Bettenhausen brings glory to dad's tragic day

May 13, 1991|By Steve Crowe | Steve Crowe,Knight-Ridder

INDIANAPOLIS -- On Mother's Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Gary Bettenhausen's thoughts turned to his father.

During second-day qualifying for the May 26 Indy 500, Bettenhausen guided his 1991 Lola-Buick to a four-lap average of 224.468 mph -- the best in two days of qualifying, but one day late to capture the pole.

Reflecting on how yesterday's stirring run, which earned Bettenhausen the inside position in Row 5, fit into his family's Brickyard tradition, Bettenhausen took a long, deep breath.

"It was 30 years ago today that my dad died," Bettenhausen, his voice choked with emotion, said before pausing to regain his composure.

One day before qualifying began for the 1961 race, the elder Bettenhausen agreed to test a car for fellow driver Paul Russo. He died in a fiery wreck on Indy's front straightaway, handing down the family's racing legacy to sons Gary, 49, Tony Jr., 39, and Merle, who retired in the early 1970s after an injury-plagued career.

Barring a surprising run next weekend -- when the remaining 11 spots in the 33-car field will be filled -- this will be the first year a Bettenhausen has posted Indy's top qualifying speed.

"I'm tickled to death for Gary," said Tony Bettenhausen, whose 1990 Penske-Chevy (218.188) will start in Row 7. "But as typical Bettenhausen luck would have it, it came on the wrong day."

*

Saturday's strange pole qualifying scenario, in which only 12 cars gained starting positions, translates into a fifth row whose average speed is faster than that of Row 1.

Several prospective pole-sitters gambled that track conditions would cool late Saturday afternoon -- and lost. Late afternoon rain cooled the track, but also prevented attempts for nearly the final two hours of practice.

The storybook front row will consist of three-time winner Rick Mears (224.113, Penske-Chevy), four-time winner A.J. Foyt (222.443, Lola-Chevy) and 1969 winner Mario Andretti (221.818, Lola-Chevy).

Alongside Bettenhausen in Row 5 will be defending champion Arie Luyendyk (223.881, Lola-Chevy) and 1989 winner Emerson Fittipaldi (223.064, Penske-Chevy).

Row 1's qualifying average is 222.791; Row 5 averaged 223.804.

Left at the front of the qualifying line when Saturday's session ended was Stan Fox, whose Lola-Buick qualified 17th Sunday (219.501) after being considered a pole possibility.

His chances of breaking into Row 1 doused, Fox joked: "Them old geezers, they've been in the front row before. It would have been nice to see some new blood up there."

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