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Athletics & Recreation

Gene Hartley


Throughout the world, Indiana is synonymous with the Indianapolis 500.

Throughout Huntington County, the Indianapolis 500 is synonymous with Gene Hartley.

Though nearly 60 years have passed since the wiry Roanoke native qualified a car for the Memorial Day race, the business bearing his family’s name and sporting roots still nourish pride and memories in his hometown. Gene Hartley might have been the first of his family to qualify for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, but he wasn’t the first to try. And the name “Hartley” is still associated with engines, sheet metal, and a thirst for speed.

Leslie Eugene “Gene” Hartley was born Jan. 28, 1926, to Paul T. and Sarah Rupert Hartley. His father, who went by Ted, was mechanic in the family business – the Hartley Garage, on Second Street in Roanoke. The garage was also where Ted Hartley’s brother, Glen, crafted his own entry for the 1924 Indianapolis 500. Glen actually drove the car to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May of that year. He acquitted himself well in limited laps around the 2 1/2-mile oval but was not allowed to make a qualifying attempt because track officials deemed aspects of the car’s construction unsafe.

Ted Hartley built and raced midget cars on many of the short tracks that dotted northern and central Indiana in those days and his son caught the racing “bug” from his dad. Ted Hartley campaigned the tiny, single-seat buzz-bombs all his adult life and into his 60s. Though he achieved considerable renown locally, it was Gene who would ultimately take the step up in horsepower and onto the national stage.

Gene Hartley graduated from Roanoke High School in 1944 and immediately joined the Army Air Corps as World War II was coming to an end. He mustered out of the service and attended Purdue University before coming back to Roanoke and marrying the former Carolyn L. Brown in the summer of 1947. It was about that time that he began racing in earnest, specializing in midgets, which ran year-around – outdoors in the summer and under big-city arena roofs in the winter months.

He was a smart, determined driver whose successes attracted the attention of Joe Langley, a long-time “500” mechanic who was building his own entries for the Memorial Day race.  He prevailed upon a reluctant Hartley to drive one of his cars in the 1950 sweepstakes, and Hartley rewarded Langley’s confidence by placing the car on the last row on the final day of qualifications. He finished 16th in his rain-shortened “rookie” race.

Over the next 12 years, Hartley qualified for nine more Indianapolis 500s. His most successful effort was in 1957, when he finished 10th, running the entire 200 laps for the first time. He finished 11th or three other occasions – 1956, 1959, and 1961.

Hartley’s most harrowing day at the speedway was Saturday, May 30, 1953. In what is still remembered as “the hottest 500,” Hartley’s yellow No. 41 car crashed in turn 4 on lap 53 and was out of the race. But relief drivers were common then, and he sensed there might be more opportunity to compete as the track temperature climbed past 130 degrees. Fate proved him correct. Tony Bettenhausen, running with the leaders, needed relief early in the scorching heat. He turned his car over to another driver, who also found the sweltering, windy conditions unbearable. Bettenhausen’s car owner got Hartley ready to relieve the relief driver, and he was behind the wheel when the car spun in the north short chute just four laps from the checkered flag. Hartley was not seriously injured in either mishap and to this day holds the unfortunate distinction of being involved in two accidents in different cars in the same Indianapolis 500.

Hartley competed in the top ranks of U.S. racing in midgets, sprint cars, stock cars, and Indianapolis-style “championship” cars for 16 years. He hung up his helmet in 1963 after realizing that the heavy, front-engine cars he was comfortable with were becoming less competitive at Indianapolis. He returned to the world of midget racing, where his 33 career victories and his United States Auto Club national championship in 1959 afforded him great credibility as a race promoter. He and fellow retired driver Leroy Warriner operated the Speedrome track for years in Indianapolis, where the Hartleys made their home. He left racing to become a sales representative for an automotive parts manufacturer, then came back to his hometown in full retirement in 1991. He died three years later, at age 68. His son Keith still resides in Roanoke, daughter Julie Hartley Rollins lives in Indianapolis, and Carolyn, since remarried, now lives in Fort Wayne.

In 2016, the Indiana Bicentennial Commission erected a plaque honoring the Hartleys in front of the Roanoke Historical Museum. Of Gene, is says: “Despite his racing fame his neighbors best recall his love of family, friendliness, and humbleness.”

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