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Gary Bettenhausen 1941-2014
- Updated: March 17, 2014
Gary Bettenhausen at Indianapolis in 1991 where he was the fastest qualifier, however started 13th due to qualifying rules. [Russ Lake Photo]
Big Bend, WI (March 17, 2014) – Gary Bettenhausen passed away yesterday at the age of 72. Gary who suffered numerous racing injuries had been reported not been feeling well lately. He admitted to a group of us last year that he had been suffering back pain from a bulldozer incident the previous year (the dozer slammed down while going down a ditch) which he admitted in some ways felt worse than any of his racing injuries. A member of the legendary Bettenhausen family from Tinley Park, IL, the family’s patriarch, Tony was lost in a racing accident at Indianapolis in 1961. That year, Tony was a favorite to win the pole and the race. The family tried to win the “500” 46-times to no avail. The best chance for Gary and the Bettenhausen family was in 1972. Driving a brilliant blue Sunoco McLaren M-16 for Roger Penske, he led 138-laps, however with less than 20-laps to go, ignition issues caused the car to stall, giving the lead and the win to teammate Mark Donohue. On July 4th, 1974, against the wishes of Penske, Bettenhausen went to drive a USAC Championship dirt car race in Syracuse, NY. An accident in qualifying for the event, caused injuries which would cause his left arm to swing lifelessly on his side for the remainder of his life. Fired shortly afterwards by Penske. Even with his partially paralyzed left arm he continued driving. The following year saw him return once again with Fred Gerhardt whom he started Indy Car career in 1968 and later would drive for notable car owners such as J.C. Agajanian, Grant King and Leader Card Racers.1980 saw ‘Gary B.’ drive one of his best and most memorable race. Given a throw away black Wildcat chassis, longtime racing buddy and ace mechanic, Willie Davis and Gary worked on the Sherman Armstrong-owned car during practice and squeezed the car into the field on bump day. On the way to the track on race day, he had such little regard for his chances, he told his wife to have the car ready at halfway so they could beat the crowd. Starting in the 32nd position, Gary took off along with fellow last row starter Tom Sneva towards the front. His strategy was to run hard and put on a good show while he was on the track. Running in the top-ten most of the race, at the end of the race he had a spirited duel with Gordon Johncock, beating the “500” winner to cross the finish line for a highly improbable third place. Fellow last row starters Sneva finished ahead of Gary in second, while teammate Tom Bigelow raced a newer Lola-Cosworth team car to eighth place.
Another fine race for Bettenhausen at the Brickyard was in 1987 when he drove Dick Hammond’s Galen Fox-wrenched year-old red March 86C-Cosworth to a fifth place finish. Some may forget his late race duel with A.J. Foyt at Texas World Speedway in the spring of 1979. Driving the same aging Wildcat, Gary and Foyt dueled for the lead with Gary finishing a close second to Foyt and his Parnelli-Cosworth. His career made a comeback of sorts in the early 1990’s when John Menard hired the veteran to pilot his day-glo Buick-powered Lolas for the Indianapolis 500. 1990 didn’t sow the desired results, in 1991 he was the fastest qualifier, however started 13th due to qualifying rules. In 1992 he broke the track record in qualifying, eventually starting fifth. Unfortunately during the race he was taken out by debris from Jeff Andretti’s savage crash. In 1993, he did finally bring the Buick home to finish the “500,”, although three laps behind in seventeenth place. Gary did win four Indy Car races between 1968 and 1973. His last start was driving for his brother Tony in the U.S. 500 at Michigan Int’l Speedway in 1996.
The Bettenhausen family never did win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Gary’s brother Merle lost an arm in a fiery Indy Car accident at Michigan Int’l Speedway in 1972, brother Tony drove in eleven “500’s” eventually becoming a team owner, was killed in a plane crash in 2000.
It was on the USAC Sprint Car circuit which Gary made headlines. His duels with Larry Dickson were legendary, known as the thunder and lightning show, they dueled on the Midwest bullrings and across the nation for five years, with Gary winning the USAC Sprint Car championship in 1969 and 1971. He would also win the USAC Championship Dirt Car (Silver Crown) championship in 1980 and 1983. Gary had several other significant USAC wins including the Hut Hundred midget race, the inaugural Astro Grand Prix Midget race in the Houston Astrodome and the Turkey Night Grand Prix. A fan favorite, He was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993 in Knoxville, IA, and later in the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles issued the following statement about Bettenhausen’s contributions to the track: “Gary Bettenhausen was the perfect definition of a race car driver of his time. He raced successfully in many types of cars, on every type of track, and he possessed a work ethic that earned him rides based on his ability and his competitive nature. Gary will best be remembered by Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans for the manner in which he carried the Bettenhausen family’s passion for the Indianapolis 500 and how he drove.”
As a friend sadly said to me, all my racing heroes have now died. Gary certainly was one of mine.
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