CHICAGO — Fifty years ago, May 12, 1961 to be exact, the legendary Tony Bettenhausen of Tinley Park was killed in a practice crash at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway while testing a car for his good friend and longtime “Chicago Gang” companion, Paul Russo.
The 44-year-old Bettenhausen was probably the most well-known auto racer in and around the Chicago area during the 1940s, ’50 s and into the 1960s.
The accident took place the Friday before the first day of time trials at the famed speedway with Bettenhausen looking to be a serious threat of becoming the first driver to post a 150 miles per hour qualifying lap in his own Autolite Special No. 5, owned by Lindsey Hopkins and maintained by crew chief Jack Beckley.
Trying to find some speed in Russo’s Stearly Motor Freight Special, Bettenhausen had run some laps in the 145 mph range and was going to take one more lap around the two and a half mile speedway when a radius rod bolt came loose and fell out, causing Bettenhausen to crash on the main straightaway.
Bettenhausen’s good friend, Wayne Adams, Raceway Park track announcer and longtime contributor to Illustrated Speedway News, wrote his Mid-West Whispers column after hearing about the passing of Bettenhausen. Adams’ following column appeared in the May 16 issue of the once-popular, weekly auto racing publication.
CHICAGO, May 12 — “The Tinley Park Express stopped running today” — these solemn words from an eye-witness told the vivid story on radio this afternoon and announced to a saddened racing world that Tony Bettenhausen had met with a tragic, fatal accident on the Indianapolis Speedway.
Many were shocked into disbelief — it just didn’t seem possible that one of the greatest and most colorful careers in all of auto racing history had come to a sudden halt. Tony had experienced so many dangerous situations, — had emerged from serious injury many times, — had walked away from many accidents with a pleasant smile. He experienced more than his share of misfortune because he only knew one way to race — as fast and as far as his car would carry him. Yet, – drivers come and go but it seemed that Tony was different, — he became a legend in the fraternity. Nothing could stop Tony — he would be winning races forever.
The term ‘great’ is undoubtedly overworked in describing driving ability but it is the only one word that fits the talents that Bettenhausen possessed. He was destined for greatness in this sport ever since his first ride in the Sidentoph Cycle No. 80, back in the old 124th Field Artillery Armory at 52nd and Cottage Grove in the winter of 1938. He acquired the nickname ‘Flip’ after that first endeavor — one of the cherished pictures in our collection was taken that night — it shows young Tony’s forearm and elbow touching the clay surface but everything else is in the air and the four wheels of the midget are pointed toward the roof of the huge Armory. The youngster’s natural ability was immediately evident and his success story is now history.
Tony’s driving career was one of the ‘roughest’ ever recorded and yet he survived these many mishaps with even more competitive determination than before. We remember well, the long personal chat we had with him back in 1945 as he lay in St. Francis Hospital in south suburban Blue Island, recuperating from severe burns suffered weeks earlier when a gas line broke on his midget car at DuQuoin, Ill. Fairgrounds. That was the day Tony gave this writer and ISN an exclusive ‘retirement’ story – he indicated that 19 close calls in 10 driving years were enough and that he would not drive again. I doubt if anyone believed this story – not even Tony himself.
Not only did he stage a comeback – he returned to new and greater honors, — new glory, — new narrow escapes and TWO National Championships. Yet, — the most coveted honor in racing and the one thing that Tony wanted more than anything in life, — always eluded him. He wanted to win the ‘500’ at Indianapolis. Long before he ever drove the Speedway, — he told this reporter for publication, that his greatest ambition was to win the ‘big one’ four times. I firmly believe that everyone in this business including every one of his fellow competitors would have liked nothing better than to have Tony’s wish come true. This was perhaps the only glory in racing that escaped the fabulous speed wizard.
Success came very quickly to young Tony back in his early driving days. He won midget track titles at Raceway Park and Milwaukee in 1941 and repeated at both tracks in 1942. When World War II halted racing, he was leading in points at EVERY midget track in the Midwest circuit and right after the war, in 1945, he won 11 midget features out of 14 starts including the 100 miler at Toledo, Ohio. His tremendous record since the war years in every type racing machine is known to fans from coast to coast.
Not only was Tony a truly great driver and a terrific showman but he was a gentleman — respected by everyone he contacted. He was devoted to his family and spent as much time as possible with his wife Valerie and their four fine children, — three of which are now teen-agers. He was born in Tinley Park, Ill. Sept. 12, 1916 and as a youngster, idolized Rex Mays — another auto racing great. He once rode his bicycle 19 miles to watch Mays drive in a race and little did he know that in just a very few short years, he would be on the same track with his idol — and beating him. Tony was the youngest of nine Bettenhausen children and his father was killed when Tony was only 13 months old — kicked by an angry horse on the family farm. He had quit school after the 8th grade to do his part toward the family finances — doing construction work and assisting on the farm.
Much of his ‘off-season’ time during the past few years was spent on lecture tours on behalf of Champion Spark Plugs — he visited high schools all over the nation giving safety talks to students — alerting them of the terrors of the highway — doing his very best to get the young people started on the right foot and he was loved by all.
Tony Bettenhausen will never be forgotten — for generations to come – as long as auto racing endures, people will be using Tony as a yardstick — they will say to one another, — “that young fellow drives just like Tony Bettenhausen.” However this will NOT be true — there was and is only ONE Tony – he was the greatest of ALL. No one will ever be able to live up to the great man’s reputation of speed, color and showmanship. He was the greatest of all auto racing greats.
The racing world suffered a tremendous loss this afternoon — a loss that can never be replaced. I believe that every promoter in the land will agree with me — they would rather have Tony Bettenhausen in their field than any SIX other top name drivers. He was that kind of guy — a guy that fans from coast to coast loved because they knew that if Tony was in the race — they would see the greatest competitor in the business, — if his car held together. Tony is gone — but his memory will live forever. We have lost one of our dearest friends.
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