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Clauson Flexible Enough To Survive Twists Of Fate

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, April 6 2012

Bryan Clauson appeared to be a star in the making when he was a NASCAR prodigy. Then, the career took a turn. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

As far a dreams and aspirations go, Bryan Clauson’s were pretty general. “I just wanted to race for a living,” he says. After that, all options would be considered.

Which is good. Because in these times of an economy in tatters and of automobile racing in a state of flux, all dreams and aspirations had better be able to withstand extremely disappointing seismic jolts. Like those experienced by Clauson.

Now, at just 22 years old, Clauson looks at his driving career and says, “It’s been a wild ride.”

Clauson was a product of the Age of Gordon.

Like Jeff Gordon, Clauson is a native of California who got interested in racing an early age. And, like Gordon, Clauson had a family who was willing to adjust its life by packing up and moving to Indiana to pursue Bryan’s racing dreams.

And also like Gordon, Clauson was a whiz behind the wheel at an early age and became a bit of a star racing USAC cars in the Midwest. At 16, just like Gordon, Clauson became the youngest driver to win a national USAC feature race.

Unlike Gordon, Clauson’s plans for life after graduating from USAC were flexible: Gordon, remember,

Bryan Clauson just wanted to earn a living as a race car driver back in 2008. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

wanted to race Indycars but when told, sorry not interested, by team owners in that series Gordon found stock car owners to be more receptive to his ample driving talents.

“Obviously growing up in Indianapolis with the Indy 500 carried a little bit of weight,” Clauson said during a telephone conversation between practice runs for the Toyota Pro/Celebrity race in Long Beach, Calif., on Wednesday. “But sprint cars, NASCAR, IndyCar, it didn’t matter” as long as he got The Call.

Clauson’s call came one afternoon after he got home from high school. It was from Chip Ganassi. Typical of a 16-year-old, Clauson stammered and stumbled his way through the call and when it was over, “The next thing I knew, I was on my way to North Carolina.”

Back in the mid 2000s, development deals were a big thing in NASCAR. All of the top teams were scouting and signing young talent in searches for the next Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Clauson was one of those young talents who appeared, at least, to be in the right place at the right time. At 17, in 2007, he won an ARCA race and piled up a bunch of top-five finishes.  “It was a duck to water sort of thing,” he said. “It didn’t take long to get adapted and it was a lot of fun. Got to learn from a lot of great people because back in those days, we got to lean on the Cup people quite a bit.”

And a couple months of that, he was put into a NASCAR Nationwide Series car.

“At that point, things are going great,” Clauson said. “Things were rolling. Everything that can go right was going right. It was one of those things where things were good.”

In 2008, the fan blades were soiled by the economy. The second half of the season, Clauson shared a Nationwide ride with Dario Franchitti, a winner of the Indianapolis 500 who was lured from IndyCar to NASCAR by the challenge and by that driver gene-oriented urge to be where the action is.

The next call from Ganassi, who had merged operations with Dale Earnhardt Inc. – was not as wonderful as the first.

“I knew the sponsorship situation,” Clauson said, “and some of the decisions that were being made were not good for that. So, I kind of saw it coming. We went into the office and talked about it.”

Clauson left the office as a 19-year-old unemployed race car driver.

“I think kind of what’s happening is back a few years ago,” he said, “NASCAR was really actively searching for guys to be in their programs and kind of paying the drivers,” he said. “Now, you’ve kind of seen the shift to where a driver with a little less talent and a little more sponsorship money is probably going to get the job.”

Clauson, with no sponsorship money, said, “I had two options. I could sit down and mope about it or go back to racing and do what I did in the first place to get there.”

In 2009, it was back to USAC and sprint cars to pursue a job in any kind of series which would allow him to race for a living. He would go on to win the overall USAC driver’s championship at 21 and that earned him a scholarship to compete in INDYCAR’s Firestone Indy Lights series.

Clauson spent the 2011 season driving in Lights for Sam Schmidt Racing. In his first outing, at

Bryan Clauson spent 2011 in the Firestone Indy Lights Series. (RacinToday/HHP file photo courtesy of Tami Kelly Pope)

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, he won the Lights pole. In six races, he had four top-five finishes in six race.

This duck, apparently, could swim in different kinds of waters.

This week, Clauson had two things on his mind as he talked on a cell phone from Long Beach. The first was the Toyota Pro-Celebrity race, which will be held as part of the Long Beach Grand Prix festivities next week.  It will mark his first attempt at road racing.

The second was the Indianapolis 500. Clauson said he is very close to signing a deal to drive in this year’s 500.

The deal, he said, may get done as early as today. He said he has been in discussions with a couple of existing IndyCar Series teams but would not say which the deal would be with.

(RacingToday has learned, however, that Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing is the front-runner for Clauson’s 500 services.)

This week, Clauson passed his IndyCar oval test at Texas Motor Speedway.

A ride in the most important race in the world would be a testimonial to keeping career plans flexible. After getting a taste, he could have clung to the NASCAR hope. He probably could have slipped back into that pool of talented drivers who sit around and hope the phone rings. He probably could have found work in ARCA or, perhaps, as racing temp. He might have been able to land a start-and park-job in Cup, Nationwide or Camping World.

But he was flexible enough to step back in order to step forward. And he was smart enough to know that open-wheel racing is once again becoming a viable career destination for young Americans.

“I think there’s a little bit of shift there,” Clauson said. “I think this year, as much as any, IndyCar has hired (young American) guys and has a good of a crop of those drivers as they’ve had in a long time.”

But, Clauson said, if IndyCar is going to return to favor with the mass of fans in this country, it is not enough just to have Americans in the cockpits. Those Americans, he said, will have to come up through the American ranks instead of heading off to Europe to gain experience.

“You look at the (current IndyCar) field and there’s seven or eight American drivers,” he said. “So over a third of the field is American. But I think what IndyCar’s lacking right now is an American that people grew up watching. You know, who they saw come up through the ranks, who grew up in America

“There’s not really an American out there that the public has gotten to watch grow up at the smaller, grass roots level.”

Well, maybe there’s one.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, April 6 2012
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