When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway announced plans in June to build a 3/16th-mile dirt track inside Turn 3 to honor retiring Hoosier racing legend Tony Stewart, the first person to reach out to help was Bryan Clauson.
Track president Doug Boles reflected on Clauson’s call today, just hours after the IMS executive hosted a morning press conference to deliver the sad news that Clauson died Sunday night from injuries sustained in a crash Saturday at the Belleville (Kan.) Midget Nationals.
“He said any opportunity we have to thank Tony for all he’s done for short-track racing, I’m there,” Boles said of Clauson’s call. “Just tell me what you need. He had that kind of spirit. You could count on that.”
Clauson, 27, won multiple USAC national championships in midgets and sprint cars, in addition to racing in three Indianapolis 500s. He was among the drivers who joined Stewart on that IMS dirt track in July.
CLICK HERE: Bryan Clauson photo gallery
Stewart tweeted today: “It's a very sad day today losing @BryanClauson. Just remember God is in control and has a plan for all of us. Bryan was a great driver/guy!”
Boles and Verizon IndyCar Series drivers participating in a Firestone tire test at IMS remembered Clauson’s positive attitude, humble nature and driving talent particularly in short-track racing.
“The glass was always half full with him,” Boles said.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2014 Indy 500 winner for Andretti Autosport, mentioned how the racing community has been deeply affected by the loss of great drivers in recent years, most notably two-time Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2011 and longtime series regular Justin Wilson at Pocono Raceway last year.
“It’s extremely difficult. It’s devastating,” Hunter-Reay said. “Losing Dan, then Justin, who was a really close friend, and then Bryan. I spent a lot of time with (Clauson) over the month (of May), my kids playing with his dogs and stuff, every day after practice seeing him out in the bus lot, catching up. It’s really tough. It’s something that you can never get used to and you never become accustomed to it.
“The good thing is I’m behind the wheel of a race car today, which is definitely the best place to be at a time like this. Our thoughts, prayers, condolences go out to him and his family, a great, great bunch of people. Just a great race car driver and a great person.”
A California native who moved to the Indianapolis area and attended Noblesville High School, Clauson had set out to compete in 200 races this year in midgets, winged and non-winged sprint cars and more. After finishing 23rd at the Indy 500 in May, he raced again that night at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway and won a sprint car feature. Saturday night’s race was his 116th of the year.
Verizon IndyCar Series owner/driver Ed Carpenter, among those participating in the tire test, spoke of how Clauson’s death stunned the racing community.
“The biggest reaction is just shock when incidents do come along, where guys don’t recover, whether it’s Bryan, Jason Leffler, Justin Wilson last year,” Carpenter said. “At the same time, for me, I know I love doing this and I know how much those guys loved doing it as well. I think the best way for us to honor them is to carry on.
“(Clauson) was having an unbelievable year chasing a goal of 200 races in a year and had won like 25 percent of them. He’s going to be missed. He’s especially going to be missed here. I ran quite a bit with him in the ‘500’ this year after I was laps down and was just out finishing. We did some racing and he did a really good job. He had come a long way from his rookie ‘500.’ I was proud to see how much ground he had made up here in the ‘500’ with limited experience. He was a real racer. He had a bright future ahead of him.”
Carpenter, whose car was among those carrying a "BC" tribute decal (shown above) during the IMS test, reminded that Clauson was leading his final race when he crashed.
“It’s hard for a lot of people to understand how we do this, but we love racing,” Carpenter said. “Bryan loved racing. It’s so early, but I’m happy to know that he went out doing what he loved to do and he was leading while he was doing it.”
Clauson’s accomplishments included three USAC National Midget Series championships, being named a three-time USAC National Drivers champion and winning two USAC National Sprint Car championships. He also was named Non-Winged Driver of the Year, was a two-time Turkey Night Grand Prix winner and triumphed in the famous Chili Bowl in 2014.
“You could tell how much he loved racing because he was racing all the time,” Hunter-Reay said. “It didn’t matter what it was. It takes a lot of heart, a lot of guts, a lot of courage to have your talent in sprint cars and in dirt and in this and that, and then come to Indy and jump right into the deep end of the pool at 230 mph in an Indy car. That’s just the kind of driver he was. He was flat out and he had loads of talent. And even more important than all that, he was just an absolutely great person.
“Unfortunately, it’s obviously a dangerous sport, but this day and age, it’s tough to even fathom or process losing a friend and a competitor. The racing community, the motorsports community is a family. It’s another big loss, no doubt.”
Boles mentioned how more short-track race fans came to IMS to watch Clauson in the Indy 500.
“It really was a reconnection for the speedway with short-track racing,” Boles said. “It created a buzz for us and sold tickets in the short-track racing community.”
Graham Rahal compared Clauson to old-school racers like four-time Indy 500 winner A.J. Foyt and Rahal’s father, Bobby. He admired how Clauson was a sponge when learning how to drive an Indy car.
“I think the thing with Indy cars that is so intriguing for him is it didn’t necessarily come easy. He was always extremely intrigued, had a lot of questions about how to improve, what do I need to do and how do I need to do it?” said the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing driver. “You don’t see that too often around here, even the rookies who come in here. There’s not a lot of guys that their ego can’t step out of the way enough for them to ask questions. Bryan was a guy who could easily do that, and that was amazing to me.
“You see the success and numbers he put up. There’s no doubt in my mind he probably would have broken every record that USAC had to break because he was well on his way at 27. Impressive.”
Rahal, like Hunter-Reay, got to know Clauson better in the days leading up to the 100th Indy 500 in May.
“Bryan was a great guy, great competitor, an extremely humble guy who carried himself with a lot of class and humility,” Rahal said. “I can’t imagine what Lauren (Stewart), his fiancée, and what his entire family is going through. We spent a lot of time with them at Indy this year. We were (qualified) on the same row, so we saw each other a lot.”
Clauson and Stewart were to be married in February.
Tony Kanaan, the 2013 Indy 500 winner, conceded he didn’t know Clauson well, but assured the departed driver’s legacy will be remembered.
“I’m coming to the conclusion lately that there are a lot more talented drivers in the small series than the big series,” Kanaan said. “Look at him. He drove everything. I remember talking to him this year. He had done like 32 races before the ‘500’ already and he was going back and forth that week. I definitely couldn’t do that. I never even tried.
“I would say he was a natural talent. We bring people up after they pass. We only tell good things about people then, they become more famous after they are gone, but I think the racing community will always appreciate what he did.”
Boles reiterated Clauson’s status as a short-track racing legend.
“Short-track racing has always been the heart and soul of auto racing in America,” Boles said. “Bryan Clauson combined his passion and enthusiasm for grassroots racing with a God-given talent that made him the favorite to win every time he got in a midget or sprint car. And he proved on the world's largest racing stage – by leading three laps in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 – that he could use that talent in just about anything with wheels.
“More importantly, he possessed a humility and character out of the race car that made him a person that fellow competitors and fans alike enjoyed being around. His spirit, his positive outlook and his thrilling talent will be missed by the entire racing community. The thoughts and prayers of everyone at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway are with the Clauson family in this difficult time.”
A memorial service for Clauson at IMS will be announced at a later date. In lieu of flowers, contributions to the USAC Benevolent Fund may be made at http://usacbf.org/cash-donation/ or checks to the USAC Benevolent Foundation in the name of Bryan Clauson may be sent to: 124 E. Northfield Dr., Suite F #129, Brownsburg, Ind. 46112.