CHAMPCAR/CART: Bettenhausen, McElreath families face tragedy again

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2000 -- Tragedy has struck two prominent Indianapolis 500 racing families once again. Tony Bettenhausen Jr. and his wife, Shirley, were killed Feb. 14 when their twin-engine Beechcraft Baron...

INDIANAPOLIS, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2000 -- Tragedy has struck two prominent Indianapolis 500 racing families once again. Tony Bettenhausen Jr. and his wife, Shirley, were killed Feb. 14 when their twin-engine Beechcraft Baron airplane plunged into a field near Leesburg, Ky. The Bettenhausens were returning from CART's spring-training session at Homestead, Fla. Tony Bettenhausen was 48; his wife 47. Also killed were fellow passengers Russ Roberts, central Indiana food market chain president and minority partner in Bettenhausen Motorsports, and Larry Rangel, Mexican restaurant owner and Bettenhausen's golfing friend. Bettenhausen was the son of Melvin "Tony" Bettenhausen Sr., who made 14 starts in the Indianapolis 500. Tony Bettenhausen Jr.'s older brother, Gary, made 21 starts in the 500. Shirley Bettenhausen's father, Jim McElreath, started 15 times in the 500. The deaths of the Bettenhausens were latest in a string of calamities that have touched both families over the years. Despite traumas that included the death of his father and severe injuries to his brothers, young Tony followed in their racing footsteps. Shirley Bettenhausen saw her brother, James, killed in a racing accident. She and Tony met when they were children, began dating in 1977 and were married in 1978. They were parents of two daughters, Bryn, 18, and Taryn, 13. "On behalf of the Hulman George family and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway staff, I want to extend our heartfelt sympathy to the Bettenhausen family and to the families of the others who died in this terrible accident," Speedway President Tony George said. "The tragic loss of Tony and Shirley leaves a tremendous void in the racing fraternity. All of us share in the grief of the families, and we will keep them in our prayers." Tony Bettenhausen, youngest of three racing brothers, was last of the clan still involved in the sport on a full-time basis. He has been a car owner in the CART series in recent years and was scheduled to campaign Mexican driver Michel Jourdain Jr. this season. Shirley Bettenhausen helped with the business and was heavily involved with Championship Auto Racing Auxiliary's (CARA) charitable activities. Tony and Shirley also participated in school events in their northwest side Indianapolis neighborhood. The Bettenhausen legacy started with the father, who made his first appearance at Indy in 1946. The Illinois native earned the nickname of the "Tinley Park Express" for his driving skills, but he was never able to win the big one at Indy. His best finish in 14 races was a second in 1955. On May 12, 1961, he took a friend's car out for a test drive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He was killed when something broke, and the car swerved into the fence on the main straightaway. The younger Tony was 9 years old. Oldest brother Gary picked up the racing gauntlet and qualified for the first of 21 starts at Indy in 1968. By the early 1970's he was one of the premier drivers and driving for the best car owner, Roger Penske. In 1972, he was charging toward the checkered flag that his father never got when the ignition quit on his car 18 laps from the finish. Middle brother Merle passed his rookie test at Indy that same year. But his career at the top was short-lived. A few weeks later at Michigan Speedway, in his Indy-car racing debut, he crashed on the opening lap and lost his arm trying hurriedly to escape his burning car. He drove in the midgets the following summer with the aid of a steering-wheel device improvised by his brother Gary. Gary suffered a serious arm injury on July 4, 1974. Resisting Penske's request to quit driving dirt cars, Bettenhausen went to the Syracuse, N.Y., dirt track for a USAC race. In practice, his car caught a rut and began flipping. The nerves in his left shoulder were damaged. Despite this injury, he returned in January to win two indoor midget features at the Fort Wayne, Ind., Coliseum driving virtually one-handed. He returned to racing at Indy and picked up a third in 1980 and a fifth as late as 1987. By the 1980s the third Bettenhausen brother - Tony - was coming up to Indy cars after making his debut and doing well in NASCAR, competing in one Daytona 500. Tony joined Gary in the Indianapolis 500 in 1981 and raced from 16th to seventh. He got no closer than eighth in his next 10 starts at Indy. Only once - 1986 - did he drive a full season as he struggled to find sponsorship. For some reason, the Michigan track where his brother Merle was injured seemed to be Tony's best. In nine Michigan 500's he had a second - behind Pancho Carter in the inaugural event in 1981 - two fourths, a fifth and two ninths. Bettenhausen formed his team in 1986, getting numerous people to become small investors in his operation. Only his determination to succeed kept him going through some lean years. He didn't even qualify at Indy in 1989. The 1990's provided an upswing in his fortunes. He got some solid sponsorship, built a first-class racing shop and eventually added Swedish driver Stefan Johansson to his racing stable. Later, Helio Castro-Neves nearly won a race for him at Long Beach as a rookie. Meanwhile, Gary continued to drive. In 1991, 30 years to the day of the death of their father, Gary returned to the Speedway on a Sunday after rain had delayed his qualifying attempt on Pole Day and recorded fast speed of 224.468 mph. It probably was one of the most emotional and happiest days the Bettenhausens ever experienced. Tony planned to top that in 1994 when he entered Gary in his second car. It would be the first time one Bettenhausen drove for another. "I can tell you right now our dad is looking down and smiling," Gary said at the time. It never happened. Practicing on the morning of the second qualifying Saturday, Gary crashed in Turn 2. It marked the end of active driving careers at Indy for both Tony and Gary. Tony continued on in the sport as an owner in the CART series. His business expanded from a one-car garage to a 45-employee, multimillion-dollar operation. A pleasant but hard-nosed businessman, he had succeeded in a sport that can place incredible financial demands on a team. Gary continues to live on his farm near Monrovia, Ind. Last May he was hired by TeamXtreme to help rookie John Hollansworth Jr. make the Indianapolis 500. McElreath was a quiet Texan who first drove at Indy in 1962. He started with a pair of sixth-place finishes and later added a third, two fifths and another sixth in 15 races. Driving for A.J. Foyt, he also won the first Ontario 500. McElreath's son, James, was the light of his eye. In 1977 it appeared he and James would become the first father and son to drive in the same 500. Then James injured his hand unloading his car from the trailer and had to pass on qualifying. In September of that year, young McElreath was killed while racing a sprint car at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway. The senior McElreath returned to the 500 a few more times, but his heart no longer was in it. His wife, Shirley, suffered a massive stroke in recent years. He has brought her to a couple of the Indy Racing League races at Texas Motor Speedway. Tony Bettenhausen was born Oct. 20, 1951, in Joliet, Ill. Shirley Bettenhausen was born July 12, 1952, in Arlington, Tex. Survivors include the children, Tony's mother, Mrs. Valerie Stephan, and brothers Gary and Merle, and Shirley's parents, Jim and Shirley McElreath. Services are pending for the Bettenhausens at Conkle Funeral Home in Indianapolis. The address is 4925 W. 16th St., Indianapolis, IN 46224.


Be part of something big

Write a comment
Show comments
About this article
Series IndyCar
Drivers Stefan Johansson , Tony George , Jim McElreath , Pancho Carter , Roger Penske , Tony Bettenhausen , A.J. Foyt , Michel Jourdain