News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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March 17, 2014

TH racing ‘throwback’ left enduring mark

Action track’s top driver needed only open wheels and an oval to net series of big wins

TERRE HAUTE — Gary Bettenhausen gave racing fans plenty to remember at the Terre Haute Action Track.

A versatile driver and “a throwback” to open-wheel racing’s heyday, Bettenhausen brought a tradition-rich family legacy and Indy 500 credentials to dirt-track events at Terre Haute’s popular half-mile oval. “During the late 1960s and early ’70s, when [the United States Auto Club series] came to Terre Haute, Gary Bettenhausen was the guy to beat,” recalled Tribune-Star racing columnist Joe Buckles.

The popular Bettenhausen died Sunday in Monrovia, where he and his family lived. He was 72.

Bettenhausen took the checkered flag 10 times at the Action Track. He won the premier race of all three USAC series in Terre Haute, taking the Hulman Classic (for sprint cars) in 1974, the Hut Hundred (midget cars) in 1976, and the Sumar Classic (for Silver Crown “champ” cars) in 1980.

In a poll of racing insiders, conducted by Buckles more than a decade ago, Bettenhausen was chosen the top driver in Action Track history, which dates back to 1952.

The versatile racer competed on an array of open-wheel tracks, from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to dirt tracks such as the one in Terre Haute. He was a member of a family renowned in open-wheel racing. The son of Tony Bettenhausen, who ran in 14 Indianapolis 500s and placed second in 1955, Gary was the brother of the late Tony Bettenhausen Jr. and Merle Bettenhausen.

“He always had big shoes to fill,” Buckles said of Gary, “and he didn’t have any trouble doing it.”

Bettenhausen raced in 21 Indianapolis 500s between 1968 and ’93. He placed third at Indianapolis in 1980, moving up from the 32nd starting spot for his best finish in the 500. But his most memorable performance at the fabled Brickyard came in 1972 while driving for Roger Penske Racing. Bettenhausen led 138 laps during that year’s race before his engine blew on Lap 176, and his Penske teammate, Mark Donohue, wound up winning. In 1991, Bettenhausen was Indy’s fastest qualifier. He won four Indy car races elsewhere.

“Gary Bettenhausen was the perfect definition of a race car driver of his time,” Speedway President Doug Boles said in a statement Monday. “He raced successfully in many types of cars, on every type of track, and he possessed a work ethic that earned him rides based on his ability and his competitive nature. Gary will best be remembered by Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans for the manner in which he carried the Bettenhausen family’s passion for the Indianapolis 500 and how he drove every lap at the limit when he was competing at IMS. Our thoughts and prayers are with Gary’s wife, his family, and his friends.”

Devastating crashes in 1974 and 1990 races threatened his livelihood and his life. The crash in a Silver Crown race at Syracuse, N.Y., in 1974 crushed his arm, limiting its function. In a 2009 interview with Buckles, Bettenhausen discounted claims that crash hampered the remainder of his career. “If you check the records, I had more wins after the accident than I did before,” he said. “If anything, I learned to drive more smoothly [and to] not try to manhandle a car. I have no regrets.”

Bettenhausen used one of his Action Track victories to validate that contention.

“It was my first win after Syracuse,” he told the Tribune-Star. “I think I beat Sheldon [Kinser] by less than a car length here at Terre Haute. It showed a lot of people I could still drive a race car.”

Born in Blue Island, Ill., Bettenhausen grew up in Tinley Park, Ill., and later moved to the Hoosier state, living in Monrovia.

Bettenhausen began his racing career in 1963, driving USAC stock cars. Later, he drove eight races in the NASCAR series, including the 1967 Daytona 500.

In open-wheel races, though, Bettenhausen dominated on Midwest short tracks and accumulated numerous sprint car and dirt track championships. He was USAC’s Silver Crown series champ in 1980 and ’83, and sprint car champ in 1969 and ’71. Bettenhausen earned induction into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993, and the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame five years later.

In that 2009 interview, Bettenhausen discussed the differences in racing during his era and the 21st century, where payoffs in the elite series are more lucrative. He didn’t begrudge the modern drivers.

“Back in our days, you had to be smart,” he said. “If you had a good year, you learned to put [money] in the bank just as if you were having a bad year. You had to save. I was lucky my wife was good to look after that side of racing for me.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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