next three years. He passed on the opportunity to drive the Belanger Special in 1951. As luck would have it, heavy attrition led to Lee Wallard taking the Belanger Special to Victory Lane.

In 1961, Tony Bettenhausen was preparing to qualify for what would have been his fifteenth Indianapolis 500. It was common practice in those days for drivers to help out a fellow competitor and jump into another driver’s car to see if they could help them get the car up to speed. On the Friday before Pole Day, Bettenhausen was helping his friend, driver Paul Russo, find some more speed in his car. A bolt fell from the front suspension, causing Bettenhausen to crash into the outside wall on the front-straightaway. Tony Bettenhausen was killed instantly.

Tony Bettenhausen never won at Indianapolis. He was the 1951 National Champion and had been expected to become the driver to break the 150 mph barrier in Indianapolis qualifying the year of his death. He had a total of fourteen starts in the Indianapolis 500 – finishing second in 1955. He had three top-fives and five top-tens.

Aside from his impressive results, he was fast and was a crowd favorite. Like Tony Kanaan heading into last year’s Indianapolis 500, Tony Bettenhausen had a huge following that kept pulling for him to finally get that Indianapolis 500 win. Unlike Tony Kanaan, he never did. His death stunned the racing world much like Dan Wheldon’s – a star and a crowd favorite who was suddenly gone.

But Tony Bettenhausen had three sons; Gary, Merle and Tony, Jr. Gary had his first start at Indianapolis just seven years after the death of his famous father. His first few runs at Indianapolis were forgettable, but he was making a name for himself as a midget and sprint car driver. Gary Bettenhausen amassed twenty-seven midget wins and won the 1969 and 1971 sprint car championships.

It was at this point that Gary B. caught the eye of a young Roger Penske, who was still seeking his first Indianapolis 500 victory. Mark Donohue had been Penske’s driver since their arrival at The Speedway in 1969. David Hobbs drove the second Penske car as a rookie in 1971. For 1972, he went with the promising veteran Bettenhausen, who was just coming off of his second sprint car championship.

Bettenhausen started fourth and inherited the lead on Lap Thirty, when Bobby Unser dropped out. He set the pace from that point throughout most of the day. It looked as if the second-generation driver would finally bring the Borg-Warner to the Bettenhausen family eleven years after Tony Bettenhausen had lost his life after so many tries. Gary Bettenhausen would later describe how easy it was to lead that day, saying he was even getting hungry as he could smell steaks cooking every time he drove by a group of grilling spectators. As often happens, the easy day turned brutal as Bettenhausen suddenly slowed coming out of Turn Three. Bettenhausen’s day was done and he settled for a fourteenth place finish, which tells nothing of the dominant drive he had. His Penske teammate, Mark Donohue, went on to win the race.

Two years later, Gary Bettenhausen was in a dirt car race at Syracuse. He severely injured his right arm, causing permanent partial paralysis. He was luckier than his brother Merle. Two years earlier, Merle Bettenhausen was caught up in a wreck with Mike Hiss at Michigan. He lost his right arm completely. Gary would drive again. Once recovered, as long as he could use a special steering wheel, the arm didn’t prevent Gary Bettenhausen from racing. The same cannot be said for Roger Penske, however. The Captain was strongly against Bettenhausen racing sprints and midgets and subsequently fired Bettenhausen.

Even in 1991, when he had the fastest car in the field while driving for John Menard, Bettenhausen was not the pole-sitter. Instead, he was a second-day qualifier and had to settle for bragging rights while starting in Row Five. To make matters worse, Gary B. got too low in Turn One on the start. Overnight rains had washed debris down to the bottom. He was able to continue after a pit-stop, but was pretty much out of contention from that point. Such was the Bettenhausen luck.

Gary Bettenhausen’s last start was in 1993 for Menard. It was unspectacular, as he started eighteenth and finished seventeenth. The end of his Indianapolis career came in the same two-year span of Rick Mears, AJ Foyt, Al Unser, Mario Andretti, Tom Sneva and Johnny Rutherford. While their final days at Indianapolis are remembered fondly, Bettenhausen’s is fading with time.

In an Indianapolis 500 career that featured twenty-one starts and spanned four decades, the closest Gary Bettenhausen came to winning the “500” was a third-place finish in 1980. He had a couple of fifth-place finishes, but he had mostly bad luck. When I look back at the Indianapolis 500 career of Gary Bettenhausen, I think mostly of a driver who over-achieved with mostly inferior equipment. When he was in a Penske car or a John Menard car – Bettenhausen could excel.

Gary Bettenhausen’s last drive, regrettably, was in the CART US 500 in 1996; while driving for his younger brother Tony. He started twenty-seventh and finished twenty-first. It was an unremarkable end to a long, but sometimes frustrating career.

Tony Jr. had a modest driving career, but was more successful as an owner. He had married the daughter of Indy car veteran Jim McElreath. Tony Jr stepped out of the cockpit for good after the 1993 Indianapolis 500, but continued to run his race team. In February of 2000, Tony Jr, his wife Shirley and two others were returning to Indianapolis from CART’s spring training at Homestead. Tony Bettenhausen, Jr was the pilot. Apparently, the plane iced up over Kentucky and the plane went down – killing everyone aboard.

Tony Bettenhausen lost his life in a race car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gary Bettenhausen lost much of the use of his right arm to racing. Merle Bettenhausen lost his entire arm in his only Indy car start at Michigan. Tony Bettenhausen, Jr. lost his life in a plane crash returning from CART spring training. Racing tragedy has directly struck each male member of the Bettenhausen clan in some form or fashion.

This past Sunday afternoon, Gary Bettenhausen passed away at the age of 72. He was a member of the golden age of racing that I grew up watching in the sixties and seventies at Indianapolis. I was almost ten when Gary showed up as a rookie at Indianapolis. I could hardly pronounce his name, but my father and older brothers quickly brought me up to speed as to who he was and why all the fans cheered especially hard for him.

He is not the first racing link to my childhood to pass away. Unfortunately, there will be many more in the next few years to fall. Such is the cycle of life. When I heard the news about Gary Bettenhausen on Sunday night, I could not help but think how the Bettenhausen family should be mentioned in the same breath with all of the other royal families in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It’s a shame that they are not. They have certainly paid their dues to racing.

George Phillips

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11 Responses to “Hard Times Followed The Bettenhausen Family”

  1. Ron Ford Says:

    Thanks for this post George. My dad began taking me to races at the Milwaukee Mile right after WWII when the track was still dirt. Tony Bettenhausen Sr. quickly became a crowd favorite much like A.J. Foyt a bit later. Tony was an aggressive driver and just flat out fast. In 1951 on the USAC circuit he was almost unbeatable in the famous Belanger Special. For many years a race in Milwaukee was named for Tony as the Springfield race still is today. Gary didn’t fall far from the tree.

  2. dzgroundedeffects Says:

    A few years ago I posted that stat about all the legends that retired from May ’92 – May ’94. I erroneously omitted Bettenhausen. Thank you for this post and the recap of his family’s racing career. One of the many legends who came so close, but never won at Indy.

  3. elmondohummus Says:

    Excellent piece, George. It’s needed. All too often it’s only the top stars of a sport who get remembered, and even then later generations of fans only relate to them through what current stars say. The other folks – the otherwise excellent, yet not as well recognized or accomplished competitors – often tend to fade in memory as time goes by. It gradually becomes less a case of waiting for that person to topple one of the established stars in the 500 and more a case of folks saying “remember that guy who looked like he’d beat AJ/Mario/Rick/Big Al/insert-star-here…” or in other sports, “… beat Marino/Magic/Jordan/Gretzky/Cal back in 19-somethingsomething?” The old timers will smile and reminisce in memory of the old warriors while the younger guys quietly grin, turn aside, and read Tweets from the current stars.

    There’s nothing wrong with either, by the way – I read the heck out of so many Indycar drivers Twitter feeds myself – but the point is that it takes the old guys scraping their memories to memorialize those lesser recognized competitors.

    Time fades all sheens. The shiny up-and-comer of yesterday becomes the footnote of tomorrow. And sometimes only if they’re lucky.

    Yet, there is a sort of injustice to that. Everyone’s so focused on who climbed to the top that it’s a rare case where people remember the second, third, and lower place finishers, the championship runners up, the Super Bowl quarterbacks for “the other” team, or the pennant winners who didn’t take the World Series. Sure, they can be named a few years later, but after a decade it reduces down to the hardcore fans. Beyond that even, it’s a reference in an encyclopedia. But the injustice remains because those others weren’t failures by any stretch. History accidentally makes them out to be lesser men on the mountain, or road bumps to be overcome by the winner because that’s the way narratives work. There’s the protagonist, and all the challenges to the story ending, but reality is different. At the moment of competition, those other challengers, those other men in the ring are not the also ran guys waiting for the star to write out that final chapter. On the contrary, they are all more or less equal competitors who have relatively equal chances, have taken advantage of similar opportunities to reach that point, and close-enough to having equal odds of winning. When the narrative is unwritten, it’s yet to be determined who the hero of the story is. And because of that, it’s a mistake to write these “other folks” off as failures while making out the ring wearers to be successes without qualification.

    It’s true that all sports will have their legends. Gretzky can be named by many who don’t know what the lines on the ice are for. Montana is a familiar figure even to my own mother who couldn’t name any other position or player on that team, and wouldn’t know what a blitz is with a diagram. Magic, Bird, and Jordan are all transcendent figures, and who hasn’t heard the name “AJ Foyt”, even though they’d blink in confusion at the word “Offenhauser”. Yet, those men were hardly unchallenged in their day, and those “also rans” were the farthest thing from being lesser competitors. I can’t name a hockey contemporary who’d be a challenger to Gretzky, but I damn well recall that Jim Kelly went to as many Super Bowls as him, even though he didn’t win any of them. Gary “The Glove” Payton even won a championship when he went to Miami, but he’s not anywhere near as well remembered as Ervin, Larry, or Michael who’ve won several, all with their original team. The legends exist, yet those other players were still exceptional, and with breaks going the other way could have been the heroes with the stars as we know them now being the other players looking up at the heights.

    And so it is with the Bettenhausen family. I’d bet each of the Tony Bettenhausen’s competitors in their day wouldn’t have thought of him as anything other than the top shelf competition to watch out for. Same with Gary; Penske himself identified him as a worthy talent. Yet, without their face on the Borg Warner, the cachet is perceived by later generations of fans as missing. It’s not the same ring as Andretti, Foyt, Unser, or others. And that’s simply an injustice. They’re not lesser talents, not by any stretch. And it takes pieces like this to remind people that the “others” were never “also-ran” drivers. They were lions themselves.

    • elmondohummus Says:

      Whoops! Error: “… Jim Kelly went to as many Super Bowls as Montana.” Not Gretzky.

      I need to proofread better. :(

    • billytheskink Says:

      From a Saturday Night Live Chicago Bears Superfans sketch in the early 90s:

      Pat Arnold: You know gentlemen, I may not even watch the basketball game today.

      Bob Swerski: Yeah?

      Pat Arnold: I may turn my attention to the Indianapolis Fi-Hunderd.

      Bob Swerski: Well, at least the outcome of that is in question. Who do you gentlemen like in a race? Now the favorites are Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt, and Gary Bettenhausen.

      And then all of the Superfans pick Mears because it almost rhymes with “Bears”… but the notable appearance of Gary B is certainly an indicator of popularity at the time.

  4. George, it was Tony’s LEFT ARM that was rendered near useless after the crash, NOT his right, as you stated at least twice in your column.

  5. billytheskink Says:

    I thumbed through my dad’s 1993 Indy 500 program last night, initially to confirm my memories of the current Indycar logo car silhouette’s presence (it was in the 500 race logo itself, as well as on a page of IMS trademarks), but wound up scouring it for bits about Gary B.

    There was no feature story on him, just the brief write-up all entered drivers at the time of printing received and scattered mentions in other stories, but there was a very nice full-page ad taken out by Menards and Glidden featuring him standing next to his bright yellow and orange machine and a picture of his car was pre-photoshopped over the shuttle in a photo of a space shuttle launched and used repeatedly in a story about speed records at Indy. Nevertheless, it was good to see him frequently mentioned and to reminisce.

    Despite his lack of a 500 victory, Gary B had a tremendous career and I hope we Indycar fans will keep his memory alive.

  6. Phenomenal write George… Gary was really the last of the old guard that I got to see in person on the track… He continued to make the occasional trip to Duquoin/ Springfield and the like to run the dirt car.. I feel blessed to have seen it

  7. Ron Ford Says:

    George hasn’t been able to tell his right from his left for years without Susan’s help.

  8. Jay Simposn Says:

    Jay Simpson says:

    Gary B was a real racer. The hey-days of USAC sprint car racing in the late 60’s and early 70’s gave us the “Larry and Gary” shows between Gary and Larry Dickson. Many memories and a great era of racing.

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