A Tribute to Merle Bettenhausen
by Marvin E. Scattergood

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 Bob Tattersall.

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 staff members.  

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 racing career. 

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 Indianapolis business


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Last Updated: 01/26/2009 10:46 PM