One of the shames in covering racing on a full-time basis is that you have to occasionally prep yourself for the worst. And no matter how much you think you can prepare, you’re never ready to hear that jarring, shocking news that a driver has died in the heat of competition.
Worse still is when you realize you’ve not only lost a driver, but a class human being as well.
I can’t claim to have known Bryan Clauson well, but this May provided an opportunity to get to know him better. In that month, I got a glimpse of a person who was so high on life, so happy for his opportunities, so humble with his time… and of course, so damn talented behind the wheel of whatever he drove.
Others will touch on his dirt track prowess (Robin Miller’s tribute here; Curt Cavin’s is here) and the fact he won pretty much whatever he got behind the wheel of, whether it was a winged or non-winged sprint car, a midget, or a Silver Crown car. Heck, he was in four cars in four nights at one point this May, and then after finishing 23rd in the 100th Indianapolis 500 and leading three laps, he won another race the same night.
I’d followed Clauson most as it relates to the Indianapolis 500, with his three starts coming with three different teams, in three different aero specifications, and with different teammates every time.
Flashing back a bit to his 2012 debut, here was one of two rookies – along with his then-teammate Josef Newgarden, also an Indy first-timer – who was damn fearless into the corners and showed no signs of intimidation with first-year full-time team Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.
Although most of the components were new, all the teams in IndyCar at the time were adapting to the new Dallara DW12 chassis – brought into being a year after the horrific accident at Las Vegas that claimed Dan Wheldon’s life.
And Clauson’s dirt expertise immediately paid dividends because he was sliding the rearward weight heavy car at a clip that didn’t seem possible. Forget seeing a veteran do it, this was a 23-year-old at the time, who’d never been in an IndyCar until that month!
Newgarden went ahead and qualified seventh – Honda’s lone bullet in a Chevrolet-dominated session – and Clauson was well on his way to a Row 4 or 5 start after a couple solid laps himself. It all went awry though when Clauson got bit by Indy’s infamous Turn 1, and a heavy crash ended his first qualifying run. A back-row start next to the two Lotus-powered cars – albeit significantly faster – and then an early accident in the race was no way of judging his maiden attempt.
Things were far less comfortable once Clauson returned to the Brickyard last year, having partnered with Jonathan Byrd’s Racing and the team going with KVSH Racing. But again, the situation was less than ideal. He was in the first year of aero kits, with a team whose setup and pace fluctuated, a lead driver who is less than endeared with Indy (Sebastien Bourdais) and a rookie who was ill-prepared for the month ahead in Stefano Coletti. No wonder then that things barely clicked, Clauson had to sweat out Bump Day, and then crashed in the race. Again, not an indictment of the talent – just a description of the situation.
The two tough years at Indy made for a somewhat nicer transition into 2016. The Byrd livery and family had now taken over the livery of a Dale Coyne Racing Honda, with Conor Daly announced for the season and Clauson – in a fourth car – added for the Indianapolis 500 but with the Byrd colors going to his No. 88 Cancer Treatment Centers of America Honda rather than Daly’s usual No. 18 car. The ‘500 program would be a centerpiece of Clauson and Byrd Racing’s planned “Chasing 200” tour.
With team veteran Pippa Mann back for her usual effort and then a late change to add 2015 rookie of the year Gabby Chaves, Coyne suddenly had a four-car attack on Indy that was ensconced as a top sleeper, with four, hungry, determined drivers with something to prove.
Coyne’s always had a bit of a family atmosphere anyway being the small Plainfield, Ill.-based team outside the mights of everyone based in Indianapolis and Charlotte, and this is where Clauson fit right in.
His effervescent spirit, smile and excitement of actually being in a team that had fun doing what they were doing – this is racing, not accounting, mind you – brought spirits up and really positioned the team well for the rest of the month.
A chat with him on media day really brought out how much he was enjoying his third crack at Indy, a track he loved, but still a far cry from his usual days and nights kicking ass on dirt.
“It’s funny, and I’ve said, it’s awesome to be back here. But I have terrible timing!” Clauson joked when he and I talked that day. “In 2012, I came in with a brand new car. I had my best month that year. In ’15, we had the aero kits and hole in floor. In ’16, it’s domed skids. So there’s nothing to fall back on, to look back at last year.
“The teams have been learning as well as I have. I’ve been with different teams every year. But I have found a home here with Dale. A lot more fun working with that group. There’s completely different feeling about the month this year.
“It helps having someone like Pippa around too, who for the most part is a part-timer. She goes through similar stuff because of more years experience, but still needing to learn every year. But she can help fix some of my problems that I might be feeling that the full-time guys aren’t.”
And how different was it to spend time just at IMS while in the midst of a planned “Chasing 200” circular insanity tour?
“It’s a little bit boring,” he laughed. “But so much goes into this, from a time and effort standpoint. By the time we get done with engineering meetings, I don’t have much time to go. It’s a lot of work out there. You’re usually out half races, most days. Plus digging through all the data. It’s certainly a little different. It’s a change in routine. But it’s fun.”
Clauson and fiancee Lauren brought a lot of fun to the track this month with their presence. They were pretty much the stars of the only rain-delayed day this year, and plus there was the note that because their cute little dog Chevy Clauson couldn’t be called Chevy this year since Clauson was driving a Honda, she’d be renamed Honda for the month.
And Clauson’s presence at the Speedway also spurred me to finally do something I thought I’d be taking for granted – actually watching him wheel it on dirt.
A friend of mine and I went to Clauson’s favorite track, Kokomo Speedway, the Sunday night after the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It was opening night for the season. It was also freezing, in the 40s.
And watching Clauson on dirt was simply mesmerizing. I can’t describe what it was like to watch him run the lines he did, and was flowing through the corners as fast as he was.
In brief, he made me a dirt racing fan.
Just this weekend I took the opportunity to watch another talented young driver – Sean Rayhall – make his winged sprint debut at the Plymouth Speedway at the Sheboygan County Fair Park. Yes, seeing a friend compete is one thing, but I wouldn’t have had the excitement I did to go straight from Road America if it wasn’t for watching Clauson that frigid night back in May.
History will look back on him as a driver who won a hell of a lot of races, led the 100th lap in the 100th Indianapolis 500 and re-established the connection between short track Americana and the Indianapolis 500.
But while his passion for racing was unmatched, it’s the impact he left on those he touched from his humility and grace as a person that stands as a far greater legacy to leave.
Godspeed, Bryan Clauson.