IRL: Focus on a small team. Part 3: The Mentor

IRL: Focus on a small team. Part 3: The Mentor by Ken Plotkin Motorsport News International On Carburetion Day before this year's Indianapolis 500, MNI had the opportunity to speak at length with LP Racing's team manager Larry Nash, driver...

IRL: Focus on a small team. Part 3: The Mentor

by Ken Plotkin Motorsport News International

On Carburetion Day before this year's Indianapolis 500, MNI had the opportunity to speak at length with LP Racing's team manager Larry Nash, driver Sam Schmidt, and mentor Gary Bettenhausen. Parts 1 and 2 focused on Larry Nash and Sam Schmidt, and can be found on MNI's web site at

<A href=http://www.motorsport.com/Issues/16915.html>Larry Nash Story</A> <A href=http://www.motorsport.com/Issues/17001.html>Sam Schmidt Story</A>

In this third, and final, article in the series, we recount our conversation with Gary Bettenhausen.

Gary Bettenhausen. A man who carries more history and tradition than you can imagine. He was the last man to take his Indianapolis 500 rookie test in an upright dirt car. He passed. Then, when he got a ride in a rear engine car, they made him take it all over again in one of those. He's the son of Tony Bettenhausen, one of the men who should have won the 500. Gary should also have won it himself. He ran 21 races at the Brickyard, and came so close to winning.

Those 21 years of experience at Indianapolis aren't just memories stuffed away in a scrapbook. He knows the place. He knows the cars, the track, the attitude. And he knows how to share. This year he was at the speedway to help, serving as mentor to the young drivers on the LP Racing team.

Thursday afternoon before this year's 500, after the final "Carburetion Day" practice, Gary was in LP Racing's Gasoline Alley garage talking about the Speedway and what it takes to run there.

This race, traditionally occupying a month, is different from other races. "Every other event is a three day deal. In the first hour of practice, the good teams will get to within 97% of their potential. The less good get to 92 or 93%. But here, everybody has enough time to get closer to the car's potential."

"In the open test, Menard was already going 222.  This month, all they
got up to was 224.9.  Sam [Schmidt, LP's driver] went from 217 to 221.8
in just a few days.  If he had as much money and engines...."

Noting their final qualfying times (220.386 vs 219.982), Gary observed that "Menard spent millions to beat us by half a mile an hour."

With his job this month to coach a pair of younger drivers, he talked about driving the Speedway. He described it as a constant momentum track. Normally it's driven flat out, and keeping speed up in the corners is important. He said that under those conditions it's easy to tell what a lap speed will be: just look at the speed coming off the corner, and add 2 mph.

But conditions are not always ideal. "Say the wind is blowing down the front straight. It slows you entering 3 and 4, making it easy. Then the wind blows you into 1 and 2. The extra speed makes it a whole different car. You can't make the car correct for that. You need to roll off the throttle just a little. Not a lift - just roll off a little."

When asked how much fear mattered, he replied "It's not fear: it's respect." If you had fear, you had no business being at the Speedway. Gary went on to discount the physical feat of racing at Indy. He said that all you do is sit there and turn left 800 times. He gestured how little the wheel gets turned each of those times. If you were not relaxed and confident, you could make it physical and wear yourself out very quickly. But once you were relaxed, it was all mental. He pointed out that he's had one bad arm since 1974, but it never slowed him down.

He acknowledged that the mental concentration of running at full speed was considerable. "Imagine sitting at a table for three hours threading a needle." Then he grinned and added "..and knowing that if you miss once you're going to see the doctor."

If you were not running at the limit, it was very different. "Go five mph slower and you can eat a hot dog."

With everything so finely tuned and so much of it mental, Gary observed that there were three breeds of men in the field on each race day. "The first will drive from start to finish as hard as possible. The second have cars that are capable of winning, but they'll be satisfied to finish 7th or 8th. The third kind are those out for a Sunday drive."

Preparation is very important at this race. But the biggest factor, he felt, was Lady Luck. "There are more good drivers that have never won this race. My family has never had luck here. All of the luck seems to fall on the Unsers: Al Sr. and Jr. each have lucked into two wins. Look at the Andrettis - only one win among all of them. Lady Luck is the biggest factor in this race."

Gary's talents go beyond driving. He knows the mechanics and the technology as well as any other human. He's worked on and built his own race cars. Gary's career saw him driving a wide variety of race cars and our conversation flowed into a discussion of his Sprint car experiences. In 1969, he finished the season with a win and a second in a pair of 50 lappers on the Syracuse Mile, clinching the USAC Sprint championship for the year. He had an Offenhauser in his car for that race - one of the last of the Offy powered sprinters. Why the Offy? Because it was a tough engine, and he didn't think that his Chevy would last at the necessary pace. So he chose the Offy - and came out on top.

In the mid-1970s, he built a race shop behind his house, and in 1976 he built a low-slung "Roadster" sprint car. Tough car to work on, but it held great promise for asphalt tracks. It didn't work right off the bat. Over the years, he kept working it over, moving the engine back, adding more offset. In 1983, he finally turned it into a winner.

Thinking about that car, and the satisfaction he got developing it, he finished off saying "Building the cars is half the fun. Driving is the easy part."

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Sam Schmidt , Tony Bettenhausen