Archive for May 13, 2008

Windy City Chargers at the Indianapolis 500 – The Bettenhausens

May 13, 2008

By: Wm. R. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune & Chicago Daily Southtown — Chicago Sun-Times NewsGroup
Speedway, Indiana

Nichels Service Special

There have been a handful of families who have shown brilliance in American open wheel auto racing.

Families like the Unser’s and the Andretti’s all began their careers on small-town race tracks and rose to greatness.

But it is likely that no family has sacrificed as much for auto racing as the Bettenhausens from Tinley Park, Illinois.

Its patriarch, Melvin Eugene “Tony” Bettenhausen was born in September of 1916. By the time he was 13, Tony was so adept at repairing mechanical things that he had become the farm handyman.

At 19, Tony was working at a local Ford plant and looking for a way to leave the farming life behind. As he ventured out around the Windy City, he soon learned about the newest craze, midget car racing. The first evening of racing he attended was at the Riverview Raceway, part of the famed Riverview Amusement Park.

It was that night while listening to famed racing announcer; Ed “Twenty Grand” Steinbock, yell over the crowd about racing’s “thrills and spills” that Tony said to himself “I can do that!” And do that he did.

Bettenhausen chased his dream of being a racer, by first visiting an accomplished race driver by the name of Emil Andres, who lived near the Bettenhausen farm. Tony knocked on the door and before he knew it, was standing in front of an honest-to-goodness Indy 500 driver. Tony blurted out “Mr. Andres, I’m Tony Bettenhausen and I want to be a race car driver!” Andres started to chuckle, saying “So your name is Tony, and you are going to be a race car driver, eh? A life-long friendship had begun. Andres took the young driver under his wing and in a matter of no time; Tony was racing the midget circuit.

Over the course of the next decade Tony Bettenhausen would burn up the midget tracks. His most productive period midget racing would be while driving for Rudy Nichels of Highland. Rudy had his son Ray, manage the car, while Dale “Tiny” Worley was the chief mechanic. Bettenhausen was part of a three car Nichels Service team with Teddy Duncan and Paul Russo. All three eventually voted into the Midget Racing Hall of Fame. Bettenhausen won midget car track championships in 1941, 1942 and 1947 at Chicago Raceway Park in Blue Island and at the Milwaukee Mile in 1942, 1946, and 1947.

The “Tinley Park Express” as Tony was now known then moved on to Indy cars. His racing career would flourish. Tony’s run to the AAA National Championship in the Belanger No. 99 Kurtis-Kraft is considered by many racing historians as the gold standard for Indy car racing dominance. Of the 14 races he ran in No.99 in 1951, Bettenhausen won eight races, finished 2nd twice and copped two poles. His success that season was so overwhelming that Tony went into semi-retirement, competing in only “money” races such as the Indy 500. In 1958 he won his second national championship.

In 1961, while testing a car for close friend and former Nichels teammate, Paul Russo, Tony lost his life at Indy.

In the meantime, three of his four children grew and started racing themselves. They made it their quest to finish the job their father had started — to win the Indianapolis 500.

Gary, born in 1941, won two sprint car championships (1969, 1971) and two USAC (United States Auto Club) Silver Crown titles in 1980 and 1983. He was a six-time winner in the IndyCar series. His Indianapolis 500 record of 21 starts ranks him seventh on the all-time list. His best finishes were a third (1980) and two fifths (1973, 1987). 

In 1972, Gary joined Roger Penske’s IndyCar team. He arrived at Indianapolis leading the points standings and with the best chance ever for a Bettenhausen son to win the race his father never had. Gary took advantage of the opportunity, dominating the 1972 Indianapolis 500 for 182 laps breaking almost every Indy track record, only to have the ignition system on his Penske-McLaren fail. Teammate Mark Donohue inherited the lead and gave Penske the first of his record 14 Indy 500 triumphs.

In 1974, Gary’s career took a terrible turn with a crash severely damaging his left arm. With his arm still partially paralyzed, Gary continued his racing career until 1996 and was inducted into both the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame and National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame.

Tony Bettenhausen’s second son, Merle, born in 1943, followed the same path as his father and older brother racing in the midget and sprint car ranks. After winning five USAC midget races, he passed his rookie test at Indianapolis in 1972. Two months later, on July 16th, in his very first Indy car race, Merle completely lost his right arm in an accident at Michigan International Speedway.

Tony Bettenhausen’s youngest son, Tony Jr., born in 1951, started in stock cars. By 1972, he finished second in points in the NASCAR Sportsman Division, while earning honors as most popular driver. But open wheel racing was what really interested him. He raced sprints and midgets until his Indy car break came in 1979. Tony raced for 14 seasons in Indy car, competing eleven Indianapolis 500s, with a best ever finish of 7th. In 1993, he became a race team owner and gave career changing driving opportunities to two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, Helio Castroneves and NASCAR driver Patrick Carpentier.

In 2000, while traveling to Indianapolis, Tony Bettenhausen, Jr. and his wife Shirley McElreath Bettenhausen were lost in a plane crash.

Gary and Merle are both retired now and live in the greater Indianapolis area. They periodically give interviews which inevitably lead to discussing the great pain their family has suffered over the years.

They are the first to tell you that they can’t change the past, and offer only that life goes on.

I prefer to recognize their courage and passion for something they loved — auto racing.