Tony Bettenhausen Sr.
12/9/1916 - 12/5/1961
Although his career in midgets and Indy cars spanned both the pre and post World War II eras, the latter was, by far, Bettenhausen's best. After 1946, Tony won 21 Championship races, placing him 14th on the current all-time list.
He also won the National Championship in 1951 and 1958, and set a record in '51 for the most championship race wins in a single season, winning eight of the 15 events. (That single season record was later broken by A.J. Foyt in 1964). Bettenhausen still ranks among the top lap leaders from 1946-95. In his 1951 Championship year, Tony led 640 of a possible 650 laps in one seven-race stretch. He competed in the Indy 500 14 times, and while he never won, he had a second and a pair of fourths to his credit.
Melvin Eugene Bettenhausen, known as Tony, was also called knot or block or cement head by some of his friends at the track. Perhaps because he spent an inordinant amount of time sliding upside down in race cars. Referring to his upside-down crashes, Bettenhausen said, "As long as I can keep counting 'em I don't worry about 'em." One of his worst upside-down crashes occurred at Soldiers Field in a 1954 midget car race. He suffered a concussion, a scalp wound, the left side of his face ground down, and a hole near the eye that required a 3/4" piece out of a thigh bone to fill it.
Tony had a lot of vitality and did everything with a great amount of gusto. As a driver, he was fearless. He once told a reporter, "I've driven all kinds of race cars as many as six nights a week, and I've never been afraid. I have absolutely no fear in a racecar. It may seem tremendously dangerous to you, but it doesn't seem so to me. On the other hand, it makes me terribly nervous to climb a ten-foot ladder. I could never be a house painter."
Three times he announced his retirement before 1959. The first was in 1948 when the midget car he recieved on his birthday caught fire, burning him on his entire left side. Tony was hospitalized for five weeks and was on crutches for three months. The next spring, with his helmet in his passsenger car trunk, he drove to Indianapolis with no intention of entering the race. But a check ride in a friend's car infected him again. He retired also in 1952, but being out of racing was boring; and, besides, he had tried an automobile business that had proved less rewarding - in every way - than he had anticipated.
Tony miraculously survived a crash in 1959, tore up his car, and got another ride. His $30,000 racecar hit the outside wall and the inside rail of the 2nd trun to slide 33 feet into the infield - upside-down. This was Tony's first time on his head at Indianapolis. Note: USAC mandated the use of roll bars in 1959 prior to this wreck.
On May 12, 1961, Tony was in high spirits after some fast laps he'd ran two days prior. He called his wife Valerie to make plans for the family to join him in Indy the next day. That afternoon, Tony's friend and fellow racer Paul Russo was complaining about the setup of his racer and Tony offered to test it out. About 5000 spectators saw the No. 24 Stearly Motor Freight Special roar down the main straightaway, plunge into the outside wall of the track, and roll 325 feet along the three-foot-hight barrier snapping metal poles and ripping fencing from its moorings and becoming entangled in yards of steel restraining cable. The car came to rest upside down outside the track in a grassy plot between the wall and Grandstand A, its tail consumed by flame - Tony's last upside-down crash, his 28th, the one he couldn't count.
He was either killed instantly when the car hit the wall or battered between the wall and the rol bar. His coveralls were hardly singed. Observers said the car dipped at the right front wheel just before it hit the outer wall and rolled 100 yards along the top. Tony Bettenhausen was dead when, after several minutes, he was removed form the car, the same car in which Rodger Ward had won the 1959 Indy 500. USAC ruled the accident mechanical trouble. A inexpensive anchor bolt fell off the front radius rod suport, permitting the front axle to twist and misalign the front wheels when the brakes were applied, which forced the car into the wall.
Eddie Sachs said, "I saw Tony heading for the wall. I watched until it was over. Then I sat down and cried like a baby." Tony was 45 years old.
Besides racing Tony Bettenhausen loved his family and his 60-acre farm in Tinley Park IL. Tony and Valerie had three sons and a daughter: Gary(19), Merl(17), Suzanne (15), and Tony Lee(9). Tony was happy that Gary soon was going to make him a grandpa. The three boys all went into racing. Tony Lee would one day compete in 11 Indy 500's and also own a CART team. Tony Lee died at age 48 when he and his wife were killed in a plane wreck. Gary would also race in the Indy 500.