When you're going really fast, your whole body changes to adapt to the speed. I mean, not only do your reflexes adjust to it, and your eyesight, but like even your hair and your beard and your fingernails grow faster." Gary Bettenhausen speaking. It is the morning after he qualified for this year's Indianapolis 500 with a four-lap run of nearly 189 mph, second on that windy, rain-fraught day only to Bobby Unser's phenomenal 195.937 average. Berobed and unshaven, Gary is relaxing over a cup of black coffee and hard-rock music in his house trailer on the outskirts of Nap Town. He rubs the carroty stubble on his chin and continues his dissertation on the tonsorial perils of high-speed motor racing.
"I mean, now just look at my beard this morning. I haven't shaved since before I went out to qualify yesterday afternoon. Usually, when I'm not racing I only have to shave every other day. Here at Indy where we're running fast nearly every day for a full month—what with testing and practice and qualifying and then the race itself—why, I have to shave twice a day if I don't want to look like a hobo."
Gary's flat green eyes are dead serious under his bristling eyebrows. Hey! Wait a minute! What about those eyebrows? Suddenly it all begins to make sense: the new shaggy look among race drivers is the simple result of the new high speeds they are attaining. Jackie Stewart's shoulder-length hairdo is not motivated by any mundane desire to appear "mod," but rather the product of all that superfast driving.
And what about Mark Donohue, Gary's senior partner on the Penske Racing Team? Up until last year, when Mark first started driving the new, quick McLaren M16 championship car, his dome resembled the proverbial peach—a living, moving memorial to the late, great crew cut. Now Mark's hair is markedly longer; perhaps that worried look he always wears has more to do with barber appointments than blown engines. Even Team Manager Roger Penske, usually the ne plus ultra of Ivy League-influence good grooming, comes on cranially like an understudy for the road company of Hair! "I'm turning into a hippie," moaned Roger at trackside last week, his graying sideburns flapping in the wake of Donohue's passing McLaren. Penske himself no longer drives, but few team managers identify as strongly with cars at speed as Roger.
"When Roger asked me to drive for him, you could have knocked me over with a feather," continued Bettenhausen in a more serious vein. It was certainly the big break in Gary's 10-year USAC career, although he just as certainly brought to it an impressive set of credentials. Young Bettenhausen began racing modified Go-Karts at the age of 19, the year his father Tony had died in an over-the-wall crash at Indy. "I'd always wanted to go racing," Gary recalls, "but my dad was neutral on the subject. He took me with him to the races, because he felt that if I insisted on racing he wanted me to know what it was really like. He didn't want me to have any romantic, Hollywood-hokum idealism about it."
Ironically, Tony Bettenhausen died while testing a friend's car after turning the fastest practice lap in his own machine for the 1961 Indy 500. Tony, who was then 44, had promised never to drive a car that he himself had no stake in—a driver's luck wears thinner with each race, just as his reflexes erode with each passing year—but the friend was Paul Russo, who had helped Tony build a silo on his farm the previous winter, during miserable weather. The fatal ride was part of a friendship bond: an act of idealism in the old Hollywood tradition.
"Nowadays a lot of kids reject their father's way of life, but that's plain stupid," says Gary, who is now 30 and has three sons of his own. "If you're proud of your father, you want to do what he did." In 1963, after two seasons in the Go-Karts, Gary and some friends built a Dodge for him to race on the USAC stock-car circuit. In his best showing, in Indianapolis significantly enough, Bettenhausen finished second to A.J. Foyt and was later named Rookie of the Year in the stock-car division.
From there, Gary moved up through the traditional USAC apprenticeship: midgets, sprint cars and dirt cars, spending three years on the gritty little ovals, racing for small purses under glaring lights through the freeway traffic of night competition, before graduating to the "big cars" in 1966. But Bettenhausen still races the small stuff—he was USAC's Sprint Car champion in 1969 and 1971—because he feels that they get him in shape for the big-money races. "It keeps you sharp, it keeps you out of the rut," he says. "When you're running wheel to wheel under the lights with the dirt from the cars ahead splattering off your windshield, you learn a lot about how to go through traffic. And shucks, it's not that dangerous. In the four years I've been running sprints, I haven't seen anyone die."
Last year Gary drove in 60 races, embracing all five of USAC's competitive divisions: stock, midget, sprint, dirt and championship, winning money and points in each. His earnings for the season: $129,433. The practice, if such it was, certainly has paid off this season. Already in 1972 he has won a midget race at San Jose, the sprint-car Penn Nationals at Harrisburg and a repeat victory in the Astro Grand Prix under the Houston Astrodome. Driving Penske's McLaren in big-car competition, he placed fourth in the season opener at Phoenix and then inherited victory in the Trenton 200 when Bobby Unser and Mark Donohue, in faster cars, broke down during the early going. Still, Bettenhausen's winning speed at Trenton—146.211 mph—was nearly seven mph better than the existing record, and by winning he became the first son of a former USAC national champion to win at the tough Trenton course. That means something special when you consider that Gary's best friend is Billy Vukovich, son of another dead racing father who won Indy twice (1953 and 1954) while two-time national champion Tony Bettenhausen never won the big race.
"Billy's my best buddy," maintains Gary stoutly. "We used to knock around the circuit together as kids when our fathers were alive. We like to go fishing together. Of course, we're different in some ways. I'm a baseball nut—I used to play in the Pony League up in Tinley Park, Ill., where I live when I'm not racing, and I guess if I weren't a driver I'd like to have been a major league ballplayer. A pitcher. I was throwing to one of my mechanics, Blaine Ferguson, back there in the pits the other day and I gave him a knuckleball he couldn't handle. It took him on the kneecap. On the other hand, Billy's a golf nut—he's seriously planning to win the driver's match they have here every year after the last weekend of qualifying. He shoots 80, 84, like that, for 18 holes. I've played golf about five times in my life, and the other day when Billy and I were out practicing I shot 65 for nine holes."