He was tough, fair and respected by all during his days in the United States Auto Club – first as a driver and then an official.
“It’s real simple. He was a great guy and a helluva race driver,” praised Gary Bettenhausen of Rollie Beale, who died Monday at the age of 76.
“If you beat Rollie any day, you did a good job,” said Lee Kunzman, who lost the 1973 USAC sprint title to Beale by a few points.
A native of Toledo who worked full time on the railroad throughout his driving career, Beale didn’t start running USAC until his early 30s but quickly established a presence.
From 1966-1981 he captured 32 USAC sprint features but really made his name in the early 1970s while battling Larry Dickson, Pancho Carter, Bettenhausen and Kunzman in the toughest division in motorsports. (He’s pictured above in the Rodeo Bar Special with which he won the USAC sprint title in 1973.)
“He was one of the pillars when I got to USAC,” recalled Kunzman, who instantly became one of the drivers to beat in midgets and sprints with 30 wins in only six seasons. “And it wasn’t so much that he was lightning fast but he was steady fast.
“It never seemed like he got in trouble and he was just a solid racer.”
Bettenhausen, whose 82 USAC victories include 40 in the sprints, shared some good and bad memories.
“The first time I won a race at Winchester, I had to pass Rollie to do it and that was an accomplishment, believe me,” said the two-time USAC sprint king. “Then, when I hurt my arm at Toledo, we were fighting for the lead and I tried to stick my right front inside him.
“I was trying to intimidate him but Rollie wasn’t a guy to try and intimidate and I wound up in the wall. Lesson learned.”
But, as tough as Beale looked and as hard as he drove, he was extremely popular with fans and competitors alike.
“I think everyone respected Rollie,” said Kunzman.
“He was fair on the racetrack and just as fair as an official,” said Bettenhausen, referring to Beale’s tenure as the sprint/silver crown competition director after his driving days.
A perennial winner in stock cars on pavement before coming to USAC, Beale’s only chance at the Indianapolis 500 came in 1968, but the car wasn’t up to snuff and he never even tried to qualify. So he spent the rest of his career as a USAC lifer, working on the railroad through the week and driving sprinters on the weekend.
“He loved racing sprint cars, he was damn good and a super nice guy,” said Kunzman. “I’m proud to have known him and raced against him.”