KALWASINSKI: Chicago Racing In 1961

Tony Bettenhausen (Stan Kalwasinski Photo Collection)

In February, a number of local drivers competed in the NASCAR action at Florida’s Daytona Int’l Speedway. Ken Finley, defending O’Hare late-model champion Roy Czach and defending O’Hare cadet division titlist Bob Weyrauch were down there for the 250-mile modified stock car event.

Finley wrecked in practice, while Weyrauch finished 13th and Czach 19th. Fred Lorenzen, Tom Pistone, Sal Tovella, Bob Roeber and Bob Pronger were among the entries for the Daytona 500, with Lorenzen’s fourth place finish the best effort by the locals.

Pistone, the former Soldier Field stock-car champion, finished 10th, with Tovella ending up 14th and relative newcomer Roeber finishing 28th. Pronger was involved in a multi-car wreck in the first qualifying race and was not allowed by NASCAR officials to compete in the 25-mile consolation race. NASCAR President Bill France, Sr. ruled against Pronger after a number of drivers signed a petition following the 100-mile qualifying events. France said, “We feel Pronger needs more practice at high speed.”

Tragedy struck at Indianapolis Motor Speedway May 12 as veteran Chicago area fan favorite Tony Bettenhausen of Tinley Park was killed in a crash at the famed speed plant.

The 44-year-old Bettenhausen, who started his racing career in 1938 racing midgets indoors at the old 124th Field Artillery Armory in Chicago, was testing a car for his friend, Paul Russo, when the accident occurred.

Racing down the main straightaway, a bolt holding the radius rod fell off, sending Bettenhausen crashing into the wall and fencing on the outside of the track. In a split second, the “Tinley Park Express” was gone.

Bettenhausen, who seemed to be an odds-on favorite to grab pole position in his own Autolite Special the very next day, had never won the Indianapolis 500, with a second place finish in 1955 being his best effort. Ironically, Russo drove relief for Bettenhausen during the race.

A soybean farmer when not racing, Bettenhausen captured the National Championship for Indy-car racing in 1951 and 1958 and scored 21 wins during his career.

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