Indianapolis 500 veteran Gary Bettenhausen passes away at 72

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Indianapolis 500 veteran and a member of one of open-wheel racing’s most legendary families, Gary Bettenhausen has passed away at age 72.

News of the passing began to spread late Sunday night, via Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network announcer and Indy Lights NBCSN pit reporter Jake Query, via Rockingham Speedway track president Andy Hillenburg, and MRN Radio’s Winged Nation show among other sources.

Bettenhausen was son of Tony Bettenhausen, a 14-time ‘500 starter whose best finish was second in 1955, and brother of the late Tony Bettenhausen Jr., and Merle Bettenhusen.

Gary’s final start in American open-wheel racing came at the 1996 U.S. 500, driving a several-year-old Penske chassis for brother Tony Jr. in what CART planned as a rival race to the Indianapolis 500.

But in Gary’s Indianapolis 500 career, he started 21 times between 1968 and 1993 and often overachieved in less than top machinery.

His best result came in 1980 when he finished third, but his best drive occurred in 1972, after leading 138 laps and suffering a late-race mechanical failure. As recently as 1991 he was the fastest qualifier, driving one of John Menard’s Lola-Buicks.

Bettenhausen, one of the best on dirt, came up on the short tracks of the Midwest and was a multi-time sprint car and dirt track champion. He made several NASCAR starts as well.

He was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1993, and the National Midget Auto Racing Hall of Fame five years later.

Hillenburg, who made a solitary Indianapolis 500 start in 2000 and also was a veteran NASCAR racer prior to his track ownership career, offered the first brief tribute.

On Monday morning, IMS offered a statement, via track president J. Douglas Boles:

“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.”

We express our condolences.