Tony Bettenhausen was one of America’s greatest racers who twice won the IndyCar championship under the AAA in 1951 and USAC in 1958. Bettenhausen won 22 AAA/USAC races between 1946-’59 and spawned a renowned racing family.
Tony was a legendary midget racer through the 1940s, winning hundreds of midget races as well as many stock car races. He was killed during practice at Indianapolis in 1961 but his sons Gary, Merle and Tony Jr kept the Bettenhausen name in the forefront of American racing through the ’90s.
The Bettenhausen family were German immigrants who worked a small farm in Tinley Park, Illinois, and Tony started his racing career in 1938 when he was 21, driving a midget at the Chicago Armory. He soon became one of the Midwest’s top midget drivers, winning Chicago’s Raceway Park track championship in 1941, ‘42 and ‘47 and the Milwaukee’s Mile’s title in 1942, ‘46 and ‘47. Immediately before and after WWII Bettenhausen formed the “Chicago Gang” with fellow Illinois racers Emil Andres, Cowboy O’Rourke, Paul Russo, Jimmy Snyder and Wally Zale to barnstorm midget races throughout the Midwest and East coast.
Bettenhausen made his rookie start at Indy in 1946, the first post-WWII running of the 500, and scored his first AAA Championship win at the end of the year at the Goshen, Indiana one-mile dirt track. Driving Murrell Belanger’s Kurtis-Offy dirt car, Bettenhausen dominated the 1951 AAA Championship winning a record eight races. Seven years later, aged 42, Bettenhausen again won what was then America’s unrivalled National Driving Championship, now sanctioned by USAC.
In 1957 Bettenhausen made his mark in European racing circles when he set a world closed course record on the high-banked Monza oval. That year saw the first of two ‘Race of Two Worlds’ run there. Tony was among ten USAC drivers invited to compete in 1957 against the fastest cars the European F1 and sports car teams could scrape together.
He drove one of the spectacular supercharged Novis at Monza and qualified on the pole at a startling 177.046 mph, establishing a new world closed course record. Tony led the opening laps of the race but Monza’s notoriously rough banking resulted in his car breaking first its throttle linkage, then its suspension and chassis. After the race Bettenhausen was invited to test a Maserati F1 car at the nearby Modena test track.
Tony continued to race Indycars into his mid-40s and at Indianapolis in 1961 he was entered in Lindsey Hopkins’ new Epperly-Offy ‘laydown’ roadster. He set the pace through the opening week of practice, consistently turning laps at 149 mph, and there was talk of him becoming the first man to lap the Speedway at 150 mph. But the day before Pole Day, Bettenhausen stepped into his old friend Paul Russo’s car. Russo was struggling with his Watson-Offy, the car Rodger Ward had driven to win the ‘59 500, and Russo asked Bettenhausen if he would help him find more speed from the car.
After a few warm-up laps Tony shot down the front stretch at full speed when a bolt fell out of the car’s suspension. The car snapped to the right and was launched into a series of barrel rolls along the wall, tearing out fence poles as it went. When the car finally came to a stop it was wrapped in fencing and burning furiously. Tony was dead, killed instantly from a basal skull fracture.
But the Bettenhausen legacy carried on at Indianapolis. Tony’s wife Valerie bore him three sons, Gary, Merle and Tony Jr, and all three of them raced cars with some distinction. Gary started 21 Indy 500s between 1968-’93 and enjoyed his best race in 1972 leading 136 laps in one of Roger Penske’s McLarens and looking a likely winner until a late race electrical failure. Gary won six USAC Championship races over the years and also took USAC’s Sprint Car title in 1969 and ‘71 and Silver Crown championship in 1983.
Merle was also successful in midget and sprint cars but lost his right arm in 1972 in a violent crash during his USAC Championship debut at the Michigan Speedway. Merle came back with a prosthetic arm to race midgets while younger brother Tony also raced Indycars. Tony Jr started eleven Indy 500s between 1981-’93 and formed his own CART team in 1986. Tony scored his best result as an IndyCar driver when he finished second in the 1981 Michigan 500. Tragically, he and his wife Shirley were killed with two of his business partners when his light plane crashed in Kentucky amid bad weather in February of 2000.
So the Bettenhausen family spanned six decades of racing from WWII through the turn of the century. Tony Sr would have been proud of his legacy.