Merle Bettenhausen


Record updated 08-Jun-06

Merle Bettenhausen
Merle Bettenhausen is one of the three racing sons of the late Melvin E. "Tony" Bettenhausen.

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 to racing in Lehmann's Midget at Charleston, Illinois, on the 16th.

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.

Although Merle's racing career was a short one, he demonstrated he was a winner as he had registered 8 USAC Midget main events.