The racing fraternity lost one of the truly great ones when Gary Bettenhausen died March 16 at the age of 72.
I recall sitting on the pit wall at the end of Gasoline Alley with Bettenhausen discussing the progress of his practice for the Indianapolis 500. He was enjoying a smoke even though smoking in the pit area was strictly prohibited. Bettenhausen knew that there was nothing combustible nearby. The yellow shirts
knew that there was no future in raising the issue with Bettenhausen.
It was another example of Bettenhausen living life on his own terms.
Bettenhausen got his start in the USAC stockcar division. He then moved into USAC sprint cars, where he became famous as half of the Gary and Larry show. Bettenhausen and Larry Dickson thrilled fans across the Midwest often racing wheel to wheel at the front of the pack while lesser drivers battled for third place.
The on-track warfare resulted in them trading the USAC title back and forth from 1968 to 1971. Bettenhausen put together championship seasons in USAC National Sprint Cars in 1967 and 1971 and won the USAC Silver Crown titles in 1980 and 1983.
Bettenhausen followed his famous father (Tony Bettenhausen) to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1968. The elder Bettenhausen was killed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway while shaking down a car for his Chicago buddy, Paul Russo.
The younger Bettenhausen made his first Indianapolis 500 start in the Thermo-King Auto Air Conditioning Gerhardt/Offenhauser. He started
22nd and finished 24th after becoming involved in a crash. He ran four seasons with Gerhardt team.
His best finish with them came in 1971 when he started 13th and finished 10th.
He had proved himself and got a call from “The Captain,” (Roger Penske). In 1972, his first year with Penske, he should have won the 500. He led a total of 138 laps and was leading with 18 laps to go. The car suffered ignition failure, and he finished 14th.
Bettenhausen did a great job in the cockpit. There was just one problem — Penske wanted Bettenhausen to quit driving sprints, midgets and champ dirt cars. And Bettenhausen drove them anyway. He was known to say, “If it was good enough for my old man, it’s good enough for me.”
In 1974, Bettenhausen was involved in a terrible crash in a dirt-car race at Syracuse, N.Y. He was left with a left arm that simply hung at his side. With all of the sensitivity of a bulldozer, Penske fired Bettenhausen in his hospital bed.
Bettenhausen would never again have the opportunity that he had lost with Penske. His buddies would often tell him that nobody ever would have heard of Rick Mears if it hadn’t been for Bettenhausen’s being so hard-headed. His father was often referred to as “old cement head,” so the younger Bettenhausen apparently got it honestly.
If anyone thought that Bettenhauser’s career would end that day in Syracuse, they were mistaken.
During the winter of 1975, Bettenhausen ran a hundred-lap midget race in the Fort Wayne Coliseum. He fastened his left arm to the steering wheel with Velcro, and he won the race on the tight indoor track with one hand.
Bettenhausen went on to run 14 more 500s. His best finish came in 1980 when he drove an Armstrong Mould Wildcat/DGS from a 32nd-place starting position to a third-place finish in a car that had probably lived up to expectations when it qualified 32nd.
His last five 500s were run in Menard cars. Their cars were always lightning fast, but they were also pretty fragile. Tony Stewart can attest to that. In 1991 Bettenhausen
had the fastest qualifying speed; but since he did it on the second day, he didn’t win the pole.
In his Menard years, he was only running at end in 1993 when he finished 17th, three laps down. He was taken out in an accident in 1992; he was sidelined by mechanical problems in the other three races.
At times Bettenhausen was his own worst enemy, but he ran on his own terms.
17th annual Indiana Icebreaker Lucas Oil Late Model Feature: 1. Don O’Neal 2. Eddie Carrier Jr. 3. Steve Francis 4. Scott Bloomquist 5. Kent Robinson 6. Bobby Pierce 7. Jeep VanWormer 8. Earl Pearson Jr. 9. Ray Cook 10. Devin Moran
Modified feature: 1. Jeff Curl 2. Nick Allen 3. Derek Losh 4. Michael England 5. Jamie Lomax 6. Brad Barrow 7. Ryan Thomas 8. Joe Godsey 9. Richie Lex 10. Dennis Boknecht of Cortland
Pure Stock feature: 1. Bodi Henry 2. Josh Sternberg 3. Dusten Carr 4. Brad Kemp 5. Chris McCoy 6. April Walton 7. Drew Wilkerson 8. Tyler Neal 9. Ross Smith 10. Rick Zimmerman
Tim McKinney writes a weekly racing column for The Republic. He can be reached at 379-5632.