Tony Bettenhausen

Full Name:
Melvin Eugene "Tony" Bettenhausen
Born:
12th September 1916
Tinley Park, Illinois
Died:
12th May 1961 (Aged 44)
Indianapolis, Indiana, Indianapolis 500 practice
Nationality:
American
Most recent race (in database):
Biography

The "Tinley Park Express" was one of America’s leading stars of the 1950s – twice National Champion but always out of luck at Indianapolis. Tony Bettenhausen’s nickname referred to his Illinois birthplace and the family farm on which he had grown up.

Upbringing and early racing career

His father, a first-generation German immigrant, died when his eighth child was still a toddler. That, and his humble upbringing, only made the young Tony Bettenhausen all the more determined to succeed. He began racing midgets in 1938 and the reckless side to his nature was soon apparent – rolling a car for the first of a reputed 28 times in his career.

Part of the "Chicago Gang" that included the likes of Duke Nalon, Paul Russo and Emil Andres – Bettenhausen raced midgets and sprint cars before making his debut in what is now the IndyCar Series in 1941. That was driving a Blue Crown Spark Plug Lencki at a couple of dirt ovals and his second-place finish at Syracuse highlighted a newcomer to watch.

Bettenhausen worked in an aircraft engine factory during World War II but resumed his racing career as soon as the conflict was over. Bettenhausen won at Goshen in 1946 in what was only his sixth Indycar race. But his increasingly successful career seemed over when he was badly burnt in a midget accident in 1948, prompting him to temporarily retire.

It was with car owner Murrell Belanger and mechanic George Salih that Bettenhausen honed his raw, unfettered speed into a championship challenge. He finished third in 1950 despite a spate of mechanical failures.

National Champion for Murrell Belanger

His blue and gold Kurtis-Offy was the dominant car in 1951 – winning eight times (all dirt ovals, his preferred surface) to clinch a first Indycar title. Belanger did win Indy that year, but Bettenhausen had chosen to drive Lou Moore’s Deidt-Offy which he spun in the closing stages. He had to watch on as Lee Wallard won driving "his" number 99 Belanger Special.

Another period of semi-retirement followed after Bettenhausen was affected by the death of friend Johnny McDowell. He returned in 1953 and won at Syracuse and Phoenix with Belanger’s trusty Kurtis. The following season was curtailed by a serious accident racing midgets at Chicago’s Soldier Field when he suffered critical head injuries after clipping a backmarker.

His recovery was remarkable and he was racing again before the end of the season. He qualified and finished in second position in the 1955 Indy 500, Paul Russo also driving his H.A.Chapman Kurtis KK500C-Offy. Now in his forties, Bettenhausen was perhaps past his best but his passion for the sport remained undiminished, especially when he was behind the wheel of the famous supercharged Kurtis-Novi in 1957. He ran second at Indy only to retire and qualified on pole position for Monza’s Race of Two Worlds that year.

Champion but forever out of luck at Indy

Bettenhausen won the 1958 National Championship without winning a race and led at Indy before finishing fourth. He was runner-up in the 1959 standings and was fourth at Indy once more – victory at the Brickyard remained elusive and was by now his main focus. His Lindsey Hopkins Watson-Offy ran with the leaders again in 1960 before it caught fire.

Among the favourites for the 1961 Indy 500, Bettenhausen lapped at 149.25mph in early practice. He was helping to sort Russo’s car when the front axle failed in Turn 1. The Watson-Offy hit the wall and was launched into a series of sickening barrel-rolls. This popular and respected veteran was dead by the time help arrived.

Hot tempered and fiery, he was superstitious to the point of obsession. Colleagues thought of Bettenhausen as an aggressive but fair driver who would fight every inch of the speedway within the bounds of safety. He left behind a widow and four children, of whom Gary, Merle and Tony Jr all raced in Indycars.

Championship seasons

Season Name Starts Poles Podiums Wins Position Points
1961 USAC National Championship
Lindsey Hopkins Racing
1 1 0 0
0% win rate
0
1960 USAC National Championship
Lindsey Hopkins Racing
11 0 4 0
0% win rate
5th 940
1960 F1 World Championship
Lindsey Hopkins Racing
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1959 USAC National Championship
John Zink
Lindsey Hopkins Racing
Pete Salemi
John R Wills
Dean Van Lines Racing Division
Racing Associates
13 0 4 2
16% win rate
2nd 1430
1959 F1 World Championship
Ansted Rotary
John R Wills
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
15th 3
1958 USAC National Championship
Kathryn Wright
John Zink
Cars Incorporated
13 0 6 0
0% win rate
1st 1830
1958 F1 World Championship
Cars Incorporated
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
16th 4
1957 USAC National Championship
Novi Racing
Federal Engineering
Gilbert E Morcroft
Fred Gerhardt
6 0 0 0
0% win rate
29th 80
1957 F1 World Championship
Novi Racing
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1956 USAC National Championship
Howard Iddings
Peter J Schmidt
Mari Hulman
Dayton-Walther
Murrell Belanger
8 0 1 1
13% win rate
24th 290
1956 F1 World Championship
Murrell Belanger
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1955 F1 World Championship
H Allen Chapman
1 0 1 0
0% win rate
13th 3
1955 AAA National Championship
Murrell Belanger
Bob Sweikert
H Allen Chapman
4 0 2 0
0% win rate
4th 1060
1954 AAA National Championship
Blakely Oil
Eugene A Casaroll
Mel B Wiggers
3 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1954 F1 World Championship
Eugene A Casaroll
Mel B Wiggers
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1953 F1 World Championship
JC Agajanian
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1953 AAA National Championship
Murrell Belanger
JS Belond
JC Agajanian
Lee Elkins
6 1 2 2
34% win rate
10th 596
1952 AAA National Championship
Earl F Slick
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1952 F1 World Championship
Earl F Slick
Murrell Belanger
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1951 AAA National Championship
Murrell Belanger
Rotary Engineering
14 4 10 8
58% win rate
1st 2556
1951 F1 World Championship
Rotary Engineering
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
0
1950 F1 World Championship
Ervin Wolfe
Lou Moore
1 0 0 0
0% win rate
20th 1
1950 AAA National Championship
Murrell Belanger
Lou Moore
Evelyn Shaheen
Ervin Wolfe
12 5 4 3
25% win rate
5th 1027.5
1949 AAA National Championship
Meyer & Drake
Murrell Belanger
Speedway Cocktail
7 0 2 2
29% win rate
12th 466
1948 AAA National Championship
William Schoof
Murrell Belanger
Carl Marchese
Thorne Engineering
7 1 1 1
15% win rate
15th 324
1947 AAA National Championship
Murrell Belanger
Ervin Wolfe
Norm Olson
9 1 2 2
23% win rate
6th 676.8
1946 AAA National Championship
William A Corley
Russo
Robert J McManus
4 0 1 1
25% win rate
9th 340
1941 AAA National Championship
Blue Crown Spark Plug
2 0 1 0
0% win rate
10th 240