Nigel Roebuck

Legends: Gary Bettenhausen

“I can’t believe I’m in England,” said Gary Bettenhausen at Goodwood, “driving this race car my dad used to drive 53 years ago…”

Bettenhausen’s father Tony, whom Denis Jenkinson described in 1957 as ‘a sort of Indianapolis Fangio’, dominated the 1951 AAA Championship, winning eight of 14 races, but the Belanger Special also won the Indy 500, in the hands of Lee Wallard.

“Most of the races back then were on dirt,” said Bettenhausen, “and my dad figured that at Indy, on the pavement, nothing would be as good as the big, long-wheelbase, front-wheel-drive car he was offered. He was wrong! “I’ve got a spot in my heart for this race car [Belanger Special]. I was 10 when dad drove it, and every weekend we’d wait for that telephone call: won it again.. “

Ten years on, there came a call of a very different kind. Tony and his Autolite Special were the hot favourites at Indy in 1961, but he agreed to take a run in another car — and crashed to his death when its steering failed.

“We were at home,” Gary recalled. “In fact, we were packing and getting ready to leave for Indy. Five minutes more and we’d have been on the road.

“The previous fall, Paul Russo had spent two months with us on the farm and helped my dad. And when Paul was in trouble with his car, dad just couldn’t say no even though he’d promised mum that he would not get in anyone else’s car that month.”

The Bettenhausens had already encountered tragedy. In the 1955 Indy 500, Bill Vukovich, going for a hattrick, was killed in an accident not of his making.

“My parents stayed up all night with Esther, Bill’s wife,” said Bettenhausen. “Jesus, I remember it like yesterday.” As their fathers had been pals, so also were — and are — Gary and Billy Vukovich (himself a successful driver of the 1960-70s). Each has helped the other through terrible times. In 1990, Billy’s son was killed in a midget race; more recently, Gary’s brother Tony Jnr died in a light aircraft accident

Gary’s career began in stock cars in 1963, but before long he graduated to midgets, sprints and finally Indycars — ‘championship cars’, as they were known then. In ’68, he dared to challenge Larry Dickson, king of USAC’s sprint division, and there began a feud. Indeed, Bettenhausen taped a mugshot of his rival to the dash of his sprinter!

“Actually,” Gary said, “we played it up with the press. Lany didn’t like me, because suddenly here was a rookie running with him, beating him sometimes. I idolised the guy and I made up my mind that I was going to make him like me, one way or the other. We’re best of friends now. But it took a few years before he’d talk to me.” For four seasons Bettenhausen and Dickson monopolised USAC sprint car racing — Gary winning the title in 1969 and 71, his rival in ’68 and 70 and aficionados consider this to be a golden era in the sport’s history.

While Dickson never made any impact at Indy, however, Bettenhausen was intent on righting a family wrong — winning the 500 — and in 1972 it was his for the taking. Driving for Roger Penske, his McLaren-Offy left everyone behind, until retiring with 18 laps to the flag: “All the history books say it was ‘ignition’, because that was the story Roger put out. It wasn’t I had known since lap 40 that it was going to happen, because I could smell the water. The problem was a pinhole in the stainless steel swirlpot — where they put the water in, where the radiator cap was — caused by poor welding.

“‘The water temperature gauge just kept going up. By the last 30 laps, before it blew, I’d get to the end of the straight, lift a little bit, shut the kill switch, then get back on the throttle full bore — I’d run cold fuel across the tops of the pistons, then I’d put the kill switch back on. Eventually, I began to think maybe it might make it to the end, but once there was a ‘yellow’ I knew I was history. I asked Roger, ‘What d’you want me to do?’ He said, ‘Drive it ’til it quits.’ When the green came out, it wouldn’t accelerate — it was already welding itself together.”

This, without doubt, was the biggest disappointment of his career: “It was so easy that day probably the easiest race I ever drove. That McLaren was unbelievable. But the Bettenhausens were not meant to win that race it just wasn’t in the book.”

Not long afterwards Bettenhausen broke his left arm in a sprint car shunt, and quickly came to see that Penske was not a man to stand on sentiment: “Roger didn’t like me running the sprints and it was in the contract that he had the right to stop paying me if I got hurt in someone else’s car. So he stopped paying me. My deal with him was 25 per cent of what I won, and $1500 a month — out of which I had to pay my own expenses!”

Once he had recovered, the Penske contract was renewed, and on better terms. “I said, I want to be treated like every other driver. I want 40 per cent of what I win and $2500 a month, so I can pay my expenses and have a little left over.’ He agreed and I signed a three-year contract for the Indycar — and then a two-year contract to drive his AMC Matador in NASCAR.”

The latter didn’t go the distance. After only four races in 1974, Penske informed Gary that American Motors wanted a better-known NASCAR driver in the car. He was replaced by Bobby Allison. “I’m sure,” Gary smiled, “it had nothing to do with Allison’s Coca-Cola sponsorship.”

Whatever, it meant that, instead of going to Daytona, Bettenhausen now had the July 4 weekend free — unthinkable, when there was a sprint race at Reading, Pennsylvania, on the Saturday night, and a championship dirt race at Syracuse, New York, the following day: “First, at Reading, Bruce Walkup’s car flung up a lump of dirt which hit me in the nose and broke it. Then Vukovich and I drove all night in my van to get to Syracuse.”

Did he not have the nose at least examined before starting the journey?

“No. We got to Syracuse, and it was like 110 degrees. Prior to that it had rained for two or three days, so the track was really heavy — and very fast I went out to practise and found I only had about 40 per cent turn-in, because they’d shortened the wheelbase by four inches but hadn’t shortened the drag-link. On my first lap, I lost the front end because I was getting so much bite from the rear tyres, so next time I went in harder to give it more of a pitch, but that was the end of the steering — I didn’t have enough to keep up with the momentum of the back end. The car went into a long slide — and dug in. After somersaulting lots of times, it went over a 12ft chain link fence and hit a storage building, where they kept a bunch of pinball machines. It hit nose first, then came back on the racetrack. But if it hadn’t been for that building I’d have gone into the people, maybe killed some — and probably I’d have been dead, too.

“Even in slow motion, you can barely count the flips. From the time it started to flip until it came to a stop was less than two and a half seconds — and it flipped eight times. It took my seat belt and harness, straightening out the 90-degree steel buckles like they were made of lead. I broke both my collarbones — from the belts — and that’s what tore the nerves in my neck: my left arm was instantly paralysed.

“Next morning Vukovich came to see me and says, Well, “Schmuck” — that was my nickname — ‘if you want to lay in bed ’til noon, if you don’t want to work for a living, this is the kind of shit you’ve got to put up with!”

It was the end for Bettenhausen and Penske: “Roger called me at the hospital and said, ‘You realise I have to let you go?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I knew it was coming.’ I was never mad at him — except for the NASCAR episode, which came without any warning.”

Bettenhausen now faced life as a one-armed race driver, but he never considered giving up. His right arm became stronger and he focused on avoiding all unnecessary movements with the steering wheel: “At first my left arm was so weak that if my hand fell off the wheel I couldn’t get it back on — except by lifting it with my right hand. Then I started putting Velcro in the palm of my glove and on the wheel. Worked fine.”

One-armed or not, Bettenhausen continued to flourish. There were two USAC Dirt Championship titles, in 1980 and ’83, and also his most successful Indy: “In 1980,1 got a call two days before the last day of qualifying asking me if I wanted to take Sherman Armstrung’s Wildcat out Nobody else wanted to — it was five years old and it had an Offy rather than a Cosworth.

“I got in that thing and it was hopeless. They’d put all this trick stuff on the engine and you couldn’t run fast enough to get out of your own way. I qualified 32nd at 182mph — that was all the boost pressure it would run.

“A couple of nights before the race, my sprint car guy, Willie Davis, and I went in the garage, just the two of us. We tore the injectors and electronics off, tore it right down to the bare bones — just put it back to being a stock Offy.

“On race morning I told my wife and kids, ‘When this shitbox blows up, get back to the car — we’re getting out of here. But I’m going to see how many guys I can pass on the outside on the first lap …’

“They threw the green flag and I went around the outside of eight or nine guys at Turn One! A couple more in Two. Then down the backstretch, I’m passing Cosworths like they’re parked! ‘Holy shit, what’s happening?’ We didn’t have radios, I communicated with Willie via hand signals. But that car didn’t change all race.”

Bettenhausen finished an amazing third: “Things like that don’t happen. You go there with Penske and you don’t make the finish, and then you go with no hope whatsoever…”

That said, he knows that parting with Penske almost certainly cost him that cherished Indy win: “I should have listened to him, I know. But I look at it this way: I probably wouldn’t still be married — success turns a man into an asshole sometimes. And I couldn’t be happier.”