Photo: Tony DiZinno

DiZinno: Bryan Clauson’s talent was surpassed only by his class

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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.

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).