At the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, May is the cruelest month. The long weeks that precede the 500 give birth to a stagnant boredom relieved only occasionally by tension-peaks of excitement. It is a month of impending tragedy and bright balloons. The flat tedium goes on, gasoline fumes mixing with the crisp Midwestern spring, all for Memorial Day, when the heroes emerge. In a sport where fame is etched in quicksilver and death cold-chiseled in granite, the Indianapolis 500 has produced more than its share of legends in its 51-year history, and among the finest were Bill Vukovich, whose glory came in Victory Lane, and Tony Bettenhausen, whose fame was his unceasing quest of a 500 triumph. Both lived for the Speedway and for the hundreds of thousands who gathered to feel and smell 33 angry cars on a tight ribbon of bricks and asphalt, and both died there in character—Vukovich while leading the 500; Bettenhausen while test-driving a car to help a friend.
When the Speedway opens next week, a touch of nostalgia can be excused on the part of those who remember the old names. Gary Bettenhausen, 26, the son of Tony Bettenhausen, and Billy Vukovich Jr., 24, the son of Bill Vukovich, will both be on the line.
It is not easy to follow in the footsteps of a successful and celebrated father, and it is especially difficult and dangerous in auto racing. There are so many who remember, and already Gary and Billy have endured a thousand conversations that begin, "I knew your old man...." There are other young drivers on their way up who may eventually prove to be better—Bruce Walkup and Mike Mosley, for two—and other sons of former Indy drivers such as Johnny Parsons Jr. and Clark Templeman, but for better or worse this is the year when the sons of Tony Bettenhausen and Bill Vukovich are going on trial. This will be their first real shot at the big show, and while nobody expects them to win, or even can say positively that they will make the starting lineup, the ghosts will be there.
Since Bill Sr. and Tony were so close in age—Vukovich was a year older—it is not surprising that the two were good friends. During the month of May, Vukovich often visited the Bettenhausen soybean farm at Tinley Park, Ill. But their personalities were opposites. Vukovich, called The Mad Russian (although in fact he was Slovenian), was curt and iconoclastic when away from his family. Other drivers in the closely knit Indy clan were cool to him, if for no better reason than that after he became a success in the big cars he drove few races besides Indianapolis. Between 500s he returned to his home in Fresno, Calif., operated a service station and trained and pointed for the Brickyard with all the diligence of a prizefighter. In 1952, in only his second 500, he was leading just nine laps from the finish when his steering gave out. The next two years he won handily, and became a racing hero. In 1955 he came back to try for an unprecedented triple and before the race made a remark that has often been repeated: "Anybody can win this race. All these cars turn left. If you turn right, then you're in trouble."
On the 57th lap, after leading 50 of the first 56, he was forced to turn right because of a multiple-car accident ahead. He swerved to avoid the mess and went end over end and over the flimsy guardrail to his death.
Back home in Fresno, Vukovich's only son, Billy Jr., 11 years old, was by the radio listening with his sister to a broadcast of the 500.
Tony Bettenhausen was perhaps the most popular Indy personality of his era. His two nicknames, Flip and Cement-head, were bestowed for obvious reasons—when he came to the Speedway in 1961 he had been upside down in a racer 28 times by his own count. He had never won the 500 (he even took the national driving championship in 1958 without winning a race), but that wasn't from a lack of trying. The 1961 race would have been his 15th.
The day before qualifying, Tony's own car was ready to go. Paul Russo needed some help and asked Tony to take a few laps. He did, and on the main straight a 5� cotter pin in the steering system that had not been properly secured worked loose. The car veered into the outside retaining wall, climbed and sailed 150 yards, landing upside down and burning on the spectator side of the wall. Bettenhausen was killed instantly.
In Tinley Park the phone call came half an hour before Valerie Bettenhausen and her two sons, Gary, then 19, and Merle, 16, were to leave for Indianapolis.
"I'll never forget that day," Gary said. "Dad always checked over his car carefully before he drove, and when he left for Indy, Mom stood in the doorway and said, 'Please promise me you won't get in anybody else's car.' Dad promised, but Paul had helped Dad around the farm the winter before. That's the only reason he jumped in. If he had checked it out, he would have seen the cotter pin hadn't been put in right. It's a wonder the steering didn't fail before it did. Five laps earlier or later and Paul would have been killed."