Writing my post last week about the year 1972 really made me give a lot of thought about Gary Bettenhausen, who among the drivers I have followed over the last 40 years might have had one of the most star-crossed careers of them all at Indy.
Gary made 21 starts in the 500 between 1968-93 and is one of only one of seven drivers to make the field 20 times, but is one of just two in that group (George Snider) to have never won. Along the way he had three top-5 finishes, but the same number of finishes in 31st place or worse.
When he came to Indy he was an accomplished driver in the USAC circuit, and showed he was ready for a move to the big show in 1968 when he qualified a respectable 22nd and finished 24th when he dropped out of the race after completing 43 laps.
In the years that followed he won two national sprint car championships (1969, ’71) and in 1971 finished 10th in the 500. That led to a spot with Penske Racing and a chance to drive a McLaren at the Speedway in 1972.
|Gary in his 1972 McLaren at Milwaukee/oldracingcars.com|
Not long after was when his career took a turn for the worse. Driving in a sprint car race in July of 1974 at Syracuse, Gary suffered serious injuries when his car left the track and crashed into an old concession stand. While he recovered from most of his injuries, he suffered serious nerve damage that left him unable to lift his left arm.
He soon lost his ride with Penske as well."I'm positive I would have won the Speedway at least once by now, had I continued to drive for Penske," Bettenhausen said in a 1991 LA Times article. "He's certainly proved that his cars are capable, and I know I am. But I was just young and dumb at the time. I wanted to race every weekend if I could. I wasn't ready to settle down and race only nine or 10 times a year."
Even with his mangled arm Gary’s career continued, though not on the arc that it was on prior to his accident. He won a USAC Silver Crown title in 1980, the same year he started 32nd and raced to a 3rd-place finish at Indy, then won another Silver Crown title in 1983. He later finished 5th in the 500 in 1987.
Nearing 50, Bettenhausen had begun focusing on Indy-only efforts, and from 1989-93 raced for John Menard at the wheel of his powerful, yet unreliable, Buick powerplants. Driving the colorful Menards livery, in 1991 he was the fastest qualifier at 224.460 mph, but started 13th overall as a second-day qualifier, then followed that up by starting fifth on the grid at 228.930 the next year before ending his career with a 17th-place finish in 1993.
Gary could be fast, and he could finish well, but it never all came together for him. Only once did he complete the entire 500 miles, and was running at the finish just five times. Eleven times he retired due to mechanical problems, including 1989 when his Buick suffered a bent valve shortly after the engine was fired to start the race and he never even took the green flag. In all, he averaged just 113 laps per start during his career.
Still, he had a solid, if not spectacular career at Indy, was a multiple-time national champion in midgets and Silver Crown cars, and was elected to the National Sprint Car (1993) and National Midget (1998) Halls of Fame.
But if the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or auto racing gods owed one to anybody, it would be the Bettenhausens. Between family patriarch Tony, Gary and younger brother Tony Jr., the family combined for 46 starts at the Brickyard and came away empty.
Along with that, the family suffered more than its share of tragedy.
Tony, one of the sport's more popular drivers and one of the best dirt track drivers in the country in the 1950s, made 14 starts at Indy and finished second in 1955 and had back-to-back 4th-place finishes in 1958-59. Entering the month of May in 1961, he felt he had his best chance to win but sadly was killed in practice while testing a car for friend Paul Russo. Still, last year he was named one of the Greatest 33 drivers in the race's history and belongs to three different racing Halls of Fame.
Tony Jr. was a solid driver who made 11 starts in the 500 and later became a car owner, but lost his life in a 2000 plane crash. A third brother, Merle, lost his right arm racing Indy cars at Michigan in 1972 and retired from racing two years later.
The sport gave a lot to the Bettenhausens, but it took a heck of a lot away, too. Despite never tasting victory at the Speedway, the family left a proud legacy of success that can never be denied, and Gary plays a big part in that legacy.