MACON – The four-wheeled circus rolls into the area to take control of three local dirt tracks, but the ringleader is missing.
Bryan Clauson, the 27-year-old star of open-wheel dirt track racing, died earlier this month following a midget crash at the USAC Belleville (Kan.) Nationals. A native of northern California and resident of Noblesville, Ind., Clauson was popular for his talent and interaction with the fans.
But perhaps most of all, his racing rivals just miss Clauson, his friendly personality and fiancee Lauren Stewart, not to mention those two little dogs that traveled with them everywhere. This is a weekend that favored diversity shown by Clauson.
The POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget Series races at Lincoln Speedway today and Macon Speedway on Saturday. In sharp contrast to those short tracks, many of the same drivers head to the USAC Tony Bettenhausen 100 Saturday for Silver Crown cars and the ARCA SuperChevyStores.com 100 Sunday for stock cars on the Springfield Mile at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
“I’ve known Bryan since we raced quarter-midgets against each other,’’ said POWRi series points leader Zach Daum, of Pocahontas. “We were probably 8- and 10-years old. He was such an ambassador for our racing and racing in general. He ran the Indy 500, for God’s sake. That’s the biggest thing you can do.
“We just don’t know how to take this. He was the best of our generation.’’
Clauson was a big winner. He already earned two USAC national sprint car championships and two USAC national midget championships. He also won the prestigious Chili Bowl midget race in 2014 – known as the sport’s Super Bowl – and racked up more than 170 feature wins in his career.
Clauson qualified for the Indy 500 three times, finishing 23rd in the 100th running of the race in May – and had a short career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. Yet, he was best at running on dirt.
“I’ve got to do a lot of cool stuff,’’ Clauson said before a race at Jacksonville Speedway last spring. “I started the Indy 500 twice. I’ve been on the pole at Daytona for the NASCAR (Xfinity) race. I’ve won the Chili Bowl. All I’ve wanted to do was be a sprint car driver.
“I had a good time when I was down in Charlotte doing (NASCAR) stuff. It’s more like a job. The sprint car stuff is a lot of fun. If that’s all I do for the rest of my career, then there’s no shame in that.’’
A memorial is scheduled for Wednesday at Kokomo (Ind.) Speedway, where Clauson won the feature event hours after racing in the Indy 500 this summer.
“This is truly one of the darkest days in the 60-year history of the United States Auto Club,’’ USAC CEO Kevin Miller told USA Today when news of Clauson’s death was released to the public.
Clauson’s fiancée, Lauren Stewart, is from Jacksonville, one reason why he enjoyed trips to central Illinois.
“It’s just tough,’’ said Macon Speedway promoter Bob Sargent, normally not at a loss for words. “It’s so unexpected when a guy is at the top of the sport. He got it. He understood the business. He understood what fans meant, what sponsors meant, what car owners meant.
“It’s a big void. This is a very small community. We’re all close. Even though we’re competitive, we’re very friendly, one big family.’’
Clauson’s interaction with the fans was face-to-face and digital. His dog, Chevy, has more than 7,000 followers on Twitter. (Here’s a hint. Grab the Kleenex before visiting the site.)
Drivers from other series are also honoring Clauson. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will run the same Fastenal paint scheme this weekend at Bristol that Clauson’s car used in 2008 in NASCAR. Conor Daly will run Clauson’s No. 88 at the Pocono 500 for Indy cars Sunday. In the same race, Pippa Mann's helmet will have the "BC Still Chasing 200" logo on it in Clauson's honor.
Danica Patrick worked Clauson’s souvenir trailer last weekend at the Knoxville (Iowa) nationals. Tony Stewart paid $32,000 in a benefit auction for Clauson’s favorite helmet, then returned it to Lauren Stewart.
Drivers now want to tweet “Parked it’’ in honor of Clauson, who used the tag on social media when he parked his car in victory lane.
Drivers know this is serious business, even at short tracks where the speeds don’t rival the backstretch at Daytona or the front straightaway at Indy.
“I’ve dialed the number to Rocker Chassis to sell my open wheel stuff and just race stock cars,’’ Daum said. “They’re just a little bit safer. We all want to go racing. A death isn’t going to stop us from racing. It’s what we want to do, what we love. It’s probably the only thing any of us is good at.
“The thought crosses your mind. Any of us that says it doesn’t is lying. None of us are super heroes. We’re all human. We all realize this risk it takes to do this. This is more of a reminder to the fans and maybe the younger drivers.’’
So it’s full speed ahead. Daum will race in the midgets and the Bettenhausen 100. Daum and the Keith Kunz Racing Team, owned by the Springfield native, are powerhouses in the midget ranks.
“Toyota wants us to win the POWRI championship,’’ Daum said. “They hire Keith Kunz to do USAC and me to do POWRi. At the end of the day, we both need to win those championships for them and for ourselves.’’
Daum already won the MOWA sprint car race at Macon Speedway in July, and he knows the way around the high-banked fifth-mile track. Lincoln Speedway is a quarter-mile fairgrounds track with sweeping turns.
Tanner Thorson, who ranks second in the POWRi standings, is scheduled to run all four races after announcing a deal to pilot an ARCA stock car this weekend.
That’s how Clauson would have liked it.