Wednesday, May 18, 2011

RETRO: Bettenhausen’s “N Vukovich’s – Unsung Heroes...

So I first thought ‘bout scribblin’ this way back when I published my riveting interview with ‘Ol Indy Car Curmudgeon Robin Miller; some two-plus years ago – who told me he has lunch with a bunch of the Old timers... Like “Gordy” (Gordon Johncock) and “Vuky,” (Bill vukovich II) although I’m not sure I’d wanna be known as part ‘O Millers ‘RatPack, eh? Hya!

So I Never saw the family Patriarch Tony Sr. race – but gleaned a ‘Wee bit ‘bout him during my Stillborn interview for the Blue Crown Spark Plug Saga story. (Which is still awaiting to have pictures re-inserted after turned them into Broken Images...) Which is perhaps why I pondered acquiring a 1/18 Carousel tony Bettenhausen Watson Roadster, although I’m not usually enamoured by the front wheel Roadsters... Having scribbled the following previously way back in ’08 in a three part harmony titled: Brothers in Arms;

BETTENHAUSEN; Gary, Merle and Tony Jr.
This truly has to be one of the most ill-fated families in Open Wheel Racing, as first father Tony Sr. perished and subsequently Merle had a horrible accident, followed by Gary’s accident. And ultimately Tony Jr’s death, while Tony Sr. raced pre and post WWII, winning the National Championship twice, along with 21 wins before perishing at the Speedway in 1961 while testing a friend’s racecar.

Gary, the eldest of the three Bettenhausen brothers, was 19, with Merle 17 and Tony Lee 9 when their father died in a horrific accident that fateful day in May 1961, yet Gary would go on to race at Indianapolis a total of 21 times, earning his Rookie Stripes in 1968, with a best finish of third place in 1980.

Gary briefly drove for The Captain, (1972-74) and while driving for Roger Penske immediately retired from the 1972 USAC Championship Car event at Michigan International Speedway (MIS) where his brother Merle was making his paved racing debut and would be seriously injured in a Kingfish, (McLaren knock off) losing his right arm in a violent accident on lap three, effectively ending his Indy Car career, although Merle would continue to drive Midgets.

The following year, Gary broke his arm in a Sprint Car race following Indy and Roger Penske offered the drive to some chap named David Hobbs, but the Englishman was unable to accept due to sponsorship conflicts and ironically, 1972 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Mike Hiss would fill-in for Gary, as it had been Hiss who had collided with Merle at MIS the previous year.

Tom Sneva; “The Gasman,” a fellow Dirt Tracker himself, was hired as Gary’s replacement at Penske Racing for the 1975 season after The Captain had grown tired of Gary being constantly injured in what Roger deemed unneeded Dirt Car accidents, as Gary would suffer severe nerve damage to his arm in one of these Dirt Track events.

Gary’s Brother Tony made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 1981 and would finish seventh, his best finish of his eleven starts at the Speedway. Tony started his own CART team in the early 1990’s with ex-Formula 1 piloto “Stevie Johnson,” a.k.a. Stefan Johansson being his first hired gun from 1992-96, as the team would primarily campaign year old Penske equipment. Other such notable drivers as Helio Castroneves and Patrick Carpentier would drive for the AMAX/Alumax sponsored team, with Gary and Tony last competing at Indy together in 1993.

After a very tough 1999 season, the team took on Michele Jourdain Jr. and his Herdez sponsorship for the upcoming campaign, yet sadly, Tony, along with his wife and two business associates would perish in a small plane crash enroute to CART’s spring practice at Homestead, Miami on Valentine’s Day, 2000.

And somewhat Karmically, I’ve since learned that Tony B Jr’s Shop – ironically became the O’Brien Carpets store – which sadly is now out of business, due to that ‘lil ‘Ol economy thingy...

And I know even less ‘bout the Vukovich clan, albeit the tiny tidbit that when I think of the word Vukovich I immediately think of the 1955 Indianapolis 500 in which he lost his life, albeit I’m also aware that he was in search of a ‘ThreePeat that year – having won the previous two years 500’s. (1953-54) Thus I had to laugh at myself – having just learned recently via Geo Phillips two part harmony, Err story incidentally titled vukovich Part I & Part  II...

Oil Pressure: Vukovich Part I

That obviously Vukovich Sr. didn’t take kindly to being called the “Mad Russian.” Thus, alas - like the Bettenhausen’s, the Vukovich’s suffered a similar fate... As I was totally unaware that Billy Vukovich III was killed racing a Midget Dirt Car... Which seems even more ironic – perhaps it’s the Karmic-whip smacking me upside the head, eh? You see – I’d just done my interview with Paul Diatlovich – who ran Vuky III to Rookie Of the Year honours a scant 23-years ago upon resuming penning of said story; Aye Karumba!

And although they’re not related – why do I get an ominous feeling when I think of how the late Al Holbert’s death mimics Tony Junior’s...

Father - Tony Bettenhausen Sr.: 1916-61

Gary; 11/18/41 - present
Merle; 6/9/43 - present
Tony Jr. 10/20/51-2/14/2000
Father - Bill vukovich: 1918-55
Son: Bill vukovich II; 3/29/44 - present
Grandson: Billy vukovich III: 8/31/63-11/25/90