When you send Tony Bettenhausen in to a race," the man had said, "it is like unleashing a tiger."
He was an aging tiger now, as he sat waiting last week, beneath a shamefully overcast Phoenix sky, for the race that would decide whether he would be the national champion driver for the second time. Seven years had gone by since he had won the first title. At 42 he had driven nearly 4,000 miles in competition at the Indianapolis Speedway—a record for current drivers—yet had never won the "500." He had endured the nicknames "Flip" and "Cementhead" for an early wildness and the phrase "wild man" followed him everywhere even after he stopped regularly getting upside down.
He looked small—smaller than 5 feet 8½ inches and 165 pounds would indicate—and the only thing remarkable about his appearance was the startling patch of dark blue in his left eye in contrast with the light blue of the rest of the iris and of the right eye.
He talked not so much of racing sacrifices and racing triumphs—oh, he did mention the bad burns, and broken bones and the lost teeth, and he left no doubt of the sweetness of that championship in 1951—as he did of home, a haven from the bruises of competition. Home was the 60 acres near Tinley Park, Ill. that his father had farmed before him. No soybean farmer in Cook County had a hotter pair of tractors than Bettenhausen's souped-up models; he was never a man to take the slower way if given a faster alternative.
Two men at Phoenix had a chance to take the 1958 championship from Bettenhausen: George Amick, 34, the salty little Californian who drove marvelously in the "500" as a rookie last May and finished second; and Johnny Thomson, 36, the red-haired Pennsylvanian who had won four of the last eight races of the season and was the hottest driver around.
Bettenhausen had 1,670 points, Amick 1,640 and Thomson 1,520—a very close situation between the first two and only a meager hope for Thomson. Although consistently well placed, neither Bettenhausen nor Amick had won any of the 12 previous races counting toward the title.
Tiger won easily over nostalgic farmer as Bettenhausen hurled a 380-hp Offenhauser—admirably tuned as usual by Owner John Zink's old pros—into the first turn of the one-mile dirt track. Once again there was that noisy spectacle: 18 big track cars sliding at close quarters into the first turn of a 100-mile race, drivers goggled and here and there masked against spraying dirt, making decisions on which life and death hung by intuition and muscle memory.
The little tiger with the startling eyes was third into the south turn at the end of the homestretch after the first lap but first, by thunder, the next time around, and you could not have bribed him from that cockpit with all the soybeans in Illinois. He was accelerating to 138 mph on the straightaways and braking so hard at the last moment before entering the turns that the car shuddered and bucked. Now the big Texas-bred Floridian, Jud Larson, was charging, making Bettenhausen drive all he knew, and not far behind, Thomson and the devil-may-care Pennsylvanian, Eddie Sachs, were working diligently toward the leaders.
Larson, biting a white handkerchief to force himself to keep his mouth closed against the dust, caught Bettenhausen on the 32nd lap and moved ahead—Bettenhausen losing and regaining crucial seconds as he pursued; Sachs's red car crabbing through the turns with what seemed like smoothness when contrasted with the spectacular slides of Thomson's yellow one, from which he could not get free; Amick making good his glum prediction that his car would not handle well as he slipped back and back.
The fury of their duel carried Sachs and Thomson up to and past Bettenhausen, who was bothered by a mist of oil on his goggles. Then, on the 72nd and 73rd laps, came episodes of rare excitement as Sachs, Thomson and Bettenhausen swept through the south turn all abreast. It seemed implausible that only 8,957 spectators had come to look at racing which could offer such moments.
Sachs soon dropped from contention as he glanced off a steel guardrail and did a quarter spin before recovering, and Thomson, with only 11 laps to go, had the miserable luck to lose oil pressure and have to drop out, sensing that his engine was seizing up. Larson moved comfortably out ahead of Bettenhausen—a few seconds but enough—and was three seconds ahead at the end. It was Larson's race (his average speed a record 92.738 mph) but Tony Bettenhausen's year. The weary old driver's voice broke as he acknowledged the championship; he was a very happy tiger.
SEASON'S TOP 10 DRIVERS
1. Tony Bettenhausen, Tinley Park, Ill.
2. George Amick, Venice, Calif.
3. Johnny Thomson, Boyertown, Pa.
4. Jud Larson, Tampa
5. Rodger Ward, Los Angeles
6. Jimmy Bryan, Phoenix, Ariz.
7. Eddie Sachs, Center Valley, Pa.
8. Don Branson, Urbana, Ill.
9. Johnny Boyd, Fresno, Calif.
10. A. J. Foyt, Houston