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.
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.”