INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Bryan Clauson wasn’t a household name and he hadn’t yet earned the fame or fortune enjoyed by auto racing’s superstars.
Cut from the mold of the old-school drivers, Clauson would race anything, anywhere at any time. He was chasing the USAC’s all-time wins mark – having racked up 112 already – and was well on his way to compete in 200 events this season alone. He was widely considered the best dirt-track racer in the nation.
The wildly popular Clauson died Sunday night from injuries suffered in a crash during a weekend race in Kansas, a stunning announcement that came Monday from officials at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Our Bryan fought to the end with the same desire that he demonstrated behind the wheel of all the various race cars he would park in victory lane,” the Clauson family said in a statement released by the speedway. “However, we were more proud of our Bryan that took a moment to make a young fan’s day, or demonstrated his uncommon kindness and appreciation toward his friends, family and fans.”
Clauson was leading Saturday night’s race at the Belleville Midget Nationals when he crashed while passing lapped traffic; his car rolled and was hit by another competitor. He was airlifted to a hospital in Nebraska, where he died surrounded by his family.
USAC President and CEO Kevin Miller called it “one of the darkest days in the 60-year history of the United States Auto Club.”
“Not only have we lost one of our greatest USAC champions, we’ve lost a true ambassador for all motorsports,” he said.
Fellow driver Kyle Larson said on Twitter that he was glad to become “close friends and competitors with Bryan. He was a guy who pushed me to become a better racer and person.” Danica Patrick called Clauson “one of the good ones … kind, funny, and a damn good driver.”
Miller said Clauson’s 112 victories are “behind a very, very short list of USAC Hall of Famers” that include Rich Vogler, A.J. Foyt, Sleepy Tripp and Mel Kintz.
He was on pace to compete in 200 races this year, earning 27 victories in 116 starts, and leading three laps of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29 – hours before winning a sprint car race 50 miles away in Kokomo in what he called an “Indiana Double.”
In a post for “The Drivers Project ,” Clauson detailed his Indy 500 experience and acknowledged he was “still pretty raw in these cars so to be out there and mix it up all day was great.” He also said Kokomo is where he grew up racing sprint cars and said it was important to celebrate there with loved ones.
The racing community has had several drivers die in crashes in recent years. In 2013, Jason Leffler died following a crash at a New Jersey sprint car race. The following year, Formula One driver Jules Bianchi suffered head injuries in the Japanese Grand Prix that ultimately cost him his life. A year ago, Justin Wilson was killed when he was struck in the head by a piece of debris during an IndyCar race at Pocono.
Clauson himself was involved in a crash just 24 hours before the fatal wreck. After Friday night’s crash, he went on Twitter to express his appreciation after the “tough hit” for his safety equipment, his chassis manufacturer and his team for getting his car ready to race again.
A four-time USAC national champion, Clauson was a three-time winner and the defending champion at Belleville.
“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,” IMS president Doug Boles said Monday. “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.”
Clauson was a California native who earned a USAC-IndyCar scholarship for winning the 2010 USAC national driver’s title, giving him six Indy Lights starts in 2011 in a car shared with current IndyCar Series rookie Conor Daly at Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Clauson also raced eight times in USAC’s national series, with his best finish, third, coming in Iowa in 2011.
He won the scholarship award again in 2012, allowing him to make his Indianapolis 500 debut with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He returned to the Indy 500 in 2015 with KVSH/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, and this year led his first career laps driving for Dale Coyne.
Clauson was a development driver for Chip Ganassi in NASCAR, where he competed in 26 races over the 2007 and 2008 seasons. He also spent several seasons driving for Tony Stewart’s sprint car team.
“I don’t care what happened, no matter how bad his day was, he always found a way to smile with it,” Stewart said after Sunday’s NASCAR race. “It sucks when it’s anybody in racing, it’s hard when you lose them, but it’s even worse when they’re somebody as close to you as Bryan was.”
Clauson is survived by his parents, Tim and Di, sister Taylor and fiancee, Lauren Stewart. Funeral arrangements were pending. A memorial service in his honor will take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at a date to be announced.
Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.