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Indy Visible : Bettenhausen and Vukovich Are Magic Names, Linked With Victory, Bad Luck and Tragic Death

First of two parts ; Tuesday: The racing's mean streak.

May 06, 1991|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

It began, more than 50 years ago, with a couple of ambitious young hotshoes who thought nothing in life could be better than taming a rambunctious midget race car, making it go where only the brave dared go, faster than anyone else.

They didn't know it at the time, of course, but Tony Bettenhausen, whose first name wasn't really Tony, and Bill Vukovich, whose last name wasn't really Vukovich, were leaving tire prints that others carrying their names could not resist following.

In the beginning, Bettenhausen, who lived in Tinley Park, Ill., then a sleepy farm town southwest of Chicago, now, for all practical purposes, a part of it, did most of his racing in the Midwest and the East. Vukovich, who lived in Fresno, ran in the West.

Eventually, though, each discovered Indianapolis, its race track and its race, the Indianapolis 500. It brought them together, nourished what became a strong friendship, gave each a new focus for his life--and future generations' lives as well.

Vukovich won the Indy 500 twice in a row. Bettenhausen, recognized as one of the gutsiest, most determined drivers of his day, never won it, although he never quit trying.

The Speedway rewarded their devotion and dedication by killing them. But then, from time to time, racing does that sort of thing.

Their sons picked up the torch, Gary, Merle and, later, Tony Lee of the Bettenhausen clan, and Bill Vukovich II. And his son, Billy III, took the racing Vukoviches into the third generation.

Each of them staked a claim to success--by racing's standards, if not by popular acclaim--but the families have paid dearly for that.

Between them, Gary and Merle Bettenhausen have two good arms. A prosthesis extends from Merle's right sleeve, replacing the arm he left at Michigan International Speedway in his first Indy car race. And Gary's withered left arm works only to a point. He suffered nerve damage in a violent crash during warm-ups for a dirt car race at Syracuse, N.Y.

To this day, no Bettenhausen has won at Indianapolis and it will be a major upset if one ever does. Car failure cost Gary his one great shot and although both he, at 49, and brother Tony, 39, are still trying, there are younger drivers with faster cars and richer teams well ahead of them in racing's pecking order.

There will be no more Vukoviches winning at Indianapolis, either, simply because there are no more racing Vukoviches. Bill II, 47, has been retired from driving for several years and Billy III, whose promising career was expected to take off this season, was killed in a sprint-car crash last November practicing for a race at Bakersfield. His car went straight in a turn and hit the wall head on. He was 27, unmarried, and Bill and Joyce Vukovich's only child.

So, after more than 50 years, the Bettenhausen-Vukovich influence on racing appears negligible. But the saga those racing families leave racing is considerable.

And, although there are sadness and grief to contend with, as well as intense pride, bitterness and regret are not big with the Bettenhausen brothers or the last Bill Vukovich. When you go racing, you bet your life. Every race driver knows that.

TONY AND VUKY

It was Tunney, not Tony, that a young Melvin Eugene Bettenhausen started calling himself. Tunney, after boxer Gene Tunney.

"I'm Jack Dempsey," one of the Bettenhausen farmhands called out at the start of free-time boxing sessions. "Who'll be Gene Tunney?"

"I'm Tunney," Tony answered, rising to the challenge.

And in time, Tunney became Tony, the first of many of Bettenhausen's nicknames.

And on the far side of the country, the original family name was Vucerovich, not Vukovich, although stories differ as to how and when the change was made. In any event, William Vukovich, too, had plenty of nicknames--"Vuky," "The Mad Russian"--he was really of Serbian descent--"Wild Bill."

Race promoters touted Bettenhausen as "The Tinley Park Express," but he was referred to more informally as "Flip," "Flippenhausen," and, often, "Cement Head," all reflecting the frequent consequences of his single-minded driving style--hard and fast, always. Tony Bettenhausen saw a lot of the world while he was upside down in race cars.

Old-timers still marvel that a friendship should have developed between two such disparate types--brash, confident, voluble, likable Bettenhausen and the quiet, introverted, almost reclusive Vukovich. But friends they were, Vukovich and his family once visiting the Bettenhausen farm.

And it might not have been simply a case of opposites attracting. The link might well have been a shared approach to racing.

Said Gary Bettenhausen of his dad: "He was almost just the opposite of Bill Vukovich--on the outside. But I think they were a lot alike on the inside. They both had that drive and determination."

There was, however, a distinct difference in style, both on and off the track.

"He drove it flat-out, it didn't matter," Milwaukee racing historian Al Krause said of Bettenhausen. "Pell-mell, drive like hell."

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