This past Sunday evening the racing world lost Bryan Clauson after a hard crash in the USAC Belleville Nationals. His Midget flipped against the guard rail while he was leading on lap 14, and then was slammed by another car when he came to rest upside down.
Clauson was one of the most decorated drivers the dirt racing world had ever seen, specifically in non-winged cars. He was also one of the most daring. This year alone, Clauson had plans to run 200 races. It was dubbed, “The Circular Insanity” tour. Saturday night was race 116. He had already won 27 races, and his schedule was barely half finished.
Everybody knows Clauson’s long list of accolades. 2014 Chili Bowl Nationals champion, multi-time USAC National Midget champion. The list goes on and on.
But what a lot of people may look over was his brief stint in stock cars. When Clauson was still a teenager he was signed to a driver development contract by Chip Ganassi. It was there that he met Gary Crooks, owner of Crooks Racing, and Lorin Ranier, a long-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series spotter and now a car owner in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series.
Ranier and Crooks both played integral roles in the development of Clauson as a driver, but both said they had no influence on him as a person because he was already one of the best they’d ever met.
“He was always very positive,” Crooks recalled. “I can’t remember a time that he complained. Whether we were having a good night or a bad night he was always extremely grateful and was always smiling.”
“Bryan was an awesome kid, man,” said Ranier. “That’s really all I can tell you. He was a genuinely good guy. Period.”
Clauson ran roughly 10 Late Model races in David Stremme’s equipment, with Crooks overseeing it all and serving as a mentor. He said the one thing that stood out the most when he was working with Clauson was how attentive Clauson was to everything at the race track.
“He was one hundred percent about racing,” Crooks said. “It didn’t matter what it was. It didn’t matter if it was a Sprint Car, a Midget, an asphalt car. Whatever race track we were at always had other divisions and he was always very attentive to what they were doing and where they were running and what line they were running.”
Crooks said his favorite memory of racing with Clauson happened in a Pro Late Model race at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Raceway, then known as Indianapolis Raceway Park. Clauson had started in the rear of the field after an issue arose in qualifying. He finished fourth, and Crooks said the pass he made for fourth late in the race is something he’ll never forget.
“He set him up and I’d never seen anything like it for someone that young,” Crooks said. “We were very strong on the bottom of the race track and the guy he was racing against knew it. So when we caught him, that guy went to the bottom of the track to block him. Bryan would move up a foot or two each corner after. In about four laps he moved that driver from the very bottom all the way to the top. Then he went to the bottom and drove by him. That wasn’t anything that I told him to do on the radio. He just methodically moved him up the race track. When he got him up as far as he wanted him up he just drove by on the bottom. For somebody as young as he was, it was very impressive.”
Clauson eventually moved into the ARCA Racing Series where he won a race at Gateway Motorsports park in 2007. Then he moved into the NASCAR Xfinity Series, then still known as the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
It was during that period that Clauson and Ranier spent the most time together because Ranier spotted most of Clauson’s races.
Ranier said his favorite memory from back then came in a Xfinity Series race at Daytona when Clauson finished sixth after battling all day long with the Cup regulars that often moonlighted in the series.
Soon after that, Clauson’s stock car development path was interrupted. Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates brought over two-time Indianpolis 500 winner and Formula One Monaco Grand Prix winner Juan Pablo Montoya. He also brought over four-time IndyCar Series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti.
Ganassi put both of those accomplished open-wheel drivers in his Xfinity Series and Cup Series cars.
So Clauson went back to the world of dirt, where he soon became one of the best of a generation, and one of the best ever. Win after win and championship after championship came. No matter where he went, Clauson “parked it” as he loved to say.
As a result of going back to the dirt, Ranier didn’t get to see Clauson much the last few years.
But they did get one more day together last October.
Clauson ran a race at North Carolina’s Millbridge Speedway in an Outlaw Kart owned by Ranier. They spent the whole day together, and Ranier said it “was a treat.”
“He ran my kart and we had Clauson on the front of it and the whole deal. It was really cool.”
Ranier said that’s a day that he’ll now treasure greatly, because he got to spend one more day with Clauson, who as a teenager became “a part of our family.”
“It means a hell of a lot right now as I sit here,” explained Ranier. “I can’t even tell you how much it means to me to have been able to spend that day with him. That was the last full day that I got to spend with him. That was last October. They do Australia and New Zealand over the winter and then the Chili Bowl and then we start racing and everybody is busy. So that day is very special now. Very special.”
Clauson touched the lives of countless people. From driving for Gary Crooks and Lorin Ranier to taking the time to pose for a picture with a fan, he left everyone with a special memory.
Crooks said the sport lost one of its greatest ambassadors.
“He was a very good role model for young kids,” he said. “I don’t know that you’ll come across anybody that’ll ever have anything bad to say about him.”
“It’s a tough deal,” Ranier said, choking back his emotion. “I sit here and it’s almost surreal. It just doesn’t feel real to me right now. It’s just a tough situation. That’s all I can say.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Southeast Editor – Twitter: @RobBlount
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com