Matt Brabham was the big winner this weekend in the Indy Legends Charity Pro-Am presented by RACER Magazine, but it wasn’t easy.
First, his good-natured gentleman owner and co-driver, Mike Donohue, lost several positions from the pole position at the start and handed the car back to Brabham deep in the pack and trailing by several seconds. Second, the smothering 94-degree heat and equally high humidity had drivers stepping from their racecars and spilling what amounted to a cup of water from their helmets as they removed them. Those conditions contributed mightily to exacerbating notoriously ineffective brakes of the vintage racers on the slick asphalt.
“This young man absolutely deserves full sponsorship for a ride in IndyCar,” said a soaking wet second-place overall, Max Papis. “Him racing with us is a great way to test his skills against more experienced professionals. This race was just another opportunity for Matt to make the statement that he has all the talent he needs to be a champion at the highest level. Somebody needs to step up to marketing this young man.”
The first person to reach Brabham was father Geoff, who clutched his son in a big bear hug. Photographers swarmed the two drivers as they posed arm-in-arm to thrust out the “number one” sign with their index fingers. It was the ultimate Father’s Day portrait.
“It is such a special moment to be standing here, at the victory podium at his Speedway, and to do it with my father,” said yesterday’s pole winner. “I can’t thank Tony Parella and SVRA enough for letting me have a shot at this race.”
The elder Brabham never turned a lap. Race rules called for amateurs to start the event and turn their cars over to their Pro no later than lap 10. Another favorite that never got behind the wheel was two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser, Jr. A ball joint fractured on co-driver Peter Klutt’s Legendary Motor Car entry.
The younger Brabham climbed behind the wheel and patiently set about picking off cars. Among those in front of him were champions never known for being easy to pass, notably Paul Tracy and Papis, last year’s B Production winner. Matt quickly returned to the pace of his pole-winning run of the previous day. One by one he picked off competitors until he had second-place Papis in his sights.
Prior to that, Willy T. Ribbs had the field covered in his ultra-fast Jim Kitzmiller Corvette. His co-driver, Ed Sevadjian, had launched from the second row to quickly dispense with Donohue and then pressure Geoff Brabham’s co-driver Jody O’Donnell. Rear suspension failure sent O’Donnell spinning into the grass and Sevadjian handed Ribbs the leading car.
Despite pulling away from everyone, Ribbs’ black beauty 1969 Corvette blew its differential at the halfway point of the race. For the second year in a row, the first black driver to qualify for the Indy 500 lost his chance for a measure of redemption at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
With Ribbs out of the way, Indy 500 veteran and legend of the sprint and midget short tracks, Jimmy Kite, found himself in a winning position on the IMS road course. Kite was part of a two-car team from Peter Klutt’s Legendary Motor Car. His co-driver, Peter’s son Gary, is another 20-something with tremendous credentials in Canadian NASCAR racing. Klutt kept his hot rod in the thick of things to hand it off to Kite, who drove a tremendous race that nearly netted the overall victory.
He had successfully pulled in front of Papis, but both drivers began to see Matt Brabham looming larger in their mirrors with five minutes remaining in the 50-minute hotbox ordeal. Papis provided thrills for onlookers as he put on a clinic in car control that will have witnesses talking about it for years. With essentially no brakes he threw Curt Vogt’s beige 1966 Shelby Mustang GT350 so sideways in corners he would make champion drifters proud.
The two drivers put on a display of skill and courage as Brabham tested different lines to make the winning pass. He veered way wide in Turn 1, allowing Papis to gap him. The 24-year-old went back to his patient work of chipping away at Papis’ advantage, and eventually pulled the move that stuck.
He then went to work on hunting down Kite’s A Production 1969 Corvette. Kite, who earlier held an impressive lead, suddenly found Brabham relentlessly knocking on the door.
“I kept looking for that last lap sign, and then when it didn’t show, I’d tell myself to hold on another lap,” Kite said. “Gary and I were fighting understeer the entire race, and then the brake pedal was to the floor. I had enough of a lead I thought I could find the right pace to bring it home and when Matt started making moves to pass I just decided I had to push it to a new level. It just hopped and slid around on me.”
Kite recovered to finish fourth overall and that was good enough to earn him the top step on the A Production podium. Darren Manning and Scott Harrington joined him there with their co-drivers in second and third.
In an unexpected outcome, the top three overall finishers were all B Production entries, with NASCAR superstars Bill Elliott and Ray Evernham following Brabham and Papis home. Other noteworthy performances included Mark Dismore and John Cloud in fifth, Johnny Parsons, Jr. and Steve Cole in seventh, and Sarah Fisher and Debbie Cloud in tenth.