VALLEY STREAM, N.Y — It’s a shame that so many great drivers of the past have been grossly forgotten. Mainly because of safety issues, or rather the lack of it, careers were far shorter years ago.
With today’s TV overkill and the internet, mid-pack drivers are far better exposed than yesterday’s big stars.
One of the greatest drivers of my youth was Jimmy Bryan. He is barely spoken of today but after reading this, one may realize how talented he was. To many, he was the most gifted driver on a one-mile dirt oval.
Jimmy was from Phoenix, Ariz. His year of birth is listed as either 1926 or 1927. He was a fighter pilot during WWII and like many others, took to auto racing.
Being from the West Coast was always an advantage. With the excellent climate, they raced almost all year. Starting in roadsters he soon turned to midgets, often racing in southern California.
He made a quick jump to Indianapolis in 1951. His first try in Doug Caruthers’ Viking Trailer Special was a disappointing seven miles per hour too slow to make the race. But he did win two AAA sprint car features at Williams Grove, Pa. and Palm Beach, Fla.
Things got much better in 1952, Bryan hooked up as a rookie with first-time owner meatpacker Peter Schmidt of St. Louis. He handily put the car in the lineup at 21st spot. He drove steadily to finish sixth. This was the first year of the rookie of the year award. Bryan was nosed out by Art Cross who beat him by one spot. He added another sprint car win at Terre Haute, Ind.
1953 was discouraging. His McDaniel Special started in the last row at Indianapolis and was far behind the field, being flagged at 187 laps. He did win seven AAA sprint races, including one at the Trenton, N.J., mile. He took over the Beesie Lee Paoli champ car after Art Cross drove it to second in the 500. Bryan copped a runner-up at Milwaukee and was third at Detroit.
In September, he won at Sacramento. It wouldn’t be his last victory.
Things were looking up in 1954. Al Dean, also from Arizona, had started a new team the year before and won with Bob Sweikert, who left for Lee Elkins’ McNamara team. Joining with mechanic Clint Brawner, the Dean No. 9 headed for Indy. Roadsters had started a new trend at the Brickyard.
Bryan put the Dean dirt car on the Indy front row next to the roadsters of Jack McGrath (the first to run 140 mph) and Jimmy Daywalt. Bryan battled near the front and lead 46 laps, the last dirt machine to lead at Indy.
1953 winner Bill Vukovich bulled past everybody and took the lead at halfway. Bryan battled for second with much difficulty. Both the front spring and a shock had broken. Bryan, a well-built speciman found out how bumpy the Indy bricks were. He was so badly beaten up he had to be hospitalized for three days and missed the next race at Milwaukee.
Relief? He scoffed it off and finished second.
Bryan took the 800 points he won at Indy and strove for the national championship. He won the last four races on the schedule, including a wire-to-wire win at Las Vegas and won the right to wear No. 1 on his car the next year.
Bryan was rewarded in 1955 with a new Kuzma roadster for 1955. He was very proud of the big “1” on its hood. He knew he had Vukovich and McGrath to beat at Indy. Those two fought for the lead until McGrath dropped out and Vukovich crashed to his death while leading on the 57th lap.
Bryan battled for the lead with Bob Sweikert and lead 31 laps before the fuel pump quit before halfway.
Sweikert won and his 1,000 points would be hard to catch since he ran for the title. Sweikert won one other race and easily took the numeral “1” away from Bryan. With no points at Indy, Bryan went on a tear, winning six races, including the last three. He especially thrilled the fans at the tough circular mile at Langhorne, Pa., where after his June Champ win he copped a sprint car feature in September. He zipped to second in points but still didn’t like the fact he’d sport No. 2 in 1956.
Back with the same Dean roadster in 1956, the 500 was a mess with many popped tires and spinning cars due to faster speeds. He qualified a poor 19th and was running near the front when he spun and stalled. He lost 15 laps and finished a dismal 19th. Indy winner Pat Flaherty went on to win Milwaukee. Bryan was almost 1100 points behind him. Lady Luck snarled at Flaherty, who rolled over at Springfield and broke his arm in six places.
Bryan was determined to take the title that year. In July he won his first race but it was a non-point run in the Racing Asso. Spl. In August, Bryan ran four races, two in Champ cars and two in stock cars in eight days. He had two wins, a second and a fourth. He won four Champ Trail races in a row and wrestled the title from idle Flaherty. He had won his second title with no points at Indy, which paid points per mile. 1,000 were won at Indy, 200 on the miles.
For 1957, The Dean roadster was adorned with No. 1 again. He started the year by winning a stock car race in January at his home track in Phoenix.
He was hoping this would be his year at Indianapolis, but it came at a new era when roadsters with lay down engines would dominate. Sam Hanks in his 12th Indy start was uncatchable in George Salih’s revolutionary new car. He chopped five mph off Vukovich’s 1954 record. Jim Rathmann in a similar car came from the last row to finish second. Bryan was a distant third, never leading. He wasn’t happy.
After wrecking at Milwaukee and winning at Detroit. The Indy gentry jetted to Monza, Italy for a special event, run in three segments. Bryan won all three of them, showing his mettle on a high-speed paved track. He seemed to be headed for another title, but Rathmann won the point-rich Milwaukee 250 while Jimmy didn’t finish. Bryan kept busy running the USAC stock car circuit. He closed out he year winning at Phoenix, his only champ car point race win of the season and won his third championship. In his last four years, Bryan was champ three times and second the other year.
Yet he was frustrated. He wanted the Indy 500. After much soul searching, he decided to quit the Dean team. It was good foresight, Dean never won the 500 but four of his former drivers did. With Sam Hanks retiring, the 1957 winning car was open. Bryan went for it but Salih didn’t race elsewhere. Bryan would he giving up his favorite dirt miles.
He started 1958 by winning another stock car race at Phoenix. At Indy, the Salih car was No. 1 and Bryan put it in the third row, a bit slower than A.J. Watson’s “standard” roadsters. Bryan was probably fortunate he was in the third row as actions by Ed Elisian wiped out the first two rows in a crash on the first lap, which killed Pat O’Connor.
Bryan was the first car through the melee.
Even though he lead 139 laps, Bryan had a tussle with stubborn rookie George Amick, along with Johnny Boyd and Tony Bettenhausen. He pulled away as the race went on and finally got the elusive Indy 500 win.
He took his share of the more than $100,000 the car won and rested except for a return trip to Monza where he finish second twice to Jim Rathmann.
In 1959, Bryan was hoping to make history. The Salih car was gunning for three 500 wins in a row, never achieved then or since. The month of May was a bust. The car acted up all month and Bryan barely got it in the show.
It was smoking badly on the pace lap. Bryan had to park it. He went from first one year to last the next. He raced in four stock car races that year but didn’t win. His first winless season.
In 1960, Salih sold the old car and built a new one, a lightweight, designed around Bryan’s athletic build. He qualified 10th for the 500 and while never fought for the lead, ran near the front before a fuel pump quit on the 152nd lap. They took the car to Milwaukee where Bryan finished a good sixth after starting 23rd. Jimmy Bryan was restless and bored. He was tired of not winning, then a proposition came up.
The next stop was one of Bryan’s favorites, the gritty round Langhorne track. Rodger Ward hated racing there and refused to run. Bryan knew of this and talked owner Bob Wilke into having him drive at the Horne. It would be Bryan’s first Champ car run on the dirt since 1957.
Bryan was happy the car had a big 1 on it and fans piled into the old Pennsylvania oval seeing one of their favorites return. Bryan was free spirited in his familiar white t-shirt, cowboy hat and big cigar as he needled with his fellow drivers.
Bryan seemed to be back. He put the car on the outside pole. On the pace lap, fans stood and cheered to welcome their old favorite back. On the green, Bryan hit one of Langhorne’s infamous ruts by “Puke Hollow” and the car soared into the air. It landed atop of him, a crash even a tough guy like Jimmy Bryan couldn’t survive. His life and legacy was over.
For many weeks there was whispering in the pits. Some said he was away too long. Others stated he was “too old” for the toughness that was Langhorne.
Old? Jimmy Bryan was age 34 when he died.