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bettenhausen_coverAnother of Tony’s new midget racing pals was Paul Russo, a laconic, wise-cracking Italian-American. Their friendship grew even deeper after a fearful incident during a race in the summer of 1939 on a new board track at Soldier’s Field in Chicago. Tony tried too hard and crashed in front of Russo. He was thrown out of the car and lay half-conscious on the track, stunned and unable to move. In order to avoid hitting his friend Russo, he had to turn hard right and crashed into the guardrail. Fortunately, both escaped with nothing worse than a few minor scrapes although their cars were badly bent.  “I saw you coming,” Tony later said to Russo. “And I said, ‘Jesus Paul! Don’t hit me!’.” Replied Russo: “Yeah? Well I was saying, ‘God Tony! Please don’t move!’.”

However, the more Tony raced, the greater the strain it placed upon his marriage to Valerie. In addition to his addiction to the dangerous sport of racing, she also felt he had become bossy and dismissive, and decided to file for divorce. They separated but started dating again less than two years later and were remarried in 1940. Their first son Gary was born in November of 1941 and Merle followed eighteen months later. Their sister Sue was born in 1943.

“We went to a one room school house,” Sue recalls. “There’s a museum in Tinley Park that shows the seats my father was educated in and the seats that we were educated in. I skipped a grade so I graduated from high school when I was sixteen but it wasn’t hard in that little one room school house. One year the teacher moved me from the third grade to the fifth grade which meant I moved from the third to the fifth row. We grew up in a whole different world than today.”

Meanwhile Tony began to show his innate ability behind the wheel, as he stacked up win after win in midgets and also in stock cars. He took the Chicago Raceway Park track championship in 1941 and ‘42 and won the Milwaukee Mile’s championship in 1942. After the war Tony repeated as Raceway Park champion in 1947 and Milwaukee’s champ in 1946 and ’47.

Tony made his first start in a AAA Championship race in August of 1941 at his beloved Milwaukee Mile, finishing sixth, and came second at Syracuse, New York the following week, driving for long-time car owner Joe Lencki. He won on July 29th, 1942 at Fort Wayne, the last race run in America before racing was stopped for WWII. Two days later the government officially shut down racing for the duration of the war and Tony took a job at the Buick factory in Chicago working as a foreman building aircraft engines. These were tough times for the marriage. Tony missed racing, didn’t like factory life and took to hanging out with his buddies after work and drinking a little too much.

However, after the war a more mature Tony settled into life as a husband and father in Tinley Park, IL, working through the winters at the Buick plant to supplement his income from a very full summer schedule of midget racing. He also raced ‘Big Cars’ and sprint cars and made his rookie start at Indianapolis in 1946, in the first post-WWII running of the 500. He tried three different cars before finally making the race in an old front-drive Wetteroth-Miller. The engine threw a rod after 47 laps, but Tony scored his first 100-mile AAA Championship win at the end of the year at the one-mile dirt track in Goshen, Indiana.

Tony was soon doing well enough to buy the family farm from his grandmother. “I remember being a little girl and growing up in a very small home in Tinley Park,” Sue relates. “One day my mother said to my father, ‘Why don’t we buy the farm?’ He almost fell of his chair when she said it. My father never imagined that his wife Val would want to live on the farm my grandfather built.”