The #99 Belanger Special and Me
Originally posted Mar 09, 2013
Almost that Time Again.... I love Spring, and every year I wonder if it would seem so sweet if we didn’t have winter. I guess I’ll never know the answer to that, but each Spring there are two things that mark the beginning of the warm months and my favorite time of year. One of these is opening day…the first day of major league baseball each year. On that date every year either I’ll email my daughter, or she’ll email me, and we’ll offer each other “Opening Day greetings and best wishes for a great season.”
I’m really not that much of a baseball aficionado, but the “here we go” aspect of that day speaks something to me that I’ve never let go of.
The other Spring event that I can’t let go of is the season opening of sprint-car racing at I-80 Speedway. I help to sponsor the #71 car, driven by Tige (no relation) Jensen, and even though I’m kind of tired of car racing at the end of each season, on that opening day, I’m ready to go again. Noise, dirt, excitement and the smell of burning methanol…it doesn’t get much better. This year, the inaugural event will take place April 5-6, and I’ll be there at least one of those evenings to help get things rolling for the season.
Folks always ask me how I got hooked in this sport, and to respond to those questions, a couple of years ago, I put the little piece below up on a web page I was maintaining on the #71’s season. I hope you enjoy it.
The #99 Belanger Special and Me
It’s been termed “perhaps the most beautiful race car ever built” and for my money, it’s all that and whole lot more.
Like most of the cars that raced and won at Indianapolis in its era (and they were all “specials” then), it was constructed in the Southern California shops of Frank Kurtis and carried Offenhauser power. But it was different from the others in a couple of ways. For one thing, it was smaller. Its chrome molly tubing chassis has been called both a stretched midget and a scaled up sprint car. Whichever, originally built in 1950 and sold to Murrell Belanger the following year, its lines truly were lithe…lower, skinnier, and sleeker than most of its fellows. Though the car was originally red, Belanger, a wealthy Chrysler/Plymouth dealer from Crown Point, IN, had it repainted a deep blue with gold lettering and yellow wheels…Michigan colors and striking enough to ultimately earn the 99 a spread in the 1971 Fall issue of Automobile Quarterly. How many Kurtis-Krafts can say that?
Like the chassis, the power plant also was smaller. The standard Offy product of the day was a four cylinder; fuel injected 270 cubic inches, the same mill that would literally vibrate the wood seats in the old Nebraska State Fair grandstand as a gaggle of them raced down the front stretch. The Belanger Special on the other hand was the same Offenhauser layout, only its engine was listed at 241 cubic inches. [Though one source terms the engine “supercharged” there is no other evidence that this was the case.] Whatever the engine’s displacement, it was enough, as driver Lee Wallard qualified the 99 for the middle of the front row of the 1951 Indianapolis 500 at 135.039 mph, less than one mile-an-hour slower than the highly vaunted Novi V8 which captured the pole.
In the event, the 99 won the Indy 500 that year at an average speed of 126.244 mph. And, as it happened, an article on that victory was featured in the very first issue of Speed Age magazine that I ever picked up, down at the Gold’s Department Store newsstand. And like “the road not taken” those two things taken together…the 99’s Indy victory and the Seed Age account of it…have made all the difference. A half-century later, I’m still totally fascinated with open-wheel auto racing as well as the siren-song styling of the #99 Belanger Special…the little race car that could - and did.
Though he piloted the 99 to victory at Indianapolis, Lee Wallard, unfortunately, never got the chance to campaign it on the old AAA Championship Trail, the string of 100 mile races held throughout the balance of the summer on mostly state fair one-mile dirt horse tracks. Honoring a pre-standing commitment to drive in a low-level local sprint car event in the days following the 500, Wallard was involved in a crash in which he suffered serious burns over much of his body. He would survive but never raced again.
Chosen to step into the cockpit of the 99 was the “Tinley [IL] Park Express,” Tony Bettenhausen. If ever a car and driver were made for each other it was the diminutive Belanger 99 and Bettenhausen. That summer of ’51, he won eight of the thirteen races on the Championship Trail calendar along with the season championship, and I followed it all breathlessly in the pages of Speed Age. To this day, I remember the article on (I think) the Milwaukee 100, where one spectator turned and said to another – according to Speed Age – “Now that Tony’s in the lead, we’ll see some real racin’…for second place.”
In the years to come, it would all change. For one thing – and in some quarters you can get an argument on this – I grew up. But racing was undergoing a transformation as well. In 1953 the ill-fated Bill Vukovich ushered in the roadster era, that would replace traditional dirt track cars like the 99, to be followed ultimately by the predecessors of today’s mid-engine creations. Tony Bettenhausen would survive the death and injury-laden contests of the high banks of the Midwest only to lose his life in 1961 at Indianapolis, testing a car for a friend. Following Vukovich’s fiery death at Indy and the Le Mans disaster one week later in 1955, the AAA would withdraw from auto racing, to be replaced by the United States Auto Club, then CART and then the IRL as the Indy 500 sanctioning body. And where the 99 represented a total investment of some $30,000 and was pulled on a flatbed trailer behind two guys in a Chrysler sedan, today’s Indy cars arrive in million dollar haulers with an accompanying cast of dozens. I got to Indy myself in 1982 to see Gordon Johncock edge out Rick Mears in the closest finish ever to that point. In the ensuing decade, I was privileged to meet and visit with both Mears and Johncock and was thrilled to find that the ‘82 race lives in their memories just as it does in mine. “Time passes; things change; life goes on.”
Fortunately, the #99 Belanger Special eventually found its way to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum where it remains on display today. Visiting it there, at a time other than 500 week, is indeed on my “bucket list.” Also, for years I’ve waited for somebody to make a diecast model of the 99, but if there’s one on the market anywhere, it’s escaped all the internet research I could reasonably do. However, there is a guy, at MA Scale Models, in Massachusetts (of course), who will build one for you in 1:43rd scale, starting with a cast resin body and going from there. I’ve known of this for several years but hadn’t quite been able to get past the price for a built-by-hand one-off model of the 99, until a day a few weeks ago when I again attempted to check in at the MA website and couldn’t find it. I did ultimately nail it down, and was just rattled enough to send them a credit card number with an order to get to it.
I settled down to wait, but the model arrived much sooner than I might have thought, and it’s perfect. Check the photos of the model and the real thing and see if you don’t agree.
So over a half-century later, the 99, or at least its spirit, lives on in the form of an exquisite model on my desk in the den, where I see it almost every time I leave the house…a tangible symbol of a lifetime of total fascination with real open wheel race cars and the people who drive them, and the little boy, who in the summer of 1951, fell in love with a race car and car racing, and who after all these years, still is.
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