676. Gary Bettenhausen
When he was twenty-two years old, Gary Bettenhausen announced he’d decided to become a race car driver. It was less than two years since Emil Andres, Jack Beckley, Tiny Wearly, Murrell Belanger, Al Schuldt, Curly McBride and JC Agajanian were pall-bearers at his dad’s funeral. Gary’s mother forcefully advised that he’d better drive stock cars, with a roll cage over his head. Eventually, Valerie Bettenhausen met Webb Stephan, remarried, and relocated to Sun City AZ. A failed marriage, a paternity suit, and, before his divorce, his girlfriend’s difficult pregnancy kept Gary too busy to pay much attention to the racetrack.
Gary drove a stock car for Esserman Dodge from ’63 through ’66. During the day, he worked for the Ford plant on Chicago’s south side, and later, as a body and paint man for the dealer. Esserman service manager George Hopkins owned a midget, and gave Gary his first chances in an open wheel car in ’65. Unlike the heavy stock cars, Bettenhausen enjoyed immediate success. On 28 April, he won his first midget race in Lubbock, TX. It was also his brother Merle’s first race, having recently completed his Army hitch. Merle placed 11th. That same year, Gary started his first Champ car race in Phoenix. By midyear, both Gary and Merle wangled first-rate midgets driving for Bob Nowicke.
Willie Davis gave Gary a sprint car ride in 1966. When Bettenhausen wrecked in practice, Davis advised him to “Go on home and learn how to drive a racecar. Maybe I’ll talk to you again someday.” Valerie Bettenhausen Stephan spoke with her old friend, Indy chief steward Harlan Fengler, and made sure that the Bettenhausen boys would be denied a chance to participate in the rookie program at Indy.
That setback motivated Gary, who claimed seven wins and twenty-three top-fives in his first full midget season. The highlight came at Agajanian’s “Turkey Night Grand Prix,” at famed Ascot. In a massive field that included Mario Andretti and AJ Foyt, Gary brought the famous #99 home 1st. It was also the start of a long friendship and rivalry with Billy Vukovich Jr. Although their fathers were great friends, the two had grown up thousands of miles apart. They had to learn respect on the track before they discovered a personal bond.
Agajanian provided cars to both Bettenhausen and Vukovich for their Indy rookie tests in ’68. Gary earned a ride with Fred Gerhardt’s Thermo-King team, but retired at 43 laps with a punk oil cooler. Vukovich finished 7th to earn rookie of the year.
Shortly after Indy, Willie Davis again offered Bettenhausen a sprint car. At the time, Larry Dickson was dominating the series, winning seven consecutive events. Bettenhausen broke that string at Terre Haute, took seven of the twenty-seven sprint races he started, and finished 2nd to Dickson in the points. For several years, he averaged fifty-six meets a year, shoeing midgets for Nowicke and Hopkins, sprints for Davis, and champ cars for Gerhardt. Gary took the sprint title in ’69 and ’71, and the series became known as the “Larry & Gary Show.” In ’70, Bettenhausen built his own midget and began driving for himself.
Bettenhausen at Syracuse
In 1969, 31,000 fans packed the Houston Astrodome to watch a midget meet featuring Foyt, Andretti, Lloyd Ruby, Johnny Rutherford and the Unser brothers. Gary Bettenhausen took the trophy. In the stands, Tony Lee Bettenhausen decided to quit school and become a racer. Family friend Gordon Van Liew arranged Vita-Fresh Orange Juice sponsorship for a stock car.
Gary signed to drive Roger Penske’s championship car for the ’72 season. Penske insisted that Bettenhausen stop entering sprint races the night before champ car events, but old habits die hard. Penske’s background was in sports cars, not USAC. Gary would team with Mark Donahue, an engineer, in a slick, well-funded operation.
Agajanian / Knievel Dragon-Offy '77
Brother Merle piloted Gary’s sprint car in several races, and won early in the year at the quick Manzanita track outside Phoenix. For Indy, Gary paid Grant King $5000 to put Merle in a car. Merle passed his rookie test, but crashed in turn 4 during practice. King worked around the clock to rebuild the car, but Merle was still in line when the gun sounded the final qualifying day.
2007 Carrera Panamerica