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."
April 28, 1968
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."
The grandstands at the Rivergrade Speedway near Los Angeles have seats for 4,000, but only about 900 spectators are there, huddled at the end of the bleachers—in the cheap seats—against the slight chill of a late January afternoon. On the half-mile paved track and in the pits a microcosm of Indianapolis activity is taking place. Little Offenhauser 110 racers, cut-down, midget versions of the old cars that once ran at the Brickyard when the Indianapolis Motor Speedway still had bricks, are skittering and darting like waterbugs through an afternoon of time trials, heats and feature racing, broadsliding a little in the middle of turns, left front wheels lifting clear off the ground as they come out of the corners before the brief burst of speed down the short straights.
The show is at once noisily appealing and full of corn, Indianapolis-West corn. Between heats, crews don't swarm over the cars as they do in Gasoline Alley—one or two men have a hard time swarming. The drivers themselves do what has to be done: change a fouled sparkplug or blow out a clogged fuel line or whatever. And when the winner of a 10-lap heat, a whole five miles of racing, receives his trophy, the announcer says, "He's a hot driver, folks. Let's see how he kisses the queen." And a few minutes later: "Roger Smith, please call home. Your mother can't find the beer opener and, boy, is she mad."
But this is a very serious minor league for the big show—the Championship Trail and the Indianapolis 500—as are places like El Cajon, Du Quoin, Columbus and many other tracks. All the top U.S. Indy drivers went through this in the early days of their careers, and everybody who wants to make it big goes through it now.
Gold-leaf, dark blue No. 99. The driver has hazel eyes and red hair tending to curl, wears a red bandanna over his mouth and freckled nose, and he looks hard at a plastic-strip sign he has plastered on the dashboard next to the water temperature, oil pressure and tach dials. It Says, LET IT ALL HANG OUT—BUT KEEP IT ON ITS WHEELS. Gary Bettenhausen.
Just behind him on this lap but ahead of him on the next is a canary-yellow car, No. 8. The driver has intense, narrow eyes and a dark angular face and he sits straight up, back straight, arms straight, wearing a black nylon jacket that is zipped tight to the neck. Billy Vukovich Jr.
After the race, in which Vukovich was second and Bettenhausen was fourth, they kid each other with thrusts like: "You sure were slow today. Must not have taken any brave pills."
"You know how people identify with cars," Vukovich says. "I just bought me a Dodge Charger 'cause I'm a charger."
Bettenhausen answers, "There's only one guy that charges more, and that's me."
Gary sits, very intense, in a bar in Redondo Beach, Calif. and sips on a beer. Phil Martinez, who is called the Wetback, is at the same table. He has been around and remembers the old names.
Gary: "If I get to be the greatest driver in the world, I won't stop racing. I'll never stop. How do you think my old man would have looked in a rocking chair?"
The Wetback: "I think Tony would have looked pretty damned good. He would have made a fine grandfather."
Gary: "Don't get me wrong. I wish he were here, today, now, but when he died he was the happiest man alive. He was doing what he wanted to do.
"People think that because I'm Tony's son and Billy is Bill's son we've got to have racing in our blood. Thai's bull. They're not in the cars; we are. It's not any easier being the son of Tony Bettenhausen; if anything it's harder, because everybody automatically thinks you've got to be good. I don't mind my father being brought up to me. Billy hates it, but I don't have that much pride yet. I shouldn't tell you this, but last week there was a reporter that wanted to talk to Billy and me. I went up to Billy and said, 'Are you ready to go see him?' He said, 'I'm not going, because all he'll want to talk about is my old man.' I told him, 'Billy, you're not worth a pimple on your old man's backside yet.' He went in."
Later Billy Vukovich says: "I've found myself being rude and polite to the same people. They ask the same questions—Why did I get into this game? Am I a better driver than my father? Am I afraid? Well, I've heard them so many times, but I really haven't thought of a good answer. I think I understand why they ask. After all, my father was a great driver. I had a lot of respect for him. I was proud of his achievements, and I still am. But sometimes I want to get up and scream—shout—exactly what I feel. Then I remember the people who are asking me those questions want to be friendly. I dunno. I'd prefer not even talking about it.
"I know when I get to Indianapolis I'll be asked about my father. I'm nervous about it. People bother me anyway. I don't like strangers. I'll be talking to a guy, some race fan, and then I'll decide that's enough and I'll say, 'Gotta go, see you later.' That's the way I am."
It's a long way from Rivergrade, or anywhere else the midgets are racing this week, to Indianapolis, and a longer way from the little sawed-off Offys to the sophisticated rear-engine cars that are now standard equipment on the Championship Trail. But if last year's records are any indication, both Gary and Billy are at least ready to try Indy.
In his first full year on the midget circuit, Gary won five races in 36 starts, including a memorable victory in the coveted Turkey Day Grand Prix at Ascot Park, Calif. He got ahead of Mario Andretti and A. J. Foyt, then outdueled Bruce Walkup over the last frantic laps. His father had won the race eight years before. The victory gave him third place in the national point standings, behind four-time champion Mel Kenyon.
On a percentage basis, Vukovich's record was even better. He started only 16 races, but won 10 of them and finished eighth overall in the standings.
It was hardly a surprise that both sons chose racing, and, in fact, their lives are in some ways remarkably parallel—both were married in their teens, had an active disinterest in school and have had a lifelong involvement in racing. As Gary said, "There was never any one time that I became aware that Dad was a driver. I just grew up surrounded by it."
Gary did have the advantage of Tony's counsel and knowledge, both considerable, until two years before he started racing, and thus received more positive direction than Billy.
"Tony kept a pretty tight rein on the family," Gary says. "Merle and I worked the farm when Dad was off racing. He'd give us a list of things to do—we were farming about 800 acres then—and, boy, they'd better be done when he got back."
Tony discouraged any hot-rodding, but occasionally during the winter, when the snow and ice turned the ground into an excellent skid pad, Gary and Merle got in the family cars and had a few informal races around the silos and other farm buildings.
It was a jubilant day when Tony got annoyed at the slowness of the farm's two tractors and outfitted them with racing camshafts, which, if nothing else, produced the fastest-plowed back 40 in northern Illinois.
When an old back injury of Tony's kicked up in 1958, Gary had an excellent excuse to drop out of high school midway through his senior year and work the farm. "I really didn't want to study anyway," Gary said. "I made A's in shop, art and phys. ed., but I couldn't see the value of studying English and history and all that if I was going to be a race driver."
He did so almost as soon as he turned 21, the minimum age for a United States Auto Club racing license. He had been married at 19, was about to be divorced and was preparing to marry for a second time (he has twin sons, age 4, by his second wife) when, in November 1962, he and three friends, all employed by a local construction company, marched down to the local Chrysler agency and bought a 1963 Dodge right off the showroom floor. He fixed it up for racing pretty much by himself and earned USAC stock-car Rookie of the Year honors. In one race he finished second to A. J. Foyt. He was coming on.
In mid-1964, however, his sponsors became disenchanted and backed out, and Gary was forced to race whatever he could pick up. The next two years were shaky, but in 1967 he found Bob Nowicke, a car owner with considerable experience, and had his most successful season. He had tried championship cars briefly in 1966, but any hopes he might have had for instant stardom vanished when, at Atlanta, his car bottomed out and spun beautifully right down the main straight. He hit a puddle of water at Milwaukee and not so gently brushed the wall; and—at Milwaukee again—a wheel broke under the caution light, of all things. So there were few big-car rides last year. But this year he has a car, and he's ready.
Parnelli Jones, who has become sort of the resident guru of racing on the West Coast, has been watching Gary and Billy and he says, "They're both about the same way along. You've got to have determination. There isn't anybody around with more determination than Foyt; that's why he's so good, though there may be drivers around who are smoother. Right now I think Gary has got more determination than Billy. But you need wins to give you confidence. If you jump into anything and don't win, you start thinking maybe you're not as good as you are. That was Gary's problem. He'll get into anything; he shouldn't. I want my equipment to be at least the equal of anything else on the track. Then it's up to me to win the race.
"Billy's smarter in that respect. A cooler head. He's a little odd, though, just like his old man was. Not that I knew Vuky that well. He's not crazy or anything like that. But, you know—different."
(Billy repays the compliment. "I have a lot of respect for Parnelli, but he is set in his ways and I am halfway set in mine. We just don't hit it off. He has his own set of rules.")
If he wasn't completely cast adrift by his father's death, Billy's moorings were at least loosened considerably, and there developed a dark side of his soul that he either cannot talk about, won't talk about or doesn't recognize. In the eighth grade he was an above-average baseball player but he quit school abruptly in his sophomore year of high school.
"I didn't do much studying," he said. "I don't know, I was just restless. I guess I spent most of the time getting in trouble. I don't mean real trouble. I could play pinball games all night and I was one of the best bull-dice shooters you ever saw, night and day.
"I don't know what was bugging me. I remember earlier, when I was about 13 or 14. I got a taste of driving. I'd steal my mother's '55 DeSoto and take it around the block. It was heavy. I felt power."
Mrs. Esther Vukovich, Billy's mother, said, "I remember one New Year's Eve. Billy asked if he could go down the street to be with his buddy. I told him to go ahead. At five minutes to 12 he telephoned and asked, 'Mom, are you alone?' I said I was and he said, 'I'll be right back.' Then he came home. I was really touched."
"My uncle liked kids," Billy continued. "No, no, he didn't take the place of my father. He wasn't—yeah, that's the word, patronizing—he just liked kids. He had a car, and we'd go near the school area on weekends when it was free of traffic and take that car from a dead stop up to 60. I guess it was a form of drag racing. Those were happy days."
Billy reluctantly went back to high school, graduated ("The day I got out was the best day in my life") and married his high school sweetheart that same summer.
"I was 18. We had the baby [Bill III, now 4] when I was 19, and I'll tell you, it wasn't easy. I just couldn't get interested in the baby. We were so young, I think I was scared of the baby. Then after about a year and a half I changed. I used to go out with the guys a lot, and suddenly I didn't want to meet with them so much. It was different at home. Now I like to take the boy with me, fishing and things."
In 1965 Billy got out of supermodified stock cars and into the midgets and began to learn. Then came 1967 and his 10 feature wins in the little cars—and a contract to drive big cars for J. C. Agajanian, the garbage magnate who has been sponsoring race cars and promoting races for 21 years. Both Tony and Bill Sr. drove for him, and he has had two winners at the Speedway, Troy Ruttman in 1952 and Jones in 1963. "Both Troy and Parnelli won in their third year with me at the Speedway," he said. "I think Billy will, too."
Billy ran in 13 championship car races in 1967 for Agajanian, but in his first three—in the space of three weeks—he cost his sponsors something like $10,000 in ripped sheet metal and twisted suspensions alone. At Indianapolis Raceway Park, a road course, he ran off the track in one practice session, got bumped in another and did not qualify. At Langhorne, Pa. a car spun in front of him but before he could squeeze through an opening he was hit from behind by Arnie Knepper, injuring his shoulder. At St. Jovite, he ran off a banked portion of the track, got airborne and came down on the hood of a station wagon. After the last mishap he stormed back to the pits and muttered, "My old man must have been crazy."
It was not a series that would ingratiate him to anybody, let alone to the man who was paying the bills. The next day he approached Aggie and snapped, "Am I gonna be your driver?"
Aggie suspected that Vukovich had been approached by another owner or that maybe he wanted out. "Why do you ask?" he said.
"How long you gonna put up with me?"
"As long as you like. Right now you owe me three wins."
Billy still owes Aggie three, but he did race consistently enough during the remainder of the 1967 season to finish 15th in points in the big cars—alive and still learning.
I don't think we would be as friendly as we are if it wasn't for our fathers," Gary said. "Bill Sr. and Dad were pretty close. They used to kid each other a lot—about us sometimes. 'My kid'll beat knobs on your head,' Tony would say, and then Bill would say, 'Yeah, and my kid eats nails for breakfast.' "
They met at the Speedway, two youngsters romping around Gasoline Alley and picking on each other. Their relationship hasn't changed much. At a midget race in Phoenix last season the two had a hot duel for the lead and on the last lap Gary, driving without brakes, got inside Billy on the No. 3 turn. Whump. Of a sudden, Billy was headed for the wall and Gary for the checkered flag.
"When I bumped him," Gary said, "I had all sorts of visions of him upside down. I heard him hit and heard the engine rev up when the wheels left the ground. I came into the pits and his crew started accusing me of pushing him off the track. I said I apologize if I did anything I shouldn't have, which I didn't feel I'd done. Next thing I knew I felt this hand slam me on the helmet. It was Billy. I was never so glad to see anybody in my life, but boy was he mad. We had a few words and he stomped off.
"Billy's got a lot of growing up to do. He's funny. Sometimes I think he's my worst enemy and the next day he'll go out of his way to say something to me. The day after the Phoenix race he came up and apologized. I was shocked out of my mind. His old man never would have done something like that.
"It's getting so we're more concerned with beating each other than anybody else. That's all right if we're running one-two, and the last few times we've run we've been one-two. I guess things like Phoenix will happen again. I guess they're bound to until we die."