There’s not much to Bryan Clauson, physically anyway – he’s a raw-boned kid who looks like he’s in need of a cheeseburger because a strong wind could topple him at any time. But there’s a whole lot to like about his racing savvy, personality and attitude.
It was all on display over the weekend in Tulsa at Emmit Hahn’s 28th annual Chili Bowl as Clauson captured the prestigious midget race for the first time in a career that’s full of firsts.
Starting third, he took command early and then staved off the challenges of Christopher Bell and Kevin Swindell – running high and hard on what always turns out to be a tricky cushion.
For a guy who’s won multiple USAC championships and all the major midget shows at Belleville, Turkey Night and Indianapolis Raceway Park (ORP) it was certainly no surprise, although it probably took a little longer (10 tries) than expected.
“To win here means everything,” he gushed afterward, holding the Golden Driller trophy (RIGHT, Boyd Adams photo). “I know how much it meant to Tony (Stewart), Sammy (Swindell), Kevin (Swindell) and Tracy (Hines) and now my name is on this baby forever. It’s the biggest win of my career and just an awesome feeling.”
As I said on the video interview for RACER.com, it was nice to see a midget/sprint full-timer take home the $10,000 because Bryan isn’t on a Sprint Cup retainer like Ricky Stenhouse nor does he get the big bucks that Kyle Larson figures to be pulling down soon in NASCAR.
The future of Larson and Bell (if Toyota is smart and signs him up) looks mighty bright but it was just a few years ago that Clauson was the teenage sensation everybody was talking about. And he did sign on with Chip Ganassi and got to run ARCA and some Nationwide but then had to split the ride with Dario Franchitti before it finally went away and his development program was over.
Thanks to Randy Bernard’s plan to reward the overall USAC champion with enough money to go after an IndyCar ride, the Noblesville High School grad got to compete in the 2012 Indianapolis 500. He had a great May going and was headed for Row 4 before crashing on his fourth and final lap on Pole Day so then he had to coast and collect in Sarah Fisher’s repaired car (BELOW).
He’d been so impressive all month in a new environment before this misstep and that ruined his chances to run Milwaukee and maybe Iowa. He was dismissed as a USAC guy who was out of his element, which was neither fair nor accurate. He was adapting to speeds 100mph faster than he’d ever gone and the car stepped out like it does all the time for veterans.
So, even though he won a Nationwide pole and had some decent runs and showed plenty of promise at Indy, he was on the scrap heap at the age of 22. Unless he hit the lottery, the jury has already decided on his fate: a USAC lifer.
But I think that’s what I like so much about Clauson. He’s never bitched about not getting another shot in either discipline and usually sounds thankful to have had the opportunity whenever he’s interviewed. Not only isn’t it a pity party, Bryan embraces his lot in life.
“There’s nothing more fun or exhilarating than racing midgets and sprint cars and if I can keep winning races, I can make a decent living,” said the soon-to-be 25-year old whose won more than 50 features during the past three seasons. “I know some guys make a lot more money than I do racing but I’ve got a pretty good life.”
Forty or fifty years ago, Clauson’s prowess on dirt and pavement in USAC racing likely would have earned him a top-shelf Indy ride with Clint Brawner or George Bignotti. As it stands today, he’s a young Dave Darland. A guy that fans love to cheer for who runs Kokomo, Paragon, Gas City and Terre Haute instead of Daytona, Talladega and Bristol or Long Beach, Milwaukee and Pocono.
He’s a professional race driver but he’ll have to run 100-plus shows in three USAC divisions and maybe a few winged sprinters each year to make ends meet. No $1 million motorhome with a driver, no private plane, no seven-figure retainer, but no regrets either. Clauson was lucky compared to Levi Jones, Tracy Hines, Jerry Coons Jr. or Darland – at least he got to run in the Indianapolis 500.
But that didn’t make him any happier or feel any more satisfied than what he did last week in Tulsa. In beating some of the best open-wheel racers in this country out of the entry list of 285 drivers, he also ended the Swindells’ streak and started 2014 like he left off 2013 – in Victory Lane.
The packed house at the Tulsa Expo Center cheered long and loud as Clauson stood atop his roll cage, partly because he’d stopped the Swindells and mostly because they recognize he’s a lifer in the bullrings, quarter-miles and half miles of this country.
And, true to short track form, he didn’t have a steak to celebrate Saturday night – he had a chili dog.