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Gary Bettenhausen: The 'Tough as Nails' Short Track, Indy 500 Veteran

Gary Bettenhausen, a veteran of 21 Indianapolis 500 races and one of the United States Auto Club’s greatest ever short-track performers passed away at his home near Monrovia, Indiana on Sunday March 16, 2014. He was 72.

The eldest son of 1951 and 1958 National Champion Tony Bettenhausen, Gary came within just a few laps of winning the 1972 “500.” Driving for Roger Penske as teammate to Mark Donohue (who ended up winning), Gary led for 138 of the first 175 laps only to have to slow down with a mechanical problem and finally give up the ghost just 18 laps from the finish. 

The fastest qualifier (but not the pole winner) with a V6 turbocharged Menard Buick in 1991, Gary placed within the first five finishers three times, his highest being a rather surprise third in 1980. Part of Sherman Armstrong’s ambitious five-driver entry that year, Gary was basically given a four year-old Wildcat and told by owner Armstrong and chief mechanic Paul Leffler, “We don’t have the time or personnel to support you, but if you can put a crew together, the car is yours.”

Headed up by Gary’s longtime USAC short track chief mechanic and car owner, Willie Davis, friends and family pretty much donated their time to get Gary into the race, and he was “on the bubble” when qualifying ended. Not at all optimistic by having to start on the last row with such tired and patched-together equipment, he told his wife and twin sons in so many words on race morning, “Stay together, pay attention to the P.A. and be prepared to meet me in the parking lot because as soon as this “blankety-blank” blows up, we’re leaving.” 

But guess what?  He stayed the route, held off Gordon Johncock at the checker and took third with only Johnny Rutherford and Tom Sneva ahead of him.

Beloved by his comrades, even when he was young and cocky and bull-headed, Gary B was of those throwbacks to an earlier tough-as-nails era. He had just come out of racing go-karts when he joined the USAC Stock Car circuit in 1963 and really grabbed some attention by finishing second in the 100 miler at the Indiana State Fairgrounds as a fresh-faced 21 year-old to none other than A. J. Foyt. But that was to be by far the high point for the next several years until 1967 when he started winning features in the USAC Midget series and wound up third in points.  A second-place ranking to Larry Dickson in USAC Sprints the following year came during a period of several “most improved” awards from USAC and various fan clubs, leading Gary to joke at one banquet, “With as many of these things as I have been getting recently, I must have been as bad as they said I was.”

But such self-effacing comments were a little unusual for those days, a major change to his personality and general outlook to come eventually during the summer of 1974. 

In the meantime, Gary developed into one of the greatest sprint car drivers of all –time, flip-flopping the USAC title with Dickson for four straight years, Dickson winning in 1968 and 1970, with Gary second, and Gary winning in 1969 and 1971 with Dickson second. A great rivalry was built up between the two mostly by the media and by the fans who tended to take sides, vigorously booing one while cheering the other. In fact, the pair had great affection for each other not only in the years to come, but even during the period they were each other’s greatest rival. 

Perhaps Gary B at his very finest came on a blustery Sunday afternoon at the Winchester, Indiana “high-banks” on October 17, 1971 when he suffered a problem during the first half of a twin-50-lap USAC Sprint program, started 19th in the second leg in a borrowed car and then, arms lashing as if on a dirt track, carved his way to the front, taking the lead on the final turn.

By the time he called it a career in the mid-1990s, he had won six USAC National Championship races, 10 Silver Crowns, 27 Midgets and no less than 40 Sprint Car mains.

After winning the 200-mile USAC National Championship races at Phoenix in 1968 and Michigan International in 1970 for Fred Gerhardt, plus other successes, none other than Roger Penske began to take notice. Penske hired Gary for the 1972 season and one couldn’t help but wonder how the then tempestuous “gunfighter” would fit in with “The Captain” and his very disciplined approach, not to mention having road racer Mark Donohue as a teammate. In fact, Gary rather surprisingly really hit it off with Donohue, later revealing, “I learned more from him on how to set up a car than anyone else I ever worked with.”

But Gary remained headstrong and refused to give up driving USAC Sprint cars, Penske being far from amused when Gary suffered injuries in a race at Toledo, Ohio on the night before the Milwaukee 200 in August, 1972, Gordon Johncock having to jump in to substitute for the day. 

Although Gary was on a three-year contract, he assumed that with the Toledo accident and several off-track head-butting episodes with Penske, he would be released at the end of the year. In the meantime, Patrick Racing team was being completely reorganized with George Bignotti coming on board as chief mechanic, Johnny Rutherford leaving to join Team McLaren, and the team now needing a driver to partner Swede Savage. 

Perhaps not so well known is that Bignotti favored Bettenhausen.

Not surprisingly, Gary jumped at the opportunity to drive for the legendary chief mechanic and everything was fine until shortly thereafter when he had to come back, crestfallen, with the news that Penske was holding him to the second and third year of the contract. That evening, a disgruntled Gary went to the Holiday Inn Northwest (that building, not far from IMS, now demolished) where he ran into Gordon Johncock who had just been pink-slipped by McLaren. Gary told Johncock what had just transpired and first thing the following morning, Gordy was at the Patrick shop, ultimately to step into the car which would win the tragic rain-and accident marred 1973 “500.”

Still not done with the dirt tracks, Gary had an even more serious accident, this time at Syracuse, New York on July 4, 1974, the result being a major injury to his left arm, the use of which he virtually lost for the rest of his life.

That was the end of his tenure at Penske and it was during the weeks which followed that the demeanor of the old war horse began to change.

For the most part (but not completely) the glaring eyes and flaring nostrils became thing of the past and out of the hospital came a much quieter, more gentle and easy-going Gary Bettenhausen, who later confided to friends, “I used to think that I was the nucleus of auto racing and that everything evolved around me. So I’m lying there in the hospital and there is a race coming up at MIS. The weekend comes and goes, and you know what? They went ahead and ran it anyway.”

By January, he was running indoor midgets at the Fort Wayne Coliseum, effectively driving with his right hand and with the virtually useless left hand placed on the steering wheel by younger brothers Merle and Tony, Jr. 

In May, back with Fred Gerhardt and Phil Casey, he did a superb job of qualifying for the “500” and then at the Victory Banquet the night after the race, he lambasted the several drivers who had chosen not to attend, jokingly suggesting their prize money be withheld.

Gary’s passion for the “500” continued and his career as a driver did not come to an end there until after he had failed to qualify in 1994, driving a car entered incidentally by younger brother Tony. Thus with 1993 being his final “500,” it meant that 14 of his 21 starts, including the third-place finish in 1980, a fifth in 1987 and the fastest qualifying time in 1991 all came after he had suffered that terrible crippling arm injury.

Sometime in the mid-1970s, Gary began to develop land he had purchased southwest of Indianapolis, thanks to the wise investment of a Penske retainer. Not surprisingly, during the early stages of clearing the land, he would run the bulldozers and other equipment himself in typical Bettenhausen fashion. 

But the development went on to become quite a serious affair and today, dozens of luxurious homes reside on that property. 

Examples of the “gentler” Gary B came to light during the early days of the development when his widowed and remarried mother Val lived on the property and she would call in a panic, pleading with him to come over with his rifle and shoot the critters that were scampering over the porch. Whereas the pre-1974 Gary B would probably have shown up with a machine gun, the new version merely shrugged and solved the problem in a more humane way, saying with a sheepish grin, “I couldn’t do anything like that.” 

This was the very same Gary Bettenhausen who admitted, at around the same time, to rising before daybreak each morning and sitting on the porch because, in his own words, “I hate to miss a sunrise.”

And then there was the most unlikely bonding on the Menard team in 1992 of Gary B and three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet. The Brazilian had quite a reputation for being somewhat indifferent and, in the words of the Brits, “bloody minded,” and while the thinking was that the two might not get along, they became like brothers. Gary seemingly told Piquet EVERYTHING about setup and the Brazilian gratefully and attentively hung on every word. 

It was rather a shame that in recent years, Gary had tended to become more and more reclusive, politely declining public appearance opportunities and depriving us of the pleasure of hearing his passionate and entertaining story telling.

The last time most race fans saw him was the day before the 2011 “500” when he took part in the massive autograph session in the Plaza area. He also appeared in the group shot of 161 Indianapolis veterans. But only just. He can be seen standing on the far left, just barely in the shot, kibitzing with Bruce Walkup and his lifelong pal Bill Vukovich, the three of them doing everything but hide!

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