ROGER PENSKE STEPPED OUT On the balcony before it came on. There were a lot of people in the suite and it was as good a time as any for some fresh air. There were some bigshots from Sun Oil and some diehards from Sears and some of Roger Penske’s friends from his several different lives in several different states. And there was Mark Donohue, Gary Bettenhausen and Bobby Allison.
Donohue sat right next to the set. It was a very bad angle, much too close to watch color television. The picture seemed like it was going to jump out at him. The station ran the tape over and over from every camera angle they had. It got worse each time. The room was silent now and only the faces spoke.
Art Pollard had pulled out of the pits at 9:37 that morning. He started to drive his car through the first turn at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The car was an Eagle, very sleek, very low-slung, the same car Mark Donohue was driving. As the car came out of turn one, at about 180 miles an hour, Art Pollard lost the groove. The car made a quick veer to the right and hit the concrete wall. The right wheels were ripped off. The car bounced off the wall and skidded all the way down to turn two, 1,450 feet away, first onto the grass of the infield and then back on the track, where it started flipping end over end with a lot of the parts breaking off and flying away. It came to rest like a pancake on the last flip to the griddle. Art Pollard, who was 46 years old and had a lot of family and friends, was still in the car. He was as good as dead. When the car blew up, the flames shot back and Pollard swallowed them. You couldn’t see that on television. The flames are invisible and odorless and tasteless.
Nobody in the suite said a word. Mark Donohue took his clenched right fist and banged it on the sofa. His face was very red. Bobby Allison turned away and dropped his head low and said a prayer to himself. Gary Bettenhausen tilted the tip of his Goodyear hat over his eyes so you couldn’t see him crying. Roger Penske walked back in from the balcony, sensing it was all over. The balcony of his suite overlooked the exact spot where Art Pollard died. Penske walked in and looked at his three drivers. There was nothing he could say. It was going to be one of those months.
THERE ARE TWO KINDS of people at Indy. There are Penske’s people and there is everybody else. The other 400,000 drink beer and yell and get very greasy. Penske’s people are different.
Earlier that morning, Gary Bettenhausen stood inside his green and white wooden garage very much alone. It was the first day of time trials, a series of races against the clock to see who would end up where in the descending position order of cars for the start of the race two weeks away. The talk around Gasoline Alley, the legendary name for the garage area, echoed the stories in the papers. This could be the day, the first day in history, that a car and driver would average over 200 miles an hour turning the two-and-a-halfmile oval.
That’s not what Gary Bettenhausen was thinking. Deep inside, he was remembering an anniversary. “It was 12 years ago today,” he said. “My dad died here.”
Gary was only 19 then. He had just started racing modified Go-Karts. His father, Tony Bettenhausen, was 44 and an old pro at Indy. He was a cautious man. He had promised himself and his family he would never ride in a car that wasn’t his, a car he wasn’t sure of. He kept the promise until 12 years ago today. A friend who had helped Tony Bettenhausen build a silo on his Illinois farm the past winter asked him if he’d take his car out on the Indy track on a shakedown run, just to test it out for him. He couldn’t refuse. Anyway, it was only for one lap.
You can buy a good cotter pin for a few pennies at your local hardware store. They say it was a bad cotter pin that began the end to Tony Bettenhausen’s life. An axle broke and the car hit the wall and turned end over end. Read the rest of this entry »