After reading an article in National Speed Sport News some 30+ years later, I learned the reason Gary led all those laps at the Speedway in '72. He had an overheating problem some 20 laps into the race. He learned from Sprint car racing that you could stall the car in the turns and cool the engine by flooding it. After re-igniting the engine on the straightaways, he nursed the car almost to the finish when the ignition let go on a yellow.
It was a family affair that lasted for several decades, and the Bettenhausen clan became legendary at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It was also a sport that wasn’t kind to them. The family patriarch, Melvin “Tony” Bettenhausen, died in a practice accident in 1961 at Indianapolis.
Gary Bettenhausen followed in his father Tony’s footsteps to Indy and made 21 starts in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” His favorite race wasn’t 1972, when he led 138 of the 200 laps and fell victim late to mechanical bugaboos.
It was 1980.
“Probably more so,” said Bettenhausen, 71, from his Martinsville, Ind., home. “We took a 5-year-old car, started in the last row and finished third. We changed two tires the whole race, had no radios, so we used hand signals. It was an old Patrick car that Wally Dallenbach had driven.
“Sherman Armstrong already had four cars, and we really didn’t have any time in it. We changed the fuel injection and other things for Race Day, and it ran like a rocket.”
That was his best finish at the Speedway.
Bettenhausen was handicapped by a left-arm injury from an accident on the dirt mile at Syracuse, N.Y., but it didn’t stop him.
“A whole half of my career was with one arm, and I won the dirt title twice,” he said. “My first race back was a 100-lapper indoors at Fort Wayne, and I won it. I got smoother, and that helped me. The first couple years, I couldn’t drive it down the straightaway. As the years went on, it got stronger. For a while, I actually used Velcro on my glove to hold my hand on the wheel. I learned how to compensate.”
In 1992, the paddock was buzzing before the month of May even started. Bettenhausen was hooked up with Nelson Piquet as his teammate. Everybody wondered what stories would come out of the matchup of the sophisticated former Formula One road-racing champion paired with the master of the American dirt oval.
It was surprising. There weren’t any stories.
“It was quite an experience,” Bettenhausen said. “It took about five minutes to decide we liked each other. He’s a fun guy to be around. He called on my birthday or around Christmas two years ago out of the blue. His son is running NASCAR’s Nationwide series, and I watch him all the time.”
Gary B said he doesn’t miss racing in Indy cars.
“Nope,” Gary said, “not the way it is today with all the computers. Half the fun was getting a car set up.”
His brother Merle, who also raced, retired last year as marketing manager for auto dealer Ray Skillman. Sadly, his youngest brother, Tony Jr., was killed in a plane crash in 2000.
Gary’s twin sons, Cary and Todd, started a health-care business and patented an innovative tray that allows surgeons to have tools in exactly the right places when they come out of a sterilizer.
Sadly for his legions of fans, Gary said he doesn’t come by the Speedway anymore.
“It’s too hard on my legs and back because I’m not walking very well,” Gary said.
But the fans never will forget the popular Gary B.