For almost 30 years, USAC was the pipeline to the Indianapolis 500. Whether you were a champion in midgets, sprints or Big Cars, it was a direct ticket to the big show and, of course, many of the teams that campaigned USAC’s ladder system also fielded cars at the IMS.
Lindsey Hopkins, Al Dean, J.C. Agajanian, Fred Gerhardt, John Zink, Gordon Van Liew, Jim Robbins and Andy Granatelli owned cars in several disciplines, as did A.J. Foyt, Boston Louie Seymour and Bobby Hillin, while John Menard and Jonathan Byrd sponsored Indy and USAC teams. A.J. Watson, Bill Finley and Grant King designed, built and worked on their own Indy chassis in addition to knocking out sprinters and dirt cars.
The last USAC full-timer to run Terre Haute, Winchester and the Speedway probably had to be Dick Hammond, whose Genesee Beer wagons were maintained by Galen Fox and driven by Sheldon Kinser and Steve Chassey.
Chassey may have been the last USAC regular to have a steady ride in IndyCar and USAC in the late ‘80s with Hammond, and all he had to bring was his helmet – no money. Road racers had taken over IndyCar racing by then and, other than an occasional one-off effort, USAC teams had virtually vanished from IMS by the ‘90s. There was short resurgence for USAC drivers when the Indy Racing League started in 1996 but the IRL had become CART Lite by 2001.
Thanks to former IndyCar boss Randy Bernard there was again a USAC presence at Indy in 2012 when he brought Bryan Clauson to Indianapolis. B.C. qualified three times at Indy and was starting to get comfortable with his May-only ride before losing his life in a midget accident in 2016.
And that’s why Tim Clauson’s latest adventure is so back to the future. Bryan’s dad and his partner Richard Marshall, who operate one of USAC’s most venerable and visible teams, are fielding a car for the 2019 Indianapolis 500 with Pippa Mann and sponsored by the Indiana Donor’s Network. They’re stepping outside their comfort zone and understand the challenge of first-timers with a piecemeal team and limited resources competing against what figures to be the largest field in a decade.
Yet it’s a cool connection between the good old days and the race everyone still covets. “If you race, no matter what you’re racing, the dream is to be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,” said Clauson, who was a pretty fair sprint car shoe back in the 1980s.
“We got to do that with our dirt track team last year with the BC39 midget race. We’ve talked about an Indy entry, but now it’s just become a little more real. Bryan would probably think we’re crazy, but I know he’d approve.”
But to have a short-track team back at IMS is a good story that could blossom into something great for a USAC champion like Tyler Courtney, because Clauson wants to try and make this an annual occurrence and bring a rising USAC star like Courtney to the Speedway.
“We hope we have a great experience and this thing can grow into something like Bryan did in 2012 when he came here as a USAC guy,” continued Clauson.
A lot of people have wondered why Mann is in the car instead of Clauson-Marshall’s USAC sprint champ (Courtney) or a pavement badass like Kody Swanson, or even an IndyCar veteran. It’s because she put the deal together, has been a good spokesperson for the Indiana Donor Network, and befriended Bryan when they were teammates for Dale Coyne. Clauson sings her praises, but he’s a short-track disciple and you know that if this thing gets legs , he and Marshall will want to return in 2020 – with a USAC talent.
USAC frontrunner Chris Windom, 15-year-old phenom Zeb Wise and Courtney were all at the Clauson/Marshall press conference on Wednesday. They got to run at Indianapolis last year in the BC39 midget race, but they know the only hope they’ll ever have for being on track in May rides with this new team that’s got some old school mentality.