Auto Racing Hall of Fame inductee Jim McElreath, the 1962 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year and a veteran of 15 starts in the “500” between 1962 and 1980, passed away Thursday, May 18 in his hometown of Arlington, Texas. He was 89.
One of the last eight surviving drivers who could claim to have driven a front-engined car in the “500,” McElreath was 34 years old and had been racing on short tracks for 16 years when he burst on the scene at Indianapolis in 1962.
Driving a 6-year-old Kurtis-Kraft Offenhauser-powered “roadster,” once owned and driven by Ray Crawford, McElreath qualified seventh and went on to cause quite a stir by passing A.J. Foyt and Rodger Ward in the early stages to run second by Lap 20. He ended up finishing sixth, many observers suggesting he was hampered by pit stops that were performed less rapidly than those by the contestants ahead of him.
McElreath eventually scored a half-dozen finishes of sixth or higher in the “500,” topped by a third-place finish in 1966 behind Grand Prix drivers Graham Hill and Jim Clark. He finished fifth in 1967 and 1970, and sixth in 1962, 1963 and 1974.
McElreath won a total of five United States Auto Club National Championship races, most notably the inaugural Ontario (California) 500 in 1970 after a late-race, topsy-turvy duel with Art Pollard. He also won the Phoenix 150, which opened the 1966 season, after posting three wins in 1965, at Trenton, New Jersey in April and the first two races at the Langhorne, Pennsylvania, circuit after its dirt surface was paved over with asphalt.
A steady and reliable finisher, McElreath piled up enough points to rank second behind Mario Andretti in the 1966 USAC National Championship standings while also finishing third in 1963, 1965 and 1970. He started 167 National Championship events between 1961 and 1980 and finished in the top five 47 times.
In 1971, the first year in which dirt track races no longer counted towards the USAC National Championship and instead were moved to form a brand-new series, McElreath won the inaugural event, a 100-miler at Nazareth, Pennsylvania, when it was still a 1 1/8th-mile dirt track.
A pure racer who did much of his mechanical work on the dirt cars and sprint cars he drove, McElreath made history in 1977 by being joined by his son James to become the first father and son ever to attempt to qualify for the same Indianapolis 500. Jimmy, as he preferred to be called, succeeded, but the spirited last-minute, four-lap qualifying run by young James came up just a little short.
Sadly, young James lost his life in a sprint car accident before the season could be completed, perishing in early October at Winchester, Indiana.
Two great racing families came together when Jimmy and Shirley McElreath’s daughter, also Shirley, married Tony Bettenhausen, son of the late two-time National Champion and younger brother of Gary and Merle. Jimmy even named Tony as his chief mechanic in 1979, just as Tony was about to embark upon his Indianapolis 500 driving career.
But further tragedy struck the families Feb. 14, 2000 – several years after Tony had retired as a driver to become a noted team owner – when Tony and Shirley were among those lost when their private aircraft went down near Leesburg, Kentucky.
McElreath is survived by his wife, Shirley; daughter, Vicky Thornton; granddaughters Bryn and Taryn Bettenhausen; and great granddaughter, Kendyl Bettenhausen. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to Speedway Children’s Charities Texas in honor of McElreath. Checks can be sent to Speedway Children’s Charities Texas, 3545 Lone Star Circle, Fort Worth, TX 76177.