RICHARD JOHNSON

Gary Bettenhausen finished 10th at Indy, but was the big winner

COMMENTARY
Richard is print editor of Automotive News.
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One astonishing act of valor and sportsmanship sums up the legacy of race car driver Gary Bettenhausen, who died last week at 72.

It happened at the 1971 Indianapolis 500. I was there, with my brother, sitting at the far north end of the main straightaway. We were witnesses.

At about the 400-mile mark of the race, Mike Mosley came roaring out of the No. 4 turn, lost a tire, slammed into the outside retaining wall and spun into the infield grass, striking Mark Donohue's parked car and causing Bobby Unser to lose control.

Bettenhausen, the son of sprint car legend Tony Bettenhausen -- who had lost his life at the Brickyard 10 years earlier -- saw the crack-up as he pulled out of the short chute between the third and fourth turns.

Thinking quickly, he slammed on the brakes while undoing his belts.

Bettenhausen jumped out of his moving car, ran over to Mosley's burning machine, unbuckled the injured driver and dislodged him from the cockpit just as the safety crew was arriving.

Driver Gary Bettenhausen slammed on his brakes, leapt from his still-moving car and raced to help an injured competitor. It was a moment that many race fans never forgot.

Bettenhausen's car was still moving when he jumped back in, buckled himself in and, to the cheers of the crowd, went on to finish the race.

Mosley was burned and suffered a broken leg, but survived to race another day.

Bettenhausen wound up in 10th place.

For years my brother and I would talk about Gary Bettenhausen in reverent tones. And we always pulled for him to win the 500, which sadly he never did. (He did lead 138 laps of the 1972 race, but blew his engine on lap 176.)

"Gary always downplayed it," Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson said last week. "People would bring it up and he would laugh about it. He said the next position was 10 laps ahead of him, so he had no chance of winning. Still, not a lot of drivers would have done something like that."

You can reach Richard Johnson at rjohnson@crain.com.


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