|The Indianapolis Motor Speedway
|Fatalities - May 12, 1961
|Tony Bettenhausen Sr. - driver
Although Tony Bettenhausen's 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
|Bettenhausen's Indy Record
Year Car No. Car Laps Completed Start Finish
1946 46 Bristow-McManus 47-connecting rod 26 20
1947 29 Belanger Motors 79-timing gear 25 18
1948 6 Belanger Motors 167-clutch 22 14
1950 14 Blue Crown 30 - Wheel bearing 8 31
1950 17 Wolfe Relieved Joie Chitwood 5
1951 5 Mobiloil 178 - spun NW 9 9
1952 27 Blue Crown Sparkplug 93-starter 30 24
1953 98 Agajanian 196-axle, wrecked NE 6 9
1954 10 Mel Wiggers 105-con. rod bearing 21 29
1955 10 Chapman 200 2 2
1956 99 Belanger Motors 160-wrecked SW 5 22
1957 27 Novi Air Cond. 195-flagged 22 15
1958 33 Jones-Maley 200 9 4
1959 1 Hoover 200 15 4
1960 2 Dowgard 126-connecting rod 18 23
1961 24 Stearly Motor Freight Wrecked in practice, died
|Tinley Park Memorial Cemetery, Tinley Park, Illinois
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 Bettenhausen would also race in the Indy 500.
Track officials try to clear debris of the Stearly Motor Freight Special to extricate the body of Tony Bettenhausen after he
crashed into box seats at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, May 12, 1961. Bettenhausen, who was test driving for another
driver, Paul Russo, was killed instantly.