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Hall of Famer McElreath Passes Away

| , RacinToday.com Friday, May 19 2017

Famed 500 driver Jim McElreath has passed away in Texas.

RacinToday.com

Auto Racing Hall of Famer 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 in his sleep on Thursday, May 18, in his hometown of Arlington, Texas. He was 89.

One of eight surviving drivers who could claim to have driven a front-engine Roadster in the Indy 500, McElreath was 34-years-old and had been racing on short tracks for 16 years when he burst onto the scene at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1962.

Driving a six-year-old Kurtis-Kraft Offenhauser-powered Roadster once owned and driven by Ray Crawford, McElreath qualified seventh and went on to cause a stir by passing reigning Indy 500 champion A.J. Foyt Jr. and 1959 race-winner Rodger Ward during the early stages en route to running second by Lap 20 of 200. McElreath finished sixth in a race won for the second time by Ward, with many observers suggesting the Texan was hampered by a series of comparatively slow pit stops.

McElreath eventually scored a half-dozen finishes of sixth or higher in the 500, topped by a third-place result in 1966 behind Formula One Grand Prix stars Graham Hill of England and Jim Clark of Scotland in rear-engine cars. McElreath finished fifth in 1967 and 1970, and sixth in ‘62, 1963 and 1974.

McElreath began his rise in racing in 1945 as a 17-year-old running Modified stock cars at the renowned Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas. His open-wheel career began in 1961 in the United States Auto Club.

During an illustrious 23-year career, McElreath competed in 183 open-wheel events and posted five victories, 48 top-five finishes and 22 podiums along with four poles. McElreath won five USAC National Championship races, most notably the inaugural Ontario (California) 500 in 1970 driving fellow-Texan Foyt’s team car to cap a late-race, topsy-turvy duel with Art Pollard.

McElreath also won the Phoenix 150, which opened the 1966 season, after posting three wins in 1965 at Trenton, N.J., in April and the first two races at the Langhorne, Pa., circuit after its dirt surface was paved.

McElreath also made four starts in the NASCAR Cup Series. Upon officially retiring from racing in 1984, McElreath worked on restoring vintage open-wheel race cars.

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.

In 1971 _first year in which dirt track races no longer counted towards the USAC National Championship and instead were moved to a new series _ McElreath won the inaugural event, a 100-miler at Nazareth, Pa., when it was still a 1 1/8th-mile dirt track.

McElreath’s accomplishments were cited by his induction into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2002, Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007 and most recently the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame in 2014.

“Jim was an instrumental part to the deep Texas heritage of Indy-car racing that included the likes of A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford, Jim Hall, Lloyd Ruby, Bobby Hillin Sr. and Andy Granatelli, among others,” Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage said. “When we opened the speedway, I had the opportunity to become friends with Jim and his wife Shirley, two wonderful people. He will be missed by the motorsports community and our thoughts and prayers go out to Shirley along with all of their family and friends.”

A pure racer who did much of his mechanical work on the dirt cars and sprint cars he drove, McElreath made history in 1977 when he was joined by son James to become the first father/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 short.

Tragically, James McElreath lost his life in a sprint car accident before the season could be completed, perishing in early October at Winchester, Ind.

Two great racing families came together when Jimmy and Shirley McElreath’s daughter, also named 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.

Further tragedy struck the families on 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, Ky.

McElreath is survived by his wife, Shirley; daughter, Vicky Thornton; granddaughters Bryn and Taryn Bettenhausen and great granddaughter Kendyl  Bettenhausen.  Funeral arrangements are being made by the Moore Funeral Home, 1219 N. Davis Dr., Arlington, and will be announced when finalized. In lieu of flowers, the family requests contributions be made to Speedway Children’s Charities Texas Chapter in honor of McElreath. Checks can be sent to Speedway Children’s Charities Texas, 3545 Lone Star Circle, Fort Worth, Texas 76177.

| , RacinToday.com Friday, May 19 2017
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