Plane Crash Claims Indy Vet

Tony Bettenhausen Jr., died in a plane crash Monday. indianapolis 500

Tony Bettenhausen, the youngest son in a famous auto racing family who drove Indy cars before becoming a team owner, died in a plane crash Monday. He was 48.

Bettenhausen, his wife, Shirley, and two men were killed when the plane crashed about noon on a farm some 30 miles from Lexington, said Brad Stevens, an executive with Bettenhausen Motorsports in Indianapolis.

Shirley Bettenhausen was the daughter of longtime Indy car driver Jim McElreath. The two men killed were identified as Russ Roberts, a partner in Bettenhausen's racing team, and Larry Rangel, an Indiana businessman.

The plane took off from Tri-City Airport in Blountville, Tenn., for Indianapolis, the Federal Aviation Administration said. The Bettenhausens were returning home from CART team testing in Homestead, Fla. Other details of the crash were not immediately known.

"Tony was always a gentleman," said Dick Jordan, a spokesman for the U.S. Auto Club. "We certainly will miss him, as will everybody in the racing community."

David Muzio, a National Transportation and Safety Board investigator, said Monday night that the plane had been in contact with an air traffic control center before the crash. He did not, however, know which one.

"I'm not aware of any report of difficulties prior to the accident," Muzio said during a news conference from the crash scene.

The wreckage was limited to a roughly 30-foot radius in a hilly area near some woods. About 80 to 85 percent of the wreckage was burned in a post-crash fire Muzio said.

Federal Aviation Administration investigators and representatives of the plane's manufacturers are scheduled to be at the site Tuesday to go over the debris path, check flight controls and remove the engines, which will be inspected Wednesday or Thursday, Muzio said.

Tony Lee Bettenhausen, one of three racing brothers, drove Indy cars from 1979-93, and raced 11 times in the Indianapolis 500. He had 103 career starts in Indy cars with a best finish of second. He was USAC rookie of the year in 1979.

He started racing stock cars in 1969, joined the Winston Cup circuit in 1974 and competed in the USAC stock and midget divisions in 1975-76.

"The tragic loss of Tony and Shirley leaves a tremendous void in the racing fraternity," said Tony George, owner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Bettenhausen's father, also Tony, was a two-time USAC national champion who raced at the Indianapolis 500 from 1946-60 and was killed in practice in 1961.

A brother, Merle, lost his right arm in a wreck at Michigan International Speedway in 1972.

"The Bettenhausen family represents the grass roots of auto racing. No one had more enthusiasm and love for the sport than Tony and Shirley. They will be missed," said four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears.

The younger Tony Bettenhausen bought a CART team in 1988 and made his last start at the Indy 00 in 1993. As an owner in Championship Auto Racing Teams, he fielded two rookies of the year, Patrick Carpentier (1997) and Stefan Johansson (1992).

The oldest son in the family, Gary, began racing stock cars in 1965. He made his Indy car debut at Phoenix in 1966 and the first of 21 starts at Indianapolis in 1968.

Merle Bettenhausen drove champ cars, dirt cars, sprints and midgets before coming to Indianapolis in 1972. He passed his rookie test that year but never made a qualification attempt before losing his arm.

Tony Lee Bettenhausen earned $2.4 million in his driving career and his CART team earned nearly $6 million in prize money with 13 different drivers.

He struggled with financing in the last few years and was expected to run a car for Michel Jourdain in the 2000 CART FedEx Championship series.

He had two daughters with his wife: Bryn, 18, and Taryn, 13.

©2000 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed