They Are a Species in Danger : Gary Lost a Chance, but Merle Lost an Arm, Vukovich Lost a Son

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There is much to be gained in auto racing--money, fame and kicks that drivers say non-drivers simply can’t comprehend. But if racing gives, it also takes away, sometimes in spades.

In 1974, Gary Bettenhausen was driving not only an Indy car for owner Roger Penske, but an AMC Matador for him as well in major NASCAR stock car races.

“I’d driven it in four races--Daytona, Michigan, Atlanta, somewhere else--and the next one was supposed to be the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in July,” he said. “A week before I was supposed to go down there, (Penske) informed me that (NASCAR veteran) Bobby Allison was going to drive the car.”


Disappointed and angry, Gary decided to spend the long Fourth of July weekend dirt-tracking, in a sprint-car race at Reading, Pa., then in a championship dirt-track event the next day at Syracuse. He never made a worse decision.

“That’s the one thing I would like back,” he said. “It was a hell of a big setback in my career.”

At Reading, Gary was hit in the face by a flying chunk of the clay track, which broke his nose.

“They wanted to take me to the hospital and set my nose, but I said, ‘No, we got to get to Syracuse.’ So we drove all night and got to Syracuse and had to be ready to hot-lap after no sleep. We fired the dirt car up and the thing had no turning radius.

“What had happened was, we had just moved the front axle back three inches and didn’t shorten the drag link--a hurry-up deal. It prevented the front wheels from turning more than about 40%.

“The first (practice) lap, I ran down in the corner and the car popped the front end out on me. So I said, ‘Next time I’ll just run it in (the corner) a little bit harder and give it a bigger pitch.’ So I ran down in there and gave it a pitch and that was as far as the steering wheel went. The car went into a big long slide, then just dug in.


“It was stupid of me. I remember the minute I (crimped the wheel) it all came back to me, ‘No turning radius.’ ”

The car flipped wildly, soaring out of the corner, off the track and through the roof of an unused concession stand. Both of Bettenhausen’s collarbones were broken, he had broken ribs, a broken thumb and a broken eye socket. And, of course, the broken nose from the night before.

“He was the saddest looking . . . ,” his brother Merle said. “I mean, his ears were black and blue.”

It wasn’t his ears, though, that bothered Gary. It was the lack of feeling in his left arm and hand.

“The shoulder harness broke my collarbones because the car flipped so violently,” he said. “It did nerve damage. It didn’t sever the nerve but it stretched it and paralyzed my arm. After a few months, because of the nerve damage, I lost all the muscles in my arm. When the nerves did come back, there was no muscle for the nerve to grow into. But I did learn to live with it the way it is and, to me, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.

“I won the first time I raced after that. Taped my hand to the steering wheel.”

That horrible flip, though, cost Gary more than just the unrestricted use of his arm. It also cost him his Indy car ride with Penske, whose cars have since won the 500 six times. And Gary has not had a first-class Indy car ride since.


“I’m positive I would have won the Speedway at least once by now, had I continued to drive for Penske,” Bettenhausen said. “He’s certainly proved that his cars are capable, and I know I am. But I was just young and dumb at the time. I wanted to race every weekend if I could. I wasn’t ready to settle down and race only nine or 10 times a year.”

In fact, Gary never did settle into that kind of routine, as is common now among top Indy car drivers. Even Bill Vukovich, Gary’s buddy, put his dirt-track days far behind him once he established himself in Indy cars.

But as recently as last season when, again, he was nearly killed in a dirt-car race at Sacramento, Gary was still power-sliding through the corners in sprinters and dirt-trackers.

“Sacramento fairgrounds is a horse track, so they don’t have any inside guardrail,” he said. “What they did was get a bunch of these big concrete barriers, like they use on the highway, and set them around the track to keep you from getting into the light poles and the (infield) lake.

“My car just spun and got into one of those (barriers), backwards, at about 120 m.p.h. The fuel tank ruptured immediately. I was just barely conscious enough to get out of the car and I was on fire for 28 seconds before the fire crew got to me.

“I ended up with burns on my wrist and hands. . . . I had a ruptured spleen, three broken ribs and a broken shoulder and I still managed to get out of the car.


“Then I got pneumonia in the hospital. I damn near died. For about a week, it was touch and go. They thought maybe I was going to lose this (left) hand because it was burned so bad around the wrist. I lost all the circulation in my hand.”

Even after that, Gary was planning to go back for more on the dirt this season. He changed his mind only after Billy Vukovich III was killed last fall while practicing for a sprint-car race at Bakersfield.

“When Billy got killed, I just said, ‘That’s it.’ ”

From now on, he said, he will drive only in the 500, which he still thinks he can win.

“We’ve got brand-new cars for a change,” he said. “I’m driving a ’91 Lola with a Buick (V-6) engine for John Menard, the same man I drove for last year at the Speedway.

“This is the first time since I drove for Penske that I feel like I’ve got a legitimate chance of winning this race, setting on the pole. We’ve definitely got the combination for qualifying fast and if it runs all day . . . “

If Gary has been short-changed at the Speedway, though, his dirt-track memories will carry him, in case he ever decides to retire.

“I would have been a very unsuccessful race driver to this point if it had not been for sprint cars and champ dirt cars,” he said. “I’ve been twice national sprint car champion and twice runner-up. And I’ve been twice dirt-car champion and twice runner-up. I won a total of 83 races in my career but only four in Indy cars. So it would have been a big part of my career missing if I hadn’t been driving those things. And all of my wins in my champ dirt car, my championships, everything has come since my accident in Syracuse.

“Indy cars aren’t really what you call fun racing. It’s a business. I don’t think anybody can say they really enjoy running 220 m.p.h. Sprint racing and dirt cars, they were just fun.


“I loved driving a dirt car on a mile of dirt. Just something about running 140 m.p.h. and pitching that thing sideways and flat-footing it and doing hot laps. Hot laps, that’s what’s fun, when you back into the corner and throw dirt over the fence. It still gives me goose bumps.

“There’s very few things I really like, as compared to automobile racing. It’s going to be hard to find something to do that turns me on like racing, after I quit racing.”

But then, he isn’t planning to quit altogether.

“There’s no reason I couldn’t run another five years, anyway, (at the Speedway),” he said. “As long as I take care of myself and stay out of the dirt cars and sprint cars.”

If Gary’s career has been long and bittersweet, Merle’s was short, and hardly sweet at all. He was already trying to prove that he could drive as well with one arm as most people can with two when Gary was hurt in ’74. And although he passed his rookie test at the Speedway, he never drove in the 500.

“Probably when all’s said and done, I don’t have the personality . . . the fierce competitive nature that it takes to be a race driver,” he said. “But you grow up in (a racing) environment, and you see the excitement of it and you see the happiness of it, the winning, and the independence of it, not punching a time clock and not doing 40 hours a week. You see the potential for financial gain and having the name to get you in the door, so to speak. I believe that drove me, more than anything.

“I always felt like I wanted to race (but) I always wanted to be the guy that won the race at the slowest speed. Track records are nice if you want to see your name in the books. But to be able to run it at the slowest speed would be the safest speed. That was probably a bad habit, because it took (away) the aggressiveness. I wasn’t aggressive enough.”


What cost him his right arm, though, was not lack of aggressiveness. It might have been inexperience, or it might have been car failure.

In any event, on a Sunday afternoon in July of 1972, on the third lap of the Indy car event in the Irish Hills of Michigan, he crashed, and burned.

“At the start of the race, with a full fuel load, the car just didn’t feel right,” he said a few days after the accident.

“As I went into the second turn, it started to get away, so I corrected it and then the rear end stuck and I swung right around and went into the wall.

“I hit it hard and, somehow, the visor of my helmet ripped off. I felt it go and when I looked up, there was this big orange ball so I knew there was fire. . . . It was getting pretty hot in there and I thought about getting out.

“I put my hands up on the side of the car and started lifting because I didn’t think I was going to hit the wall again. Then I said to myself, ‘You’re going too fast,’ so I started to get back down and then I felt this tug on my right arm.


“Finally the car stopped and I knew it was on fire so I started to get out again. I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t lift myself and I looked over to the right and there was no arm. I said, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, my God!’ And then I started calling for help.”

Besides losing the arm, he suffered serious facial burns and still carries the scars. Only days after the accident, though, Merle was talking about a comeback and two years later he was locked in a battle for the national midget title with Mel Kenyon, who, coincidentally, drove successfully despite the lack of fingers on his right hand.

“What I wanted to do was win the midget championship and then quit,” Merle said. “I really believe I would have won it, simply because Kenyon really had some disastrous times. I wasn’t winning but you looked over your shoulder, there I was. I had this goal. I wanted to (go out) as a champion, a one-armed champion.

“Johnson City, Tenn., is still the benchmark for me. If I think things are tough or I think I can’t do it, I think of that night that we won that race down there with one arm. The power steering went out about the ninth lap and I passed Bill Engelhart on the last lap, the last corner, beat him by six inches. That was the only feature I won with one arm.”

But Merle didn’t win that national championship. He pulled out of racing instead.

“(At) the beginning of the 1974 season, I broke an axle and crashed at San Jose in one of the opening races of the year,” he said. “And from that point on, every time I went to the race track, I worried about crashing. Never before had that happened. I’d be driving (to the track) and my heart would start pounding and I’d start thinking about crashing.

“I’d put it out of my head and think, ‘No, no, no, you go out and you race.’ ”

And so he did, until Gary flipped at Syracuse.

“I believe that things happen to give you warnings,” Merle said. “Different things occur that are telling you something and you should take those messages. I almost think that had I not taken those messages, I would have been killed. The message of Gary getting hurt made me quit.”


After learning of Gary’s accident, Merle drove through the night from Indianapolis, where he was living at the time, to be with his brother. He decided on the way that he was through with racing.

He has never regretted racing, he said, but he has regretted quitting even less.

“One night we were watching a race on TV and I said (to his wife Leslie), ‘Honey, not only don’t I miss it, now I wonder how I ever did it.’

“For every negative, there’s a positive. Maybe this was a way God wanted to tell me, ‘Merle, you shouldn’t be doing this. I’m going to awaken you and get you into something you’d do better.’

“My forte (now) is communication. I do consulting work, I do motivational speaking and I love people. So, I gave my right arm to put my life in perspective.”

Bill Vukovich II raced successfully for more than 15 years and escaped the kind of serious injuries that Gary and Merle Bettenhausen suffered.

“I was just lucky because I had my share of accidents--end over, the whole nine yards,” Bill said. “I tore cars completely in half and walked away from them.”


Racing had another kind of pain in store for him. It took his son.

“It was just unbelievable,” he said. “It’s still unbelievable. It’s devastating. . . . I force myself to do things, try to block it out.

“It pops into my mind, I think about something else. I wake up in the morning and the first thing that enters my mind is my son. And then I start thinking about golf, the last time I played golf. I go through every shot, for 18 holes, to keep my mind off that.

“It happened to my dad. And when it happens to your son, well, not that it didn’t affect me with my father, but it’s nothing like your son. There’s nothing like your son and the impossible happened. It was impossible. It can’t happen. Not to my son.”

Except that it did happen. And, deep down, he always knew it might. That’s why he worried so.

“It was horrible,” he said. “There was times that I didn’t want to go to the races. I didn’t want to watch Billy race. I was happy for him and Billy won a lot of races but I didn’t want to be there.”

And often when he was there, he couldn’t watch.

“I’d go to Madera Speedway and they’d start a race and I’d get so nervous that I’d just turn around and go between some motor homes and wait till it was over,” he said.


“I was afraid. There was constant, constant fear and it’s probably because we’ve been around this. I see other fathers out there and they just seem to enjoy this. Maybe they haven’t seen it like I’ve seen it. I’ve seen my father, Tony Bettenhausen, Ed Elisian. I’ve seen too many, too many. I don’t think it’s fun and games. It’s a very serious business and it’s scary.”

But Billy was a racer, and Bill had been a racer and he knew there was no steering his son into something else. Nor did he try. In fact, when young Billy let it be known that he wanted to follow in the family tradition--his grandfather on his mother’s side was former driver Tommy Astone--Bill built him a back-yard go-cart track.

“There’s such highs and lows in racing,” he said. “Just the other day we were talking about Billy and I told my wife, ‘You know, this young boy, at a young age, had more highs than probably 90% of men have in a lifetime.”

Bill had his share of highs, too--he was runner-up twice for the Indy car national championship and finished second in the rain-shortened 1973 Indy 500--but he always maintained that he was in it primarily for the money.

Now that he’s out, though, he misses the highs more than the money.

“(The things that go into everyday life) are minor challenges, compared to racing,” he said. “We (the company he works for as general manager) sell these racing trailers and you sell a trailer and, ‘Geez, that’s kind of neat.’ You’re happy for 15 minutes and it goes away. Where with racing, it lasted for months. Because winning a race, that was really, really what you wanted to do.”

Vukovich never was a big winner in Indy cars--he won only one race in those cars--but he was a good finisher and his record shows five seconds, 18 thirds and 14 fourths.

“I believe that, well, for one thing, I never had the best equipment,” he said. “I had it almost. It was just a step below the Penskes and the (Pat) Patricks and the (teams) like that.

“But, bottom line, I believe that I failed at racing. Indianapolis is the pinnacle and if you don’t win that, you’ve failed. It was my goal, and I didn’t reach my goal.


“I’m not knocking myself as a racer but still, you set out and you have a goal and if you don’t reach it, well, what else would you call it?”

Vukovich figures he had two real shots at winning the 500.

“I ran second (in 1973) and was about six seconds behind (winner Gordon) Johncock when the rain came,” he said. “He had a faster car, but with a little bit of luck, maybe a mistake in the pits, a longer race . . .

“There was another year (1970), we were really fast. We started way back and I came right up to third. It was easy. I mean, we were fast. Al Unser won that race and we were faster than Al. The car broke. The rear end went out. What are you going to do?

“I wanted to win it bad. I think if I would have had the opportunity Gary had, driving for the Penske types, oh, yeah.

“It really doesn’t bother me, though, because I think that I could have been smarter and had I been smarter I could have had those opportunities. If I’d been smart, I think I would have got along with the car owners better, played golf with them, socialized with them.

“I didn’t do that. I felt my job was to show up with a helmet and (drive), and I didn’t have to do the rest of that stuff. That’s not very good thinking, but that’s how I felt.


“But I also know that there are drivers better than I was that never won that race, either. There’s plenty of them, a lot of great drivers.”


Tony Lee Bettenhausen--the Lee is for Wallard, the man who won the 1951 Indy 500 in the car big Tony had hoped to drive--was 9 when his father was killed. He grew up considerably different from his brothers. His mother eventually remarried and moved to the Southwest, Phoenix first, then Houston, where Tony Lee started racing.

He was more influenced by his brothers and by Gordon Van Liew, the businessman-race car owner who employed his stepfather, Webb Stephan, than he was by his dad when it came to racing. He is a second-generation driver, but not exactly. He came along 10 years behind one brother, eight behind the other.

And the original Bill Vukovich had been dead for eight years when Billy Vukovich III was born. So although he carried his famous grandfather’s name, he was influenced by his racing dad, ultimately becoming the first third-generation driver to make the 500.

And he made it three times. He was voted rookie of the year when he finished 14th in 1988. His dad had earned that honor exactly 20 years earlier.

This year was to have been a breakthrough year for Billy. His car owner, Ron Hemelgarn, had nailed down solid sponsorship, had ordered 1991 Lolas for him and was figuring on fielding a competitive team.


Coincidentally, Hemelgarn Racing shares the building Tony Bettenhausen--he doesn’t use the Lee these days--had built recently near the Speedway for his Bettenhausen Motorsports team. He used his share of the proceeds from the recent sale of the family farm to finance the building. He is both owner and driver of his cars, now a rare combination.

He has been in and out of racing but says he is very serious about it these days.

“I always tried to be serious,” he said. “You can only be as serious as your budget allows you to be, though, unfortunately. That’s been our restriction. This is the first year we’ve really got a budget and the equipment.”

The budget is courtesy of AMAX, a diversified company with interests in aluminum, gold, coal and energy. It is Bettenhausen’s primary sponsor.

The equipment is from Penske. Tony bought the ’90 Penske cars driven last season by Rick Mears and has a contract with Chevrolet for their state-of-the-art V-8s.

“The cars, I think, especially on the ovals, are going to be very competitive,” he said. “The Penskes dominated the last half of the (1990) season. So we’re going into the ’91 season with the strongest car of ’90. I feel good about it. I think at Indy and Michigan and those places (with oval tracks), we’ll be right there.”

If it seems that has been a long time coming, it has. Young Tony was being touted as, potentially, the best of the racing Bettenhausens as far back as the early ‘70s.


“But I can’t complain,” he said. “There’s a lot of good race drivers that never get a chance to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 even one time. It’s not because they don’t have the ability, it’s because they don’t have the sponsorship. There’s just a hell of a lot more race drivers than there are race cars.

“With the economy the way it is right now, you’ve got people like Roberto Guerrero, Teo Fabi, Raul Boesel and Johnny Rutherford, people like that, Tom Sneva, walking around without rides. That’s a tough deal.

“I don’t particularly like having my own race team. I’m proud of the team and I’m proud of the way the cars look when we get to the race track. But frankly, if I was in a position where I could just show up at the race track with my helmet bag, I’d enjoy that more.”

Tony has driven nine times at the Speedway, a seventh-place in ‘81, his rookie year, his best. He has yet to win an Indy car race anywhere and hopeful as he may be for this season, he obviously knows that last season’s good cars aren’t likely to be better than this season’s good cars.

And his hope to get off to a fast start this season hasn’t been realized. He finished 10th and 12th in the first two events, road races in Australia and at Long Beach, then was a disappointing 18th in the first oval event, at Phoenix. But the big race is still ahead.

“There’s going to be a lot of determination (at Indy),” he said. “I hope next year we’re more prepared and going to be better off in ’92 than we are in ‘91, but I’m assuming that this is the best chance for a Bettenhausen ever. We’re doing everything within our financial means to put every key person in place and every part in place to go to Indianapolis very aggressive.


“It’s the biggest race in the world. It’s the pinnacle of success for a race driver. We definitely would like to do it, for the whole family. But life will still go on if it doesn’t work out.”

Among the Bettenhausens, there are no prospective male drivers. Gary’s children--his twin sons, Cary and Todd, grew up as good friends of Billy III--are in businesses other than racing. Merle has two teen-agers, a girl and a boy.

“From the time he was old enough to sit up, I’ve been throwing balls at him and doing everything else to . . . keep him out of race cars,” Merle said of son Ryan.

Tony, whose wife Shirley is the daughter of former driver Jim McElreath, has contemplated what it would be like to have sons with the genes of two famous racing families coming up behind him.

“Bettenreath?” he said, smiling. “McElhausen?”

But he and Shirley have two daughters.

“I’ve got one I wouldn’t put it past but she’s only 4 years old,” he said.

“She’s got the name for it,” Gary said of his niece. “Taryn. Taryn Bettenhausen.”

But as much a part of their lives as the Indianapolis 500 has been, none of the brothers is sorry that the Bettenhausen-racing link probably will not be carried on.

“It’s naturally kind of sad but then again, I’m kind of relieved,” Gary said. “All things must come to an end. At least I can hold my head up and know that I tried hard.”


Said Merle, “From the time I was old enough to walk, I was worried about somebody driving a race car. The last thing I want to do is worry the next 25 years of my life about somebody in my immediate family driving race cars.”

Bill Vukovich can identify with that.

“Billy was a champion,” he said. He was a (United States Auto Club supermodified) champion, he won the (California) state championship, he was a track champion. And not too many bad drivers get to the Indianapolis 500. I truly believe that Billy, given the proper amount of training and time, could have won that race. He was smart, fast and smooth.

“(But now) I don’t have to worry anymore. This is a hard time and a tragic time and nobody knows this better than me and my wife. But in our little time of grieving, it’s been brought up by both of us: We don’t have to worry anymore, about anything. I can take on anything now.”



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 drives. He nearly won the 1972 Indy 500, then suffered a sever career setback when he crashed in 1974 in a dirt car race at Syracuse, N.Y. A four-time national dirt and sprint car champion, 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.



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’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 racing-trailer business in Fresno.


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.