Wednesday, October 18, 2023

1964 – Nelson First at Bettenhausen

Norm Nelson smiles as he hands back a pen to an autograph seeker after his victory in the Tony Bettenhausen Memorial Hospital Fund race. 

Schererville, Ind. (October 18, 1964) – Somebody suggested that they rename it the Tony Bettenhausen Demolition Derby. “A bunch of retreads,” another chimed. “I’ve never seen such a collection of patch-ups.”

And you really couldn’t argue either point. For by the time the feature of the third annual Tony Bettenhausen Memorial Hospital Fund Race got underway Sunday afternoon, there was hardly a late model stock car in the starting field that wasn’t sporting a few new wrinkles.

But it didn’t bother Norm Nelson.

Nelson is the all-time leader in late model stocks point winnings and at Illiana Motor Speedway on Sunday hiked his bid to overtake Parnelli Jones for the 1964 championship by winning the 50-mile race.

Nelson, who drives a 1964 Plymouth, trailed both Whitey Gerken and Don White, the defending USAC champion, for much of the first half of the 100-lapper. On the 50th lap, having got by White foe second place, Nelson took the lead when Gerken’s Ford blew an engine heading into the back straightaway.

From there on, Nelson was home free, winning in 41 minutes and 48 seconds.

The victory gave the Racine, Wis., driver 100 points and pulled him within 227 of Jones, who was escaping a burning sports car in another part of the country about the time the checkered flag was dropping at Illiana.

Ironically, the feature was run off with nary a hitch after the estimated 6,500 fans had been treated to a mountain of thrills by a series of mishaps in practice and three heat races.

Joe Leonard, a newcomer this year but who has already let it be known that plans to stay around a while, was the center of two spectacular entanglements. In practice, Leonard stuck the nose of his ’64 Dodge in the fence, mangling the grill, hood, and both fenders.

They peeled the crinkled metal off and Leonard was back for the first heat looking something like a debutante heading for her coming out ball minus the formal gown. Perhaps feeling he shouldn’t be the only oddity in the pack, Leonard triggered a six-car smashup in the first corner on the third lap.

When they pulled everyone apart, Leonard’s Dodge was no worse off but White, teammate Bobby Marshman, Nelson, Lloyd Ruby, and Gerken had all put a smile on the faces of the guys who do their body work. When they finished ripping off fenders, latching sprung hoods, replacing busted radiators, and wiring badly damaged doors, the place looked like a junk yard.

“For that move right there,” one of the afternoon’s commentators boomed, “Leonard gets the title of Top Eliminator.”

The second and third heats followed the same pattern. Gary Bettenhausen, son of the late great, drove his Dodge into the fence in the first corner and only three of the seven cars starting the last heat were around at the end, eight laps later.

Results –

1. Norm Nelson
2. Don White
3. Lloyd Ruby
4. Joe Leonard
5. Herb Shannon
6. Lee Drollinger
7. Rich Clement
8. Ted Hane
9. John Kilbourn
10.Bobby Marshman

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