This Sunday marks the 34th anniversary of James McElreath Jr’s last lap. McElreath was a bright rising star in the sport, and a second generation sprint car driver, the son of Jim McElreath. Jim was a veteran of 15 Indianapolis 500 races and was looking forward to qualifying for the 1978 Indianapolis 500 with his son as a fellow competitor.
James McElreath Jr was set to become one of the superstars of the sport. He had won three titles in two years at Devil’s Bowl Speedway before moving up to USAC. In 1976 he was named the USAC Midget Division rookie of the Year and had scored a prestigious win at Terre Haute in the “Hulman Classic”.
On October 17, 1977, McElreath was racing at Winchester Speedway in Indiana as part of the USAC Sprint and Midget National Tour.
On the first lap of the race Larry Moore’s car spun across the track directly in front of McElreath’s car. Trying to avoid a multiple car pile up with Larry Rice, Tom Bigelow and other competitors, McElreath lost control of his car and crashed into a barrier and was hit by another car. The car impacted with such force that it launched the car and driver over the guard rail, flipping in the air and ended up landing in a tree over 300 feet away.
McElreath was 23 years old. His father Jim was with him at the track that day, assisting as a mechanic on the younger McElreath’s car. “When I got to him and looked in his eyes, I knew he was gone,” the elder McElreath later said. James died a short time later at Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie Indiana. The race was won by Pancho Carter.
The tragedy did not end there for the McElreath family. Jim McElreath refused to move any parts of James’ car in the shop where the family built and worked on their race cars in Arlington, Texas. The sad reminders remained there for Jim McElreath. He once explained the deep sadness of the loss by saying, “I never had any brothers or sisters, and my dad died when I was 14 years old. I never had anyone else. James was more like a companion than a son.”
The McElreath family experienced a tragedy that some race families had experienced. That draws these families closer together, so it was no real surprise when Jim’s daughter married Tony Bettenhausen Jr. The Bettenhausen family had it’s fair share of racing tragedies.
Tony Bettenhausen Jr. had started 11 Indianapolis 500 races and eventually retired from driving, becoming a car owner instead. Tony’s father had died in the 1961 Indianapolis 500 during testing for the race. Brother Gary was an open wheel racer that won several Midget and Sprint car Championships but was seriously injured in a sprint car race in Syracuse, New York in 1974. His arm was crushed in the crash and left it paralyzed.
Tony’s other racing brother, Merle Bettenhausen was maimed in a fiery crash in Michigan when his car exploded in flames and Merle tried to get out while the car was still moving. Merle’s right arm became trapped between the car and the outside wall and was torn off.
As if these racing families had not seen enough tragedy, Tony Bettenhausen Jr and wife Shirley McElreath Bettenhausen were killed in a plane crash en route from Indianapolis to Homestead, Florida, when their plane went down in Kentucky in 2000. Merle Bettenhausen became the guardian to Tony and Shirley’s children.
~ Mark Twain