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Past Indy 500 top rookie Jim McElreath dies at 89

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The 1962 Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year, Jim McElreath, has died at age 89. The full release is from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and is linked below:

Auto Racing Hall of Fame inductee Jim McElreath, the 1962 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and a veteran of 15 starts in the “500” between 1962 and 1980, passed away Thursday, May 18 in his hometown of Arlington, Texas. He was 89.

One of the last eight surviving drivers who could claim to have driven a front-engined car in the “500,” McElreath was 34 years old and had been racing on short tracks for 16 years when he burst on the scene at Indianapolis in 1962.

Driving a 6-year-old Kurtis-Kraft Offenhauser-powered “roadster,” once owned and driven by Ray Crawford, McElreath qualified seventh and went on to cause quite a stir by passing A.J. Foyt and Rodger Ward in the early stages to run second by Lap 20. He ended up finishing sixth, many observers suggesting he was hampered by pit stops that were performed less rapidly than those by the contestants ahead of him.

McElreath eventually scored a half-dozen finishes of sixth or higher in the “500,” topped by a third-place finish in 1966 behind Grand Prix drivers Graham Hill and Jim Clark. He finished fifth in 1967 and 1970, and sixth in 1962, 1963 and 1974.

McElreath won a total of five United States Auto Club National Championship races, most notably the inaugural Ontario (California) 500 in 1970 after a late-race, topsy-turvy duel with Art Pollard. He also won the Phoenix 150, which opened the 1966 season, after posting three wins in 1965, at Trenton, New Jersey in April and the first two races at the Langhorne, Pennsylvania, circuit after its dirt surface was paved over with asphalt.

A steady and reliable finisher, McElreath piled up enough points to rank second behind Mario Andretti in the 1966 USAC National Championship standings while also finishing third in 1963, 1965 and 1970. He started 167 National Championship events between 1961 and 1980 and finished in the top five 47 times.

In 1971, the first year in which dirt track races no longer counted towards the USAC National Championship and instead were moved to form a brand-new series, McElreath won the inaugural event, a 100-miler at Nazareth, Pennsylvania, when it was still a 1 1/8th-mile dirt track.

A pure racer who did much of his mechanical work on the dirt cars and sprint cars he drove, McElreath made history in 1977 by being joined by his son James to become the first father and son ever to attempt to qualify for the same Indianapolis 500. Jimmy, as he preferred to be called, succeeded, but the spirited last-minute, four-lap qualifying run by young James came up just a little short.

Sadly, young James lost his life in a sprint car accident before the season could be completed, perishing in early October at Winchester, Indiana.

Two great racing families came together when Jimmy and Shirley McElreath’s daughter, also Shirley, married Tony Bettenhausen, son of the late two-time National Champion and younger brother of Gary and Merle. Jimmy even named Tony as his chief mechanic in 1979, just as Tony was about to embark upon his Indianapolis 500 driving career.

But further tragedy struck the families Feb. 14, 2000 – several years after Tony had retired as a driver to become a noted team owner – when Tony and Shirley were among those lost when their private aircraft went down near Leesburg, Kentucky.

McElreath is survived by his wife, Shirley; daughter, Vicky Thornton; granddaughters Bryn and Taryn Bettenhausen; and great granddaughter, Kendyl Bettenhausen. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to Speedway Children’s Charities Texas in honor of McElreath. Checks can be sent to Speedway Children’s Charities Texas, 3545 Lone Star Circle, Fort Worth, TX 76177.

Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”