Indianapolis 500 veteran Gary Bettenhausen died Sunday at the age of 72.
Gary Bettenhausen made 21 Indianapolis 500 starts between 1968 and 1993, with a best result of third in 1980. He nearly won the race 1972, leading 138 laps before suffering a late-race mechanical failure. His final start as a driver came in the 1996 U.S. 500, driving for his brother, Tony.
He was renowned as one of the top dirt racers of his day, winning multiple Sprint Car and Midget championships in the midwest. He was one of Roger Penske's first Indy Car drivers, until a crash on the dirt mile in Syracuse, N.Y. in 1974 left him with a severely injured arm. Penske, who disapproved of Bettenhausen’s dirt racing, replaced him at the wheel of his Indy Car team.
He made eight career starts in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, with a best finish of fourth at Michigan in 1974, also driving for Penske. He was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993, and the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.
Bettenhausen was a member of one of Open Wheel racing’s most legendary – and star-crossed -- families. He was the son of son of 14-time Indianapolis competitor Tony Bettenhausen, who was killed in a 1961 practice crash at the speedway. His brother, Tony Bettenhausen Jr., made 11 Indianapolis 500 starts as a driver and team owner before dying in a 2000 airplane crash while returning from a race. Another brother, Merle Bettenhausen, lost an arm in his Champ Car debut in July of 1972 at Michigan International Speedway.
Former Indy 500 competitor and Rockingham Speedway President Andy Hillenburg called Bettenhausen, “one of my childhood heroes, a mentor and a great friend,” remembering him as “one of the best ever to sit behind a wheel.”
Indianapolis Motor Speedway president J. Douglas Boles said, “Gary Bettenhausen was the perfect definition of a race car driver of his time. He raced successfully in many types of cars, on every type of track, and he possessed a work ethic that earned him rides based on his ability and his competitive nature. Gary will best be remembered by Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans for the manner in which he carried the Bettenhausen family’s passion for the Indianapolis 500 and how he drove every lap at the limit when he was competing at IMS. Our thoughts and prayers are with Gary’s wife, his family, and his friends.”