It began, more than 50 years ago, with a couple of ambitious young hotshoes who thought nothing in life could be better than taming a rambunctious midget race car, making it go where only the brave dared go, faster than anyone else.
They didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Tony Bettenhausen, whose first name wasn’t really Tony, and Bill Vukovich, whose last name wasn’t really Vukovich, were leaving tire prints that others carrying their names could not resist following.
In the beginning, Bettenhausen, who lived in Tinley Park, Ill., then a sleepy farm town southwest of Chicago, now, for all practical purposes, a part of it, did most of his racing in the Midwest and the East. Vukovich, who lived in Fresno, ran in the West.
Eventually, though, each discovered Indianapolis, its race track and its race, the Indianapolis 500. It brought them together, nourished what became a strong friendship, gave each a new focus for his life--and future generations’ lives as well.
Vukovich won the Indy 500 twice in a row. Bettenhausen, recognized as one of the gutsiest, most determined drivers of his day, never won it, although he never quit trying.
The Speedway rewarded their devotion and dedication by killing them. But then, from time to time, racing does that sort of thing.
Their sons picked up the torch, Gary, Merle and, later, Tony Lee of the Bettenhausen clan, and Bill Vukovich II. And his son, Billy III, took the racing Vukoviches into the third generation.
Each of them staked a claim to success--by racing’s standards, if not by popular acclaim--but the families have paid dearly for that.
Between them, Gary and Merle Bettenhausen have two good arms. A prosthesis extends from Merle’s right sleeve, replacing the arm he left at Michigan International Speedway in his first Indy car race. And Gary’s withered left arm works only to a point. He suffered nerve damage in a violent crash during warm-ups for a dirt car race at Syracuse, N.Y.
To this day, no Bettenhausen has won at Indianapolis and it will be a major upset if one ever does. Car failure cost Gary his one great shot and although both he, at 49, and brother Tony, 39, are still trying, there are younger drivers with faster cars and richer teams well ahead of them in racing’s pecking order.
There will be no more Vukoviches winning at Indianapolis, either, simply because there are no more racing Vukoviches. Bill II, 47, has been retired from driving for several years and Billy III, whose promising career was expected to take off this season, was killed in a sprint-car crash last November practicing for a race at Bakersfield. His car went straight in a turn and hit the wall head on. He was 27, unmarried, and Bill and Joyce Vukovich’s only child.
So, after more than 50 years, the Bettenhausen-Vukovich influence on racing appears negligible. But the saga those racing families leave racing is considerable.
And, although there are sadness and grief to contend with, as well as intense pride, bitterness and regret are not big with the Bettenhausen brothers or the last Bill Vukovich. When you go racing, you bet your life. Every race driver knows that.
TONY AND VUKY
It was Tunney, not Tony, that a young Melvin Eugene Bettenhausen started calling himself. Tunney, after boxer Gene Tunney.
“I’m Jack Dempsey,” one of the Bettenhausen farmhands called out at the start of free-time boxing sessions. “Who’ll be Gene Tunney?”
“I’m Tunney,” Tony answered, rising to the challenge.
And in time, Tunney became Tony, the first of many of Bettenhausen’s nicknames.
And on the far side of the country, the original family name was Vucerovich, not Vukovich, although stories differ as to how and when the change was made. In any event, William Vukovich, too, had plenty of nicknames--"Vuky,” “The Mad Russian"--he was really of Serbian descent--"Wild Bill.”
Race promoters touted Bettenhausen as “The Tinley Park Express,” but he was referred to more informally as “Flip,” “Flippenhausen,” and, often, “Cement Head,” all reflecting the frequent consequences of his single-minded driving style--hard and fast, always. Tony Bettenhausen saw a lot of the world while he was upside down in race cars.
Old-timers still marvel that a friendship should have developed between two such disparate types--brash, confident, voluble, likable Bettenhausen and the quiet, introverted, almost reclusive Vukovich. But friends they were, Vukovich and his family once visiting the Bettenhausen farm.
And it might not have been simply a case of opposites attracting. The link might well have been a shared approach to racing.
Said Gary Bettenhausen of his dad: “He was almost just the opposite of Bill Vukovich--on the outside. But I think they were a lot alike on the inside. They both had that drive and determination.”
There was, however, a distinct difference in style, both on and off the track.
“He drove it flat-out, it didn’t matter,” Milwaukee racing historian Al Krause said of Bettenhausen. “Pell-mell, drive like hell.”
Vukovich, although he drove hard, was a bit smoother, although no less determined.
Former 500 winner Rodger Ward said: “The thing about Bill, aside from an unbelievable talent, was his tenacity . . . Bill Vukovich had the greatest degree of tenacity of anybody I ever saw. He just never gave up.”
Off the track, they appeared to have little in common. Almost anyone who ever knew Bettenhausen describes him as a great guy.
“I remember (an Indy car) win in 1950,” Krause said of a race in Milwaukee, where Bettenhausen, with his Teutonic name and affable manner, was a great favorite. "(Afterward) he sat in the judges’ stand, we brought him a cold drink, he lit a cigarette--'OK,’ he said, ‘I’m ready. Let ‘em in.’ There were kids standing around (waiting for autographs). Tony, sitting there in his stocking-feet, baggy uniform on, he signed every one. Bettenhausen was his own best publicity man.”
Vukovich was no such thing.
“Vukovich was probably a very nice guy, it’s just that he was in a lousy mood for the last 25 years of his life,” Krause said.
Ward, though, knew a different Vukovich.
“Bill was a very unusual kind of individual,” he said. “I don’t know if I understand exactly what an introvert is, but Bill was the kind of guy that really avoided crowds. He also didn’t make friends easily. If you became a friend, you were kind of in a special place.”
The Times’ Pat Ray, who at one time worked in Vukovich’s midget crew, recalls Vukovich as “almost a loner.”
“He came to race and that was it,” he said. “When the race was over, he was gone. He was like a phantom.”
He was a phantom, in fact, to his own son.
“I didn’t know him,” said Bill II, who was 11 when his father died. “He never took me fishing, never took me hunting, we never talked about the stars . . . I wish I knew (more about him). In fact, I’ve fantasized that I could go back to 1952 and ’53. We used to live on Orleans Avenue (in Fresno) and I wish I could go back and walk by that house and walk into that garage and meet Bill Vukovich. Not as a son, just as a person, just to see what he was like. He’s a mystery man. I wasn’t close to him, even as a small boy.”
There is one thing, though, that he knows about the first Bill Vukovich.
“He was the greatest--at Indy. . . . I know there’s guys that have won more races, but I believe, throw ‘em all together and my dad, some way, somehow, would come out on top.”
There may be more than just family pride there. Vukovich was a master of the Speedway. He drove in the 500 only five times, won twice and, conceivably, could have won four times, in succession.
He was leading the 1952 race, his second, when his steering failed on the 191st of the 200 laps. He led for 195 laps in winning in 1953, started 19th but still dominated again in winning the next year, and was leading yet again in 1955, when he was killed in a four-car pileup.
Bettenhausen, on the other hand, was tormented by the Speedway. A two-time national champion--he was as good as they came on dirt--he could never make all the pieces fit at Indy.
Sometimes he was the victim of circumstance, and sometimes he outsmarted himself.
In 1947, his second year at the big track, Bettenhausen had been promised one of Lou Moore’s two new cars, each built specially for the 500. That year, though, there was strike talk and Tony joined a drivers’ group that was threatening to boycott the race if the Speedway didn’t increase the prize money. Moore was interested in winning the race and told Bettenhausen to choose.
Tony elected to stay with the boycotting drivers and Moore put Bill Holland into the car.
The dispute was solved before race time and Bettenhausen drove another car, but Moore’s cars, with Mauri Rose and Holland driving, finished 1-2.
Holland, in fact, driving the car originally assigned Bettenhausen, should have won. He was leading--apparently he thought he was ahead by a lap--when his crew gave him the EZ sign and he let Rose pass him.
Bettenhausen maintained ever after that had he been in Holland’s car, teammate or not, Rose would not have got by.
In 1951, Bettenhausen gave up the seat in the car he usually drove for another crack at one of Moore’s cars. Unfortunately for him, Moore’s cars, by that time, were dated. More unfortunately for him, the car he had left behind turned out to be the class of the field and Lee Wallard drove it to a convincing victory.
The best he ever did in 14 tries at the Speedway was second, in 1955, the year his friend Bill Vukovich was killed. He finished fourth in ’59.
He might well have won in 1961, had he raced. He had the hot car and the top speeds in the early days of May that year and was planning to become the first driver to break the 150-m.p.h. barrier. He was killed testing a balky car for his friend Paul Russo before he could get that done.
“The tragedy of it is that both (Vukovich and Bettenhausen) lost their lives doing nothing wrong,” Ward said. “They were victims, not involved in mistakes of their own.”
Vukovich, in fact, died in a crash started by Ward’s car 56 laps into the ’55 race.
“I exited Turn 2 . . . and the car suddenly lurched and went out of control,” Ward recalled. “We looked at it later and the right front axle had been cracked. I think the problem had developed through the race--the car was handling very poorly--but I’d made my mind up that I was going to stay out there till the s.o.b. fell apart. I wish I’d had the good sense to bring it in.”
Ward’s car spun, hit a fence there at the time and flipped down the track, involving cars driven by Al Keller and Johnny Boyd as well. Vukovich, blasting out of the turn and onto the back straightaway, tried to get outside the mess but ran up a tire on Boyd’s car, got airborne and flipped over a guardrail, landing upside down, in flames, on some parked cars.
Whereas multicar wrecks like Vukovich’s still occur in racing, Bettenhausen’s accident would be highly unlikely today. Rarely do drivers ask other drivers to test their cars.
But they did in 1961, and Russo asked. He and Tony had been pals since back in the midget days and Russo’s star was not shining brightly. Lindsey Hopkins, Bettenhausen’s car owner, was against the idea but didn’t say no and Tony took the car out.
After several laps, the car suddenly turned right, into the retaining wall on the front straight. The car vaulted into the fencing atop the wall, rolling the wire mesh around itself as it went, finally landing upside down atop the wall.
A bolt that held the front axle in place had fallen out and when Bettenhausen braked just past the start-finish line to slow for the first turn, the axle twisted and pulled the car into the wall.
“My dad never had the luck,” Gary said. "(He) could have won the race several times if it hadn’t been for car trouble. I think, without a doubt, that (in 1961) he would have won the race.”
GARY, MERLE AND BILL
It was easy. It was what Gary Bettenhausen had been born to do. Finally, a Bettenhausen was going to win the 500. Easily.
A broken distributor rotor had taken Bobby Unser’s pole-sitting Eagle out of the race after only 31 laps and there was Gary, only 27 laps from the end, tooling along nicely in Roger Penske’s McLaren, winning the race in 1972.
And then he wasn’t.
Debris on the track brought out the caution flag and as Bettenhausen slowed in observance of it, his car emitted an ominous pop.
Two laps later, the car was sounding ragged and when Gary got the green flag on the 176th lap, it failed to respond.
Jerry Grant breezed by him and Mark Donohue, Gary’s Penske teammate, eventually ran down Grant and won the race.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Bettenhausen said of the ignition problem that robbed him of racing’s greatest prize.
If he needed convincing, though, he got it later that season.
“The car broke while I was leading all three 500s that year, Indy, Pocono and California (at the now-defunct Ontario Motor Speedway). That was kind of frustrating.”
Right in keeping with Bettenhausen luck, though.
Even to this day, the memory of that ’72 race can reduce brother Merle, 47, to tears.
“I was his board man, his radio man out on the (pit) wall,” he said. “That night, we went to (a pizzeria) and I was so distraught . . . “
After recovering his composure, he said:
“We’ve never won the race. I said that night it would never, ever happen. If it didn’t happen then . . . I’ve had three terribly sad days in my life--when my dad died, when Gary didn’t win at Indy, and when I had my accident.
“You look at the race drivers that’ve got their name on the Borg-Warner trophy and you look at the talent that my father and brother had, that’s what’s not fair. My arm is fair. But that’s not fair.”
No argument there from Vukovich, who said:
“Justice hasn’t been served because Gary didn’t win that race and he should have. He was just a whisker away. It was his. It was his. . . . And that was his dream.
“So justice wasn’t served. But it’s that way in life an awful lot of times. Justice isn’t served and you’ve got to get on. You can’t let it destroy you. And it can. I’ve seen it destroy men.”
But not these men named Bettenhausen and Vukovich, who embraced an uncaring sport that had already taken their fathers and, very often, would mock their own considerable talents, would hurt them, physically and otherwise.
“I wanted to be (a driver) from the time I was a little kid but it was like a no-no,” Gary said. "(Big Tony) wouldn’t even talk about it. I remember as little kids, we had a bunch of little toy race cars and we’d sit out in the dirt for hours, a race track around us, just running those little race cars.
“When my dad got killed, I was pretty bitter toward racing for about a year. Then everything kind of gradually wears off and you realize that everything that we had came from racing, and how much he loved it.”
Said Merle: “I remember the time Bill came to the farm and we had a bicycle race. It was about 95 degrees. . . . I remember Dad coming out, ‘You’ll have heat stroke!’
“But everything revolved around racing. I think that even when our dad died, the responsibility of winning Indy was left on our shoulders. No one forced that feeling, but that was it. It was almost like the first win would be for him. No one could claim the first win ‘cause that was going to be our dad’s. To get your own, you had to win the next one.”
Vukovich, too, grew up pretty sure that he would become a driver.
“There were years, there, after my father was killed, that I really wasn’t sure--I still followed racing--but I really wasn’t sure I wanted to do this, " he said.
“And then I got of age and was able to race and in the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘Yeah, one day I’ll go to Indy.’ But I really didn’t get serious about it till after I started making a couple bucks.
“I thought, ‘Wow! This is kind of easy.’ It’s not but you think, ‘This was an easy buck.’ And then I started winning some races. And then I started winning a lot of races--midgets, modifieds, local stuff--and I got to thinking, ‘Maybe I could go to Indy!’
“Then I got blinders on. That’s all I thought about, just trying to get to Indy. That’s the pinnacle.”
Gary, too, came through the ranks--go-carts, stock cars, midgets--until he and Bill II arrived at the Speedway as rookies together in 1968.
“In fact, I took my rookie test in (Bill’s) backup car,” Gary said.
“I came with (a) dirt car and could only run 150 m.p.h. with it. Well, the last phase of my driver’s test had to be over 150. J.C. Agajanian (Vukovich’s car owner) asked me if I wanted to finish my rookie test in his backup car. So now USAC made me take my rookie test all over again, right from the start, because now I was going to a rear-engine car.
“And then I actually ran faster in that car than Billy had been running in his new Brabham. So after I got my rookie test in, Billy decided he wanted the (backup car). He ran it the rest of the month.”
Vukovich not only ran it, but finished seventh in it, for which he was voted rookie of the year.
By that time, he and Gary were on their way to becoming best friends. But it was a relationship long in developing.
Some of that might have been brought on by the good-natured rivalry their fathers enjoyed but which their sons might have been too young to understand.
"(Big) Bill was a needle artist,” Merle recalled. “He used to tell my dad, ‘Hey, my kid’s so tough he eats nails for breakfast.’ This went on and on, so that by the time they came to the farm, they weren’t there five minutes and I walked out in our garage, grabbed some nails about yea long, walked in the house and handed them to (Bill II) and said, ‘Here, eat these first, will you!’ ”
Vukovich didn’t much care for the whole idea of the family friendship.
“When I first met Gary, I didn’t like him,” Bill said. “I didn’t like him for a long time. I didn’t like Merle, I didn’t like Gary, I didn’t like any of them. I thought Tony, the old man, was great because he was my hero. But we didn’t get along (as kids).”
They didn’t get along as young adults either, and although Bill and Gary eventually grew close, Bill and Merle still have only a casual relationship. Maybe it’s because they never fought first, then talked later, as was the case with Bill and Gary.
“At a certain time in our little careers, we were coming up in the midgets, I had a better car and I was beating Gary,” Vukovich said.
“There was a lot of times he’d run second to me and after the race he’d say, ‘Well, if that thing would have been five or six more laps, I’d have won.’ That used to . . . me off. I said, ‘Gary, this was 100 laps, not 105.’
“We used to do a lot of wheel banging. There was tremendous competition between us. Gary was the only guy I wanted to beat and it was the same with him, ‘cause we both had fast cars.
“It all came to a head at Manzanita Speedway (in Phoenix). I was leading the race. I had him beat. Had him beat easy. Then the motor started seizing with about five or six laps to go and Gary caught me on the (last) lap.
“There were some things I could do to other drivers and they’d give. Gary wouldn’t do that. He wanted to beat me so bad. Anyway, we got together and it was a violent wreck . . . fire, cars in every which direction.
“Gary got loose and went on and won the race (then) came around and stopped on the back straightaway to see if everybody was all right. I started hitting him. He still had his helmet on and every time I hit him, I hit his helmet.
"(Afterward,) we both got to thinking that we should start using a little more common sense (before) someone got hurt. We sat down and talked about it, gained a little more mutual respect and then everything was fine. Then slowly we became good friends.”
Once, after Gary had flipped his Indy car on the backstretch at Milwaukee, Bill leaped out of his car, grabbed an extinguisher from a track worker and shot fire-suppressing foam into the cockpit of Gary’s upside-down car, on the supposition that the car would burst into flame any minute. Gary, still belted in, was unhurt but couldn’t move and didn’t take kindly to the foam bath.
“I almost suffocated,” he said, and he didn’t find out until later that it was his buddy Bill Vukovich who had wielded the extinguisher.
Later, Gary laughed about the incident, understanding Vukovich’s concern.
“At that time, the Indy cars held 80 gallons of fuel, 40 on each side, and the fuel cells were like rags,” Gary said. “Why that thing didn’t catch fire is beyond me.”
THE CAST MELVIN (TONY) BETTENHAUSEN
The first of the racing Bettenhausens, he won two national Indy car championships but never won the Indianapolis 500. He was killed in a crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway while testing a friend’s car the day before qualifying was to begin for the 1961 race.
Tony’s oldest son and the first of three second-generation Bettenhausen drivers. He nearly won the 1972 Indy 500, then suffered a severe setback in his career when he crashed in 1974 in a dirt car race at Syracuse, N.Y. A four-time national champion in dirt and sprint cars, he continues to drive at Indianapolis and intends to be in his 17th 500 May 26. Gary, 49, lives in Monrovia, Ind., not far from Indianapolis.
The second of Tony’s sons, Merle, 47, lost his right arm in a crash during his first Indy car race. Wearing a prosthesis, he later returned to racing in midget cars and was in the running for the national championship when he retired in 1974. Now a consultant and motivational speaker, he lives in Delafield, Wis., near Milwaukee.
TONY LEE BETTENHAUSEN
At 39, he is the youngest of the Bettenhausen brothers and one of the few full-time driver-owners in Indy car racing today. He hopes to drive in his 10th 500 at Indianapolis, where he lives.
The patriarch of the racing Vukoviches, he won the 500 in 1953, again in 1954 and was leading in 1955 when he was unable to avoid crashing cars in front of him. He died in that crash.
BILL VUKOVICH II
Bill Vukovich’s only son followed his father into racing and drove successfully for more than 15 years. He was rookie of the year at Indianapolis in 1968 and finished second in the rain-shortened 1973 race. He is now the general manager of a racing-trailer business in Fresno.
BILL VUKOVICH III
Billy became the first third-generation driver to make the Indianapolis 500 field in 1988, when he was voted rookie of the year. A national champion in supermodifieds, he also drove at Indy in 1989 and last May. He was killed last November at 27 while practicing for a sprint- car race at Bakersfield.