Tim Clauson and Shauna Hogg were excitedly talking to each other in the Placerville Speedway pit area 23 years ago after they had just finished second and third in an ‘A’ main event. Tim’s 4-year-old son, Bryan, as Hogg tells the story, interrupted his father’s conversation and said, “I don’t know why you two are so happy. All you did was play ‘Follow the Leader.’ ”
Bryan Clauson died last Sunday after his sprint car flipped end over end between turns three and four during a race at the USAC Belleville (Kan.) Midget Nationals. His sprint car came to a stop upside down on the track, where his cockpit was struck by another car racing at speed. Clauson, who was born in Carmichael and spent his childhood in Citrus Heights, was 27.
“Bryan was born with that instinct for racing. It was more than just being talented,” said Hogg, who has raced sprint cars on and off for 36 years and was especially close to Bryan’s parents – Tim and Diana. “Had I known then that Bryan would go on to become one of the best race car drivers we’ve ever seen, I would have had him as my mentor instead of Tim.”
Hogg and Tim Clauson met at Rio Linda’s Cracker Jack Track, where young drivers such as Jeff Gordon started their racing careers. Tim Clauson drove two seasons for Hogg’s father, Richard, in his sprint car while Shauna Hogg was away at college. Shauna Hogg was at Mercy San Juan Hospital in June 1989 when Bryan was born, she said. Bryan was the first newborn she’d ever held, and he produced “the first and only dirty diaper I ever changed, too,” she said.
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When Bryan was in grade school, the Clausons moved to Noblesville, Ind., to give him a greater opportunity to race sprint cars at a young age. California’s restrictive insurance laws prevented track owners from allowing him to race. But in the Midwest, Hogg said, drivers as young as 13 can pilot an 800-horsepower sprint car on tracks where speeds of more than 100 mph are common.
Hogg said the physical distance between her and the Clausons helped them lose track of each other, but she did follow young Bryan’s racing exploits. It wasn’t until 2009 when she reconnected with the family and Bryan was already an accomplished driver.
Clauson made his USAC National Sprint Series debut two days after turning 16 and took third. In October later that 2005 season, Clauson won the Open Wheel Oktoberfest race at the Columbus Motor Speedway and became the youngest driver in USAC history to win a National Series ‘A’ main.
He went on to win three National Midget championships (2010, 2011, 2015), three USAC National Drivers championships (2010, 2011, 2012), two USAC National Sprint Car Series championships (2012, 2013) and he won the famous Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Okla., in 2014.
He drove in the Indianapolis 500 in 2012, 2015 and this past May, when he led three laps but finished 23rd behind Nevada City native Alexander Rossi. Clauson earned rides in NASCAR’s Infinity and Nationwide series, and Indy Lights.
“Bryan Clauson combined his passion and enthusiasm for grass-roots racing with a God-given talent that made him the favorite to win every time he got in a midget or sprint car,” Doug Boles, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said in a statement. “And he proved on the world’s largest racing stage – by leading three laps in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 – that he could use that talent in just about anything with wheels.”
The 2016 racing schedule for several national series was on Clauson’s calendar in his well-traveled motor home. He was trying to compete in 200 races this year, dubbed the “Circular Insanity Tour.” That driving feat has never been done – not by A.J. Foyt, Gary Bettenhausen or Tony Stewart – three American drivers to whom Clauson was most often compared because he, like those three legends, would drive anything with four wheels – anywhere, anytime. Last Saturday’s race, Clauson’s finale, was his 117th start this year.
Chasing that mark was something Clauson had in mind for a while, Silver Dollar Speedway and Marysville Speedway track announcer Troy Hennig said. Hennig last saw Clauson at Placerville Speedway on March 23, when Clauson competed in the Placerville Short Track Outlaw Showdown. He finished ninth.
“I asked him how his body was holding up, and he told me how hard it was (chasing 200 starts),” Hennig said. “He pursued a dream that not many outside of the racing community would understand because he died doing it. But he was a globally known driver. We’ve seen an outpouring of support from as far away as Australia and New Zealand, where he raced before.”
Hogg said the Clauson family will hold a private service this weekend in Indiana and a public celebration of life Aug. 24 at the Kokomo Speedway, the Indiana dirt track that was Clauson’s favorite.
Clauson was an organ donor, something his parents didn’t know about until it was brought to their attention in the Lincoln, Neb.-area hospital where he died. In death, Clauson helped five people by donating his organs. His parents and Hogg were not surprised that Clauson helped people, even in death.
“Diana told me that his heart and lungs were placed very quickly, and they took great comfort in knowing that he could continue to help people,” said Hogg, who was inspired by Clauson to become an organ donor Monday. “By those gifts, Bryan gave us another perspective on a true hero’s life and death.”
Mark Billingsley covers local motor sports for The Bee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @editorwriter001.