Jerry Bonkowski

(Photo courtesy Racemaker Press)

New book recalls legacy of the racing Bettenhausen family

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When famous racing families such as the Foyt’s, Unser’s and Andretti’s are mentioned, it would be remiss not to include another famous racing family that made its mark in motorsports.

From what was then a tiny, rural outpost known as Tinley Park, about 35 miles southwest of Chicago, the name Bettenhausen grew to legendary stature in the racing world — including sprint and midget dirt car racing, the Indianapolis 500 and even Formula One.

The majority of the family members grew up on a 240-acre farm that included having a dirt racetrack carved out of it for the Bettenhausen’s – including father Tony and sons Tony Jr., Gary and Merle – to practice their craft.

The farm is long gone, replaced by a large park that includes the appropriately named Tony Bettenhausen Recreation Center. The centerpiece of the rec center’s lobby is an open-wheel race car that Tony Bettenhausen Jr. once raced in the Indianapolis 500.

While three of the racing Bettenhausen’s have passed on – including father Tony and sons Gary and Tony Jr. – several family members still remain, including Merle and son Mike, who runs two of the family’s auto dealerships in Chicago’s southwest suburbs.

This past weekend, several members of the famous Bettenhausen clan gathered at several events to recall the family’s racing legacy, joined by numerous fans.

The gathering was to promote the release of a new book about the family, “Tony Bettenhausen & Sons: An American Racing Family Album.”

The photo-laden book, authored by well-known auto racing writer Gordon Kirby, also included writing excerpts by Merle and sister Susan Bettenhausen.

“It’s a pictorial. There are 397 pictures in it,” Merle Bettenhausen, now 73, told the Chicago suburban newspaper, The Daily Southtown. “It’s progressive from the day my dad started in 1937 and it goes all the way through the year 2000.”

Merle was involved in a serious crash in 1972 at Michigan International Speedway that claimed his left arm. He continued racing with a prosthetic arm for two more years before retiring shortly after Gary Bettenhausen was involved in a serious crash.

Merle still lives in Indianapolis, not far from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where father Tony was tragically killed May 12, 1961, while practicing for the Indianapolis 500. He was just 44 years old when he perished.

As for other family members, sister Susan, 72, lives in Phoenix. Their cousin Harlan, 73, still lives in Tinley Park.

Among appearances the family members made included the Race Fan Rally in Joliet, Illinois, not far from last weekend’s opening race of the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup at nearby Chicagoland Speedway.

Merle and Susan signed copies of the book, recalling stories of their famous racing family for fans.

“There’s a chapter on my dad, with his pictures, then Gary, then me and then Tony,” Merle told the Daily Southtown. “They found pictures for this book that I had never seen before.”

In the book, Merle recalled the family’s racing heritage and roots.

“We grew up at racetracks,” Merle wrote. “We would go to all the races we could drive to, include the Indy 500, Milwaukee, Springfield and DuQuoin, and come back home the same night or next day. Our whole childhood was spent watching our daddy drive race cars.”

Also included in the book is a significant portion about Tony Bettenhausen Jr., who formed his own race team after retiring as an active driver. Among drivers who raced for him in the former CART series was present-day Verizon IndyCar Series star Helio Castroneves, then a young aspiring open-wheel racer.

Tony Jr. and his wife were killed in a plane crash in Kentucky in February 2000. Gary passed away in 2014.

The new book is published by and available for purchase from Racemaker Press.

One of the excerpts written by Merle embodies not only the Bettenhausen family legacy, but also one of its philosophies of life.

“Life’s not determined by wins — life’s determined by character, the quality of an individual and the track record you’ve set for yourself as you lived your life,” Merle Bettenhausen wrote. “I can say very positively that we never won Indy, but we had enough quality and character that Bettenhausen in auto racing will be a name that will always be remembered and always be loved.”

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NHRA: As Countdown moves to second round, questions abound

Will John Force win his record 17th NHRA Funny Car championship this season? He's off to a good start with a win in the first race of the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
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The NHRA playoffs move on to the second round of the six-race Countdown to the Championship for this weekend’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in suburban St. Louis.

But before we move forward, let’s look back at the Countdown-opening Carolina Nationals last weekend in suburban Charlotte.

Several questions arose from the results. Let’s break things down:

* In Top Fuel, for the second consecutive year, Antron Brown won the Countdown-opening race. Can Brown take that win and do the same thing he did last year, namely, go on and win the championship again? Can he make it two titles in a row and three in the last five years?

* Can Doug Kalitta, who is in second place in the standings (42 points behind Brown), overtake Brown in the coming races and finally earn his first Top Fuel championship after nearly 20 years of trying?

* This weekend’s race at Gateway could be very pivotal for the third through seventh-ranked drivers in Top Fuel, who are already 100 or more points behind Brown: Steve Torrence (-100), Brittany Force (-116), eight-time champion Tony Schumacher (-127), J.R. Todd (-152) and Shawn Langdon (-159). If they don’t have strong finishes this Sunday, could some of them potentially find their playoff chances all but over?

* In Funny Car, the biggest story of Carolina was the event victory by 67-year-old driver John Force. The winningest driver in NHRA history (16 championships, 146 national event wins) has made it very clear that he intends on winning a 17th championship. Force came close to that milestone in 2014, but Matt Hagan pulled away in the final two races of the Countdown to win the championship. Now Force has another chance. Can he finish what he wasn’t able to do two years ago?

* In his 22nd season on the NHRA national circuit, Ron Capps is arguably in the best position he’s ever been in to win his first Funny Car championship. Capps has four wins this season and remains atop the Funny Car standings after Carolina. Defending champ Del Worsham is second (-42), while Force is third (-50). Can Capps finally put it all together this year to win that elusive first title?

* Alexis DeJoria is close to being fully healed from the fractured pelvis she suffered in a wreck at Sonoma. While DeJoria is 10th in the Countdown in the Funny Car class, 158 points behind Capps, strong runs at Gateway and next week at Maple Grove Raceway could potentially put her right back in the game for championship contention. Don’t sell DeJoria short. With Kalitta Motorsports backing, she still has the potential to become one of the biggest surprises of the Countdown in Funny Car. The question is, will she?

* Even though he failed to qualify for the Countdown, former two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon looked very strong at Carolina. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, could Pedregon become the biggest spoiler in Funny Car in the Countdown?

* In Pro Stock, teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson have combined for 15 wins in the first 19 races. It’s going to be hard for another driver to challenge their supremacy, but because the Countdown is essentially a new season, if there’s a class where we could see potential upsets, it’s Pro Stock. Can Line and Anderson hold on to their standings lead and potentially end the season facing each other in the final run of the year for the championship?

* Two-time defending Pro Stock champion Erica Enders got off to the worst start possible in the Countdown, failing to qualify to race in last Sunday’s eliminations at Charlotte. Enders, who has struggled all season, finds herself still in the Countdown, but in 10th place (last) she is also a massive 213 points behind points leader Jason Line. For Enders to have any chance of making it three titles in a row, she essentially is faced with a must-win situation in each of the last five races of the Countdown – and even if she were to win all five, that still may not be enough. Is Enders’ reign as Pro Stock’s best driver at an end?

* Jeg Coughlin also has his work cut out for him in Pro Stock. The former five-time champion lost in the first round at Charlotte and finds himself heading to Gateway this weekend in ninth place, 181 points behind Line. Coughlin has built his career and being a driver who thrives on pressure and coming from behind, but being so many points back and with so few races left, can he mount a comeback that could challenge Line and Anderson?

* In Pro Stock Motorcycle, defending and five-time champion Andrew Hines is off to a good start, coming into this weekend where he’s been much of the season already: No. 1 in the standings. Can Hines keep up his momentum in the remaining five races?

* In what was the biggest upset – and most likely the most pleasant surprise – of the Carolina Nationals, veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Chip Ellis unquestionably pulled off the biggest upset of the day in all four pro classes. Ellis defeated Hines in the final round to capture his seventh career win – but the first since 2008. With the win, Ellis vaulted to second place in the standings, just 44 points behind Hines. Could Ellis be this year’s Cinderella story of the Countdown?

* Veteran rider Steve Johnson missed the Countdown but showed he could be a spoiler during the playoffs, advancing to the semifinals at Carolina before losing to Hines. Could Johnson have a significant impact upon the Countdown and how it plays out if his Suzuki continues running like it did at Charlotte?

NOTES: The NHRA made two announcements Tuesday.

First, Dodge has been named the title rights sponsor of the upcoming third race of the Countdown, at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pennsylvania.

The race will be held Sept. 29-Oct. 2 and will be known as the 32nd annual Dodge NHRA Nationals.

“The Dodge NHRA Nationals in the Keystone state is an integral part of the championship hunt,” said Brad Gerber, NHRA vice president and chief development officer. “We are pleased to have Dodge involved with the event and will build upon their relationships in the sport of NHRA Drag Racing.”

Second, four tracks have joined the NHRA Member Track Network and will all be part of the NHRA’s Southeast Division 2. Those tracks are Orlando Speed World Dragway in Orlando, Fla., Lakeland Drag Strip in Lakeland, Fla., South Georgia Motorsports Park in Cecil, Ga., and Emerald Coast Dragway in Holt, Fla.

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Strong season ending finish, new deal gives Hunter-Reay promising outlook

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Ryan Hunter-Reay will be the first to admit it was a rough 2016 season for himself and his Andretti Autosport team.

For the first time since 2009, he failed to win at least one race in a season (although he did earn three podium finishes).

Even worse, he recorded the second-worst season finish in his Verizon IndyCar Series career, ending in 12th. That’s the lowest showing since he finished 15th, also in 2009, and that year saw him bounce between two teams.

However, all was not gloom and doom: the 2012 series champion ended this season on a high note, finishing fourth in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

“It’s nice to have a decent finish, but if we’re not stepping on top of the podium, we’re not really doing the job,” he said after Sunday’s race. “It’s been a tough season at times, lots of missed opportunities, but we have done the job sometimes and we need to redouble our efforts.”

Hunter-Reay will get plenty of opportunities to redouble his efforts going forward, as he signed a contract extension prior to Sunday’s race. Instead of 2017 being the last year of his current deal, he’ll now be with Andretti Autosport for four more seasons, through 2020.

Primary sponsor DHL, which has graced the side of Hunter-Reay’s race car since 2011 (and has been with the Andretti group since 2005), will also remain with the team for the next four seasons, as well.

“I’m very happy about this, and obviously it’s been a lot of highs and a lot of lows,” Hunter-Reay said. “Just been a wild ride the last week.”

Indeed, it was, one of blissful happiness followed by unspeakable tragedy.

Hunter-Reay’s wife, Beccy, gave birth to their third son on Wednesday, a joyous gift that came two days before Beccy’s birthday.

Sadly, however, less than 24 hours later came news from California that Beccy’s father – off-road racing legend Bob Gordon – and his wife were found dead in what police believe to be a murder-suicide.

“Beccy is doing amazing, she’s strong,” Hunter-Reay said. “Focusing on a new baby has been a blessing at this time. It’s amazing she is, how strong Robby has been, her sisters Robyn and Haylee. It’s blown me away because this is nothing you can compare to, this isn’t as simple as a life passing.”

While the grieving and healing will take a long time, at least Hunter-Reay – who is the most successful active American driver in the IndyCar Series with 16 wins, 36 podiums, a win in the 2014 Indianapolis 500 and the afore-mentioned 2012 championship – knows his racing future is in good shape.

“When it comes to getting in the car and opportunities, I’m a fighter,” he said. “I was on the brink in 2006, 2007.

“(I) was maybe a month away from going and doing something else with my life. Every time I got in the car, I knew I had to prove myself immediately. It was never a two-year deal where I could take my time developing.”

So, while he struggled for much of this season, Hunter-Reay came up a winner nonetheless Sunday. It may not show up in this year’s standings, but he’ll now have plenty of time to get back to his old form.

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No matter where he’ll be next season, Juan Pablo Montoya went out strong in 2016

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After a great season in 2015, earning two wins and five podiums, as well as leading the standings the entire campaign until Scott Dixon won the season finale and championship, Juan Pablo Montoya was hoping for more of the same in 2016.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way, as the Colombian driver finished tied for eighth with Charlie Kimball in this year’s final standings. He won just one race and reached the podium just three times.

But at least the third podium came in Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

Even with all the struggles Montoya and his team had this season, if he couldn’t go out a winner, he wanted to go out as strong as he could.

And indeed he did so with his third-place finish in Sunday’s event, tying his second-best finish of the year (was also third at Belle Isle 1) after his win in the season opener at St. Petersburg.

“The first part of the season was really good and then we just couldn’t get a break,” Montoya said after Sunday’s race. “Every time we ran good, we’d go for a long run and the caution would come out, or the engine would break or I’d make a couple mistakes or we’d fumble in the pits. We win together and we’re in this together.”

Montoya ended up with Sunday’s top-3, as well as two other top-10s in his final four races of 2016, which certainly lends itself towards optimism going forward.

Now, Montoya – who turns 41 on Tuesday – puts 2016 in his rearview mirror and plans for 2017. The biggest question is where he’ll wind up.

Numerous reports have him leaving Team Penske, with several fellow IndyCar teams reportedly interested in acquiring his services.

Other reports have Montoya remaining with Team Penske in the IndyCar Series, or potentially shifting to a full-time ride for team owner Roger Penske in the sports car world – if Penske was to restart a program. Team Penske has not been active full-time in sports car racing since 2008, with the Porsche RS Spyder LMP2 program.

When asked after Sunday’s race whether he had raced his last IndyCar event under the Penske banner, Montoya was coy in his response.

“I don’t know,” he said with a feigned expression of surprise on his face. “Our hum by Verizon car today was pretty good. We got a podium and a good finish and we’ll see.

“Next year, I don’t know. There’s still a possibility to be here. I really want to be in IndyCar and we’ll see what happens.”

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Indy 500 win, Rookie of the Year — so what’s next for Alexander Rossi?

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While he’ll never forget winning the milestone 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma will be almost as much of an accomplishment for Alexander Rossi.

Rossi, who was named the Verizon IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year, will point to his fifth-place finish at Sonoma as the kind of showing he had hoped to see more of this past season.

His Sonoma finish was Rossi’s second-best of the season. It also capped off a late-season run that included finishes of 11th at Texas, eighth at Watkins Glen and the top-5 effort at Sonoma.

As a result, he finished 11th in the season standings, although several spots fewer than was possible because he ran out of fuel on the final lap and coasted across the line a spot lower than planned.

While some first-year drivers would consider such a finish a success racing against the top IndyCar drivers in the world, Rossi looked at it in somewhat of a bittersweet fashion.

“My expectations were higher than that, that’s for sure,” Rossi told NBCSN after the race. “But if you look at where we came from at St. Pete, the whole Andretti Autosport team, we made big steps forward.

“This is our best result since the 500. … At the end of the day, it was a strong result. It was great for the final race. … There’s still areas we need to work on, I’m sure.”

Now comes planning for next season – and whether Rossi will stick around to help work on those same areas that need improvement.

While Rossi had been expected to return to the Andretti fold in 2017 as part of the alliance with Bryan Herta, Mike Curb and Cary Agajanian, reports in Sonoma this past weekend could potentially have him racing elsewhere next season.

One of the biggest rumors is that he may potentially move to Team Penske – even though Josef Newgarden is also rumored to be heading there. But Roger Penske said in a media availability Saturday nothing is set yet.

When asked by NBCSN after Sunday’s race whether team owner Roger Penske indeed wants his driving services for next season, Rossi surprised a bit with his answer.

“That’d be nice,” he said.

So what does his future hold for him?

“We’re just trying to do the best job we can and wake up each day and do my best,” Rossi said. “Sometimes it’s not good enough and other times I come away fairly satisfied.

“We’ll have to look at where the future takes us.”

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