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They Are a Species in Danger : Gary Lost a Chance, but Merle Lost an Arm, Vukovich Lost a Son

Second of two parts on the racing Bettenhausen and Vukovich families, their friendship and their obsession with the Indianapolis 500.

May 07, 1991|MIKE KUPPER | TIMES ASSISTANT SPORTS EDITOR

There is much to be gained in auto racing--money, fame and kicks that drivers say non-drivers simply can't comprehend. But if racing gives, it also takes away, sometimes in spades.

In 1974, Gary Bettenhausen was driving not only an Indy car for owner Roger Penske, but an AMC Matador for him as well in major NASCAR stock car races.

"I'd driven it in four races--Daytona, Michigan, Atlanta, somewhere else--and the next one was supposed to be the Firecracker 400 at Daytona in July," he said. "A week before I was supposed to go down there, (Penske) informed me that (NASCAR veteran) Bobby Allison was going to drive the car."

Disappointed and angry, Gary decided to spend the long Fourth of July weekend dirt-tracking, in a sprint-car race at Reading, Pa., then in a championship dirt-track event the next day at Syracuse. He never made a worse decision.

"That's the one thing I would like back," he said. "It was a hell of a big setback in my career."

At Reading, Gary was hit in the face by a flying chunk of the clay track, which broke his nose.

"They wanted to take me to the hospital and set my nose, but I said, 'No, we got to get to Syracuse.' So we drove all night and got to Syracuse and had to be ready to hot-lap after no sleep. We fired the dirt car up and the thing had no turning radius.

"What had happened was, we had just moved the front axle back three inches and didn't shorten the drag link--a hurry-up deal. It prevented the front wheels from turning more than about 40%.

"The first (practice) lap, I ran down in the corner and the car popped the front end out on me. So I said, 'Next time I'll just run it in (the corner) a little bit harder and give it a bigger pitch.' So I ran down in there and gave it a pitch and that was as far as the steering wheel went. The car went into a big long slide, then just dug in.

"It was stupid of me. I remember the minute I (crimped the wheel) it all came back to me, 'No turning radius.' "

The car flipped wildly, soaring out of the corner, off the track and through the roof of an unused concession stand. Both of Bettenhausen's collarbones were broken, he had broken ribs, a broken thumb and a broken eye socket. And, of course, the broken nose from the night before.

"He was the saddest looking . . . ," his brother Merle said. "I mean, his ears were black and blue."

It wasn't his ears, though, that bothered Gary. It was the lack of feeling in his left arm and hand.

"The shoulder harness broke my collarbones because the car flipped so violently," he said. "It did nerve damage. It didn't sever the nerve but it stretched it and paralyzed my arm. After a few months, because of the nerve damage, I lost all the muscles in my arm. When the nerves did come back, there was no muscle for the nerve to grow into. But I did learn to live with it the way it is and, to me, there's absolutely nothing wrong with it.

"I won the first time I raced after that. Taped my hand to the steering wheel."

That horrible flip, though, cost Gary more than just the unrestricted use of his arm. It also cost him his Indy car ride with Penske, whose cars have since won the 500 six times. And Gary has not had a first-class Indy car ride since.

"I'm positive I would have won the Speedway at least once by now, had I continued to drive for Penske," Bettenhausen said. "He's certainly proved that his cars are capable, and I know I am. But I was just young and dumb at the time. I wanted to race every weekend if I could. I wasn't ready to settle down and race only nine or 10 times a year."

In fact, Gary never did settle into that kind of routine, as is common now among top Indy car drivers. Even Bill Vukovich, Gary's buddy, put his dirt-track days far behind him once he established himself in Indy cars.

But as recently as last season when, again, he was nearly killed in a dirt-car race at Sacramento, Gary was still power-sliding through the corners in sprinters and dirt-trackers.

"Sacramento fairgrounds is a horse track, so they don't have any inside guardrail," he said. "What they did was get a bunch of these big concrete barriers, like they use on the highway, and set them around the track to keep you from getting into the light poles and the (infield) lake.

"My car just spun and got into one of those (barriers), backwards, at about 120 m.p.h. The fuel tank ruptured immediately. I was just barely conscious enough to get out of the car and I was on fire for 28 seconds before the fire crew got to me.

"I ended up with burns on my wrist and hands. . . . I had a ruptured spleen, three broken ribs and a broken shoulder and I still managed to get out of the car.

"Then I got pneumonia in the hospital. I damn near died. For about a week, it was touch and go. They thought maybe I was going to lose this (left) hand because it was burned so bad around the wrist. I lost all the circulation in my hand."

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