Q: I was just a kid so maybe my memory is off, but in the late ’70s/early ’80s Gary Bettenhausen drove one of my dad’s cars in the Mini Indy series — these cars were the same as SCCA water-cooled Super Vees. At some races GB had a Champ Car ride, too. I think it was sponsored by Evel Knievel of all people. Gary had his own steering wheel with a knob on it, just like a tractor. The steering wheel went with him to whatever car he was driving. My recollection is that he had some use of his left hand but not great grip strength, and the knob helped him hold on, especially when shifting. I remember watching how much work it was for him to put his gloves on before a race. Even with just one good hand GB was one of the best drivers I have ever seen, and a heck of a nice guy who had no particular reason to be friendly to a 13-year-old kid, but was anyway. Thanks for bringing these memories back.
Anthony Lathrop, Carmel, IN
RM: Gary B. made his comeback in 1975 after his Syracuse dirt-car crash by taping his bad arm onto the steering wheel and then winning the 100-lap indoor USAC midget race at Fort Wayne. He was always experimenting with how to get a little more comfort and/or leverage behind the wheel, so that ‘Brody Knob’ in a Super Vee sounds about right. I was so lucky to buy Merle’s midget and spent the next few years as an unofficial Bettenhausen brother because I got to see ‘The Schmuck’ up close on a daily basis, and nobody ever had more desire to drive a race car — or more heart. BTW, your father (Steve) was a good road racer and a helluva car builder, so please tell him hello.
Q: You were rapturous promoting Mario Andretti and the IndyCar two-seater program, now without Honda as a backer. Have you ever had the privilege of a lap with Mario (or Arie )? If not, why not? I’d think you’d have seniority and respect throughout the paddock – and maybe Mario as a buddy.
Jenkins, Toronto, Canada
RM: I was fortunate to get two laps with Mario at Laguna Seca in 1999 in the two-seat Reynard-Honda that had some serious boost, and I said afterwards I wished all the mechanics and engineers could have shared that experience. Montoya was sitting on the pit wall and said: “He’s going to scare the %$# out of you Miller,” and I replied: “Like hell. I did that when I drove at Salem and Winchester, he is one of the best of all-time and it will be fantastic.” Which, of course, it was, and I think he was quicker than Shigeaki Hattori.
Q: What year had the most advanced car in IndyCar? Was in 1999, 2000, 2001 or another year in Champ Car? How fast would they have gone at Indy?
RM: Arie set the IMS record of 236 mph in 1996 in what was basically a CART/Champ Car, a Reynard-Ford, but the biggest advance came with Dan Gurney’s Eagle in 1972 when Bobby Unser broke the track record by 17 mph. Of course Luyendyk’s speed could have been smashed in 2000 if everyone was together since Gil de Ferran set the all-time closed-course record of 241.428 mph in a Reynard-Honda at Fontana.
Q: It seems Penske/Indy has a real opportunity to attract disgruntled NASCAR fans and become the premier racing show in the U.S. Is there any news about attracting manufactures like Ford and others, to Indy?
RM: Haven’t heard anything about Ferrari in a long time, and even though R.P. campaigns a Ford in NASCAR, that company’s CEO is on record as saying IndyCar isn’t worth the investment. Could The Captain change his mind?
Q: I have always been a fan of your unique style of reporting and intimate understanding of what goes on behind the scenes in IndyCar. I have been a fan since the late ’50s (grew up in Brazil, IN) and have attended nearly 50 Indy 500s and numerous other IndyCar events. My question is related to the Road to Indy ladder system. It seems that very little has been done to commercialize the lower levels of open-wheel racing, which makes drivers (and their families) need to come up with several million dollars over a driver’s career to get the experience and the exposure they need to have an opportunity with IndyCar. (NASCAR and sports cars seem to be able to get TV coverage for their lower level series).
I know it must be difficult, otherwise it would be happening, but getting television coverage for USF2000, Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights would create sponsor value and create some level of subsidy opportunity for the driver/ team. Is this just low priority for IndyCar or is there a reason that these series are not commercialized? Should there only be two levels in the ladder instead of three to increase car count and therefore more commercial interest? I am excited to know your insights!
Joe K., Dayton, OH
RM: Let’s be honest. IndyCar isn’t much of a draw on television, and having NBC is a Godsend, but the feeder system has even less appeal to a network unless you buy the time and pay for the production. Lights went from NBCSN to NBC Sports Gold and it would seem like the Road to Indy is pretty much made for cable streaming. But just about every series all over the world costs mom and dad a pretty penny — from go-karts to trucks to sports cars to midgets to F2000.
Q: I have memories of watching the 500 as a kid and absolutely marveling at shots from a camera mounted in the track itself. I remember the cars were driving straight over the camera, and I have vague memories of a short pre-taped piece during one broadcast explaining this fancy new camera tech that made those shots possible: a miniature (for the time) TV camera built into a little spring loaded housing that would move out of the way as it was driven over.
Since this IndyCar season ended, I’ve been watching old races and realized that I don’t think I’ve seen that camera angle since, and I started to wonder, “Did I make that whole thing up?” Totally possible. I was a technically-inclined kid with a big imagination, so maybe it’s just an idea I had and wished was real. On the other hand I know Paul Page was always suggesting wild new camera ideas! I first watched the ’87 race at age five and first went in ’90, but still watched the broadcasts later, so it must have been a late ’80s/early ’90s innovation if it existed at all. Does this ring any bells? And if it was real, why not still use it?
RM: Nope, you’re not hallucinating. It started in 1991 on ESPN’s Thursday Night Thunder and was called the Tread Cam and won an Emmy long before NASCAR ‘invented’ the Gopher cam. It’s not used anymore because it’s tough to keep clean with sweepers and jet dryers.
Q: What can the average IndyCar fan do to encourage NBC Sports to rehire Jon Beekhuis in some capacity? He is one of greats of IndyCar broadcasting over the decades and it’s such a shame for him to not be a visible part of the great product that IndyCar and NBC Sports is producing. His experience, intellect, and insight would only make it even better. Thanks for everything!
Tim Howell, Manchester, PA
RM: A couple of IndyCar fans started a petition a few weeks ago to bring Jan back, but that’s about the only approach to take.
Q: I’m confused about something which I hope you can explain. There were two qualifying heats for the 1973 California 500, but the results of these races don’t seem to have had any bearing on the starting grid for the 500-mile race. Can you explain? I’ve searched the internet but can not find any explanation. Also, the combined number of cars in the heats is less than the number of cars that started the 500. Making things even more confusing is that the polesitter for the 500 was not even in either of the heats.
RM: The front row (Revson, Grant, Johncock) was locked in and didn’t have to run the qualifying races, which determined starting spots fourth through 18. McLaren didn’t have any backup cars and Revson wasn’t in the point chase so Johnny Rutherford won a heat in his McLaren while his teammate watched. And Wally Dallenbach won the race a week later.