INDIANAPOLIS, IN, March 18, 2000 - At the Indy 500 Old Timers Bench Racing Weekend March 17 & 18 former driver Merle Bettenhausen was the surprise mystery guest speaker Saturday night. The remarkably trim Bettenhausen delivered a from-the-heart talk without reference to a single note.
For many of those present it was the first time they had heard Merle talk about his July 16, 1972 accident at Michigan which cost him his arm. Merle was talking to his 'family' and must have felt it needed saying after 37 years.
A resident of Wisconsin for most of the years since his accident, Bettenhausen returned quietly to Indianapolis five years ago and works as a manager and trainer for the Ray Skillman dealership in Greenwood, IN. He apologised for not being seen much at the races but explained that working 50-60 hours a week and raising two kids left him with little time for much else.
Merle keeps in close touch with racing through his friends and said, "Trust me, I know what is going on even though you don't see me."
Bettenhausen suddenly found himself thrust smack in the center of racing again when his brother Tony died, along with his wife Shirley and two others, in a private aircraft crash in Kentucky. Merle had been selected as executor, overseer, and custodian of that entire estate which is active and ongoing as a championship racing team and the vibrant lives of two young girls, one in college and one thirteen year old still at home. His grip on that new role seems capable and firm.
Merle described his 1972 accident in chilling detail, saying that Tony's accident and his were similar in that experience was a big factor. If any of the brothers had been in different roles the outcome might have been vastly different. For his role he said that he was using an open faced helmet with a face shield. When his head came down and hit the windshield it popped a rivet holding the faceshield which ripped away. Intense fire descended upon him squarely in the face and his instinctive reaction was to get away from the fire. In extricating himself from that fire while the car was still in motion he never felt the loss of his arm and when he put his arm out to lift himself out he just settled back into the seat.
Merle stated confidently that something good comes out of every adversity and believed that his God saved him for another day of responsibility. It came first in his work for Skillmans in training and motivating employees and now as the sudden recipient of more responsiblity than most people face in a lifetime. He gave every confidence that he is experienced, capable, and prepared to do for his "girls" what needs to be done.
Bettenhausen concluded that "our eyes are in the front to focus on what's ahead, not what's behind." He is now head of Bettenhausen Motorsports but is trustee for his nieces and he will be prioritized in both by what is in the best interest of those girls. He said that one shouldn't have to lose two Tony Bettenhausens in one lifetime but they are moving forward. He said his parents taught him character and although the Bettenhausens had a dream to win the Indy 500 the legacy of character, in the end, is better than winning.
Reported by Len Ashburn Special to motorsport.com