As you might think, Merle Bettenhausen is
one of the three racing sons of the late Melvin E. "Tony"
Bettenhausen and indeed he is. Merle is the middle son; Gary was born
first and Tony Lee last.
Merle was named
after his father's friend and several time champion car owner Murrell
Belanger. His dad first drove for Belanger in the 1947 Indy
"500" and then went on to win the National Championship for
Belanger in 1951, winning 8 of 15 events that year.
In May of 1961, when Merle was 17, his father would pay the ultimate price
at Indy while testing an ill handling car for friend Paul Russo. Merle and
his brothers would take up the mission of putting the Bettenhausen name on
the Indianapolis "500" Borg-Warner Trophy.
Merle began driving Midgets, Sprint Cars and Champ Cars to get more
experience before tackling Indy. During the winter of 1969 as he toured
Australia and New Zealand under the wing of USAC National Midget Champion
By 1972, Merle believed he was prepared for the challenge of the
Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He passed the mandatory rookie driver's test
but did not attempt to qualify. Later that year Merle was involved in a
serious racing incident that forever would alter his life. He was
competing in a Champ Car at the Michigan International Speedway on July
16th. While finishing lap 3, he apparently lost control and hit the
outside guard rail. The car caught fire and as he attempted to exit while
it was still in motion and his right arm was severed. In the process he
was badly burned as well but remained conscious through it all.
During his recovery Merle gave recognition to many by name for saving his
life. These included rescue personnel, firemen and others who retrieved
him from the burning car, and to the doctors, nurses and other hospital
In June of 1973, Merle was ready to return a to racing. Howard Lehmann,
from Springfield, Illinois, a prominent Midget and Sprint Car owner passed
on this news to me. His come back would be in Lehmann's Midget at
Charleston, Illinois, on the 16th. I did go there and snapped some
shots of him that evening. If Merle was apprehensive or fearful it wasn't
visible to me.
More tragedy would come to the Bettenhausen family. Brother Gary would
crash at Syracuse, New York in 1974, leaving his left arm permanently
paralyzed. Moreover he would continue racing full-tilt, including 15 more
"500" starts; driving one-handed he would also score his best
finish of third in 1980.
Nearly a quarter century later, Tony Lee and wife, Shirley, would perish
in an airplane crash in early 2000.
He had 11 Indy starts before retiring as an active driver and then became
an owner of a successful CART racing stable. Merle then became guardian
for Tony and Shirley's two daughters, trustee of their estate and manager
of Tony's racing team.
It seems the quest of a Bettenhausen winning the "500" is on
hold for now as Merle's son, Ryan, has shown little interest in pursuing a
Although Merle's racing career was a short one, he demonstrated he was a
winner as he had registered 8 USAC Midget main events.
At last report Merle was working in advertising for a prominent
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