Unfulfilled Dreams- The Bettenhausens

While the Andretti curse at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is discussed often, the Bettenhausen curse is rarely mentioned. Perhaps it is not spoken of because the Bettenhausen family never won the Indianapolis 500.

Robin Miller once said the Bettenahusen story would make “one hell of a documentary,” and now we have it. The film is more for the die hard race fan who has a deep interest in the history of American open wheel racing, but the drama and poignancy has a universal appeal.

FloRacing has produced “Legends of Racing: The Bettenhausens,” which premeired at the Indy Film Fest Saturday. Laura Andrew directed the film. Robin was right.

Tony Bettenhausen came from a hardscrabble background, and he began racing in the 1940s. He first entered the 500 in 1946, and drove in every race through 1960. His best finish was in 1955, when he finished second co driving with Paul Russo. Bettenhausen had two other fourth place finishes. He led only 24 laps, all in 1958.

Despite his lack of success at Indianpolis, Bettenhausen won 21 Champ car races in his career and national championships in 1951 and 1958. The latter title was acheived without winning a race.

The film spent little time on the elder Bettenhausen, which disappointed me. I was glad for what was there, but I wanted more about him. The story mainly focused on Gary Bettenahusen, his okldest son, but also told the stories of merle, and Tony Junior.

Winning the 500 was the family’s elusive white whale, always there, sometimes just within their grasp, but always escaping capture.

Gary had the best chances. In 1972 he drove for Roger Penske and was leading the race before mechanical woes ended his day. His teammate Mark Donohue won the race. Gary had other great shots, but always some gremlin crushed his mhopes. There ius a touching interview after he dropped out of one of his last 500s, when he realized his family would never reach their goal.


Injuries and crashes stalk the Bettenhausens throughout their racing life. Tony had 26 crashes where his car ended upside down. The 27th time, at IMS in practice on May 12, 1961, was fatal. He was testing Paul Russo’s car when a steerring bolt fell off,sending Bettenhausen into the outside wall, upside down and on fire. The day before, he had set fast time and was favored to win the pole.

Merle lost his right arm ina fiery crash at Micihigan International Speedway in 1972. Two years later, Gary’s left arm was paralyzed in a crash on the dirt track at Syracuse. Merle raced on with a prosthetic arm for a while, and Gary still raced despite having only one good arm.

Tony, Jr. had a successful race team. He was killed in a plane crash in 2000.

Merle Bettenhausen sums up the family philosophy about the setbacks.

“Never give up and keep moving forward” he tells the audeience.

Other Voices

Pat Sullivan guides the storytelling with embellishment from Merle.

Sullivan’s assessment of the Bettenhausen boys is “They willed themselves to be great drivers.”

I agree with him. I think Tony, Sr. was the most naturally talented of them all. The others needed time to develop their skills.

A bittersweet part of the film is the several appearances of Robin Miller at his unfiltered finest. And of course Robin has the final word. Keep rolling until the very end.

The 88 minute film is available free of charge on the Floracing website.

2 thoughts on “Unfulfilled Dreams- The Bettenhausens

  1. Thanks for the review and letting us know it is on their website. Like you, I would have preferred a lot of content to be based on Tony. Although the Bettenhausen name went from the 40s, until Tony, Jr and Shirley died in the plane crash in 2000; I fear that their name is starting to fade with younger fans. Maybe this film will add to their legacy.


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