Gary Bettenhausen’s Passing Signals The End Of An Era

Gary Bettenhausen signs and chats with the fans in Indianapolis in 2005. [John Atlas Photo]

HAMMOND, IN: If you were an auto racing fan and lived in the Chicagoland area during the ’50’s, the legendary Tony Bettenhausen of suburban Tinley Park, IL was your guy. It was just that simple.

My first memory of the Indy 500 veteran and 1951 National Champion came in 1954 at Soldier Field on the Chicago lakefront during a AAA midget race. It was a rough night for Tony, who suffered major injuries in a grinding crash. Even as a eight year old kid, I realized that I had witnessed something bad, because of the reaction of those around me.

“Don’t worry”, my Dad told me. “Tony is as tough as nails. He’ll be back.”

My relationship with the Bettenhausen’s had begun.

Another vivid memory came in 1956 while attending my first Indianapolis 500. We were seated in the old Grandstand “D” located between the first and second turns when Tony’s Belenger Spl. loudly blew a rear tire and pounded the wall directly in front of us! His injuries were relatively minor this time, but now I was curious. How could a hard luck driver like Bettenhausen be so popular?

As I’m sure we all know, Tony’s story ends in 1961 as he searched in vain for that elusive Indy 500 victory. After proving himself to be the man to beat during pre-race testing, 44 year old Bettenhausen crashed to his death testing buddie Paul Russo’s car as a favor prior to the race. The long-held hope that the Bettenhausen name would someday grace the Borg-Warner trophy appeared to die that day as well.

Not so fast. Tony’s oldest son, 19 year old Gary, had other ideas!

My next Bettenhausen encounter took place the following year, while attending an indoor drag held in Chicago’s International Amphitheatre. Young Gary Bettenhausen was there, and he was racing! I spoke to him for a few minutes, and he said his plan was to “make it to Indy”. Chapter Two in the Bettenhausen saga was about to begin.

In 1963, 21 year old Gary Bettenhausen entered the Yankee 300 USAC stock car race at Indianapolis Raceway Park’s road course. Not only was it his first USAC event, it was also his first professional auto race of any kind! Unbelievably, Gary was able to hold his own in an all star field that included the likes of A.J. Foyt, Fireball Roberts, Rodger Ward, Troy Ruttman and Parnelli Jones. It seemed almost too easy. Had it been a fluke? Could the 21 year old novice actually carry on the Bettenhausen tradition?

For me, the answer came later that summer of ’63 at the Indiana State Farigrounds dirt oval during the running of the “State Fair Century” USAC stock car event. Young Bettenhausen had only run dirt once before but, at the drop of the green flag, the little green Dodge was running with the leaders and, at the checkered flag, only Gary remained on the lead lap with the winner, A.J.Foyt! It was a truly stunning performance for a pure rookie and, to me, it proved that he did have the Right Stuff to carry on the Bettenhausen legacy.

A few years later Gary was able to move from stock cars to open wheel midgets and sprint cars, and things then really began to happen. Teaming with USAC sprint car owner Willie Davis lead to the legendary years of the “Larry (Dickson) and Gary Show” which produced two Sprint Car Championships and countless memories. During this era Gary B. made his rookie appearance at the Indy 500 in 1968 and began performing at a championship level in all forms of open wheel competition.

One standout performance during this period occurred at the “Astro Grand Prix”, an all-star midget race for the ages held on a 1/4 mile dirt track built in the Houston Astrodome. That night Gary B. lapped arguably the best midget field in history, turning in a virtuoso performance on a badly prepared track that is still talked about today. Houston’s own A.J. Foyt could only manage a distant second place.

The goal, of course, was victory at the Indianapolis 500. In a story told all too often, Gary, driving for Roger Penske, led 138 laps and had the race in the bag in 1972 when the engine melted with only 18 laps standing between Bettenhausen and Victory Lane. It was close as a Bettenhausen would ever get to winning the Big One.

On Independence Day weekend in 1974, things changed forever as Gary B. suffered crippling injuries to his right arm in a crash at the Syracuse, NY mile. His Penske IndyCar ride was gone and, for the rest of his career, Bettenhausen would be virtually a one-armed race driver. In light of this setback, his accomplishments over the next 20+ years were beyond remarkable. For example, he is the only “one armed race driver” to win two Silver Crown Championships (1980 & 83) and put up the best qualifying speed for an Indy 500 (1991).

Gary Bettenhausen left us on Sunday, March 16th, 2014. It’s unlikely that his kind will ever pass our way again. Happily, what he was able to accomplish throughout life and career will continue to inspire us. I can still close my eyes and see Gary B. lapping the field, bouncing through the ruts in the Astrodome with his best years still ahead of him.

Baby, it was one heck of a ride…

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