PATH VALLEY, Pa. – Tyler Courtney discovered the spirit of his lifelong pursuit in the summer of 2009, just a 16-year-old Indianapolis kid with nothing to his name under the magical guidance of a figurative giant.
Courtney forewent a summer of developmental racing to take heart to Bryan Clauson, wanting to know everything about race cars and the operations behind it.
And maybe – just maybe, he thought – he could one day drive a fraction like his tangible superhero.
But it was always more than driving, Courtney quickly found. There, immersed in Clauson’s undeniable presence as a shop attendant for Clauson’s race team, he learned how to pillar himself.
He learned how to be a champion.
“Seeing another side of a guy you look up to as a superhero, getting to know him on a personal level, I just wanted that,” Courtney said.
Now, all these years later, the Clauson spirit and the stories that flow from it live on without their direct source. Friday marked four years since Clauson died from injuries suffered in a midget crash at the Belleville (Kan.) High Banks, arguably the most put-together race car driver taken from Earth too soon at 27 years old.
Courtney stood peering out from the end of the trailer that held his Clauson-Marshall Racing No. 7bc midget, overlooking a somber rainfall at Path Valley Speedway in what was supposed to be race four of USAC Eastern Midget Week.
Even on that dark day, shortly before the wet conditions canceled everything, Courtney did what everyone in the racing realm has done since that hellish night on Aug. 7, 2016: carry on Clauson’s presence through treasured memories.
Courtney has forged his name in midget racing’s elite by carrying the Clauson name and its essence. That fierce, fun-loving spirit he discovered in 2009 and wanted to experience more of remains his guide.
“He showed you how to compose yourself on and off the race track,” said Courtney, the reigning USAC National Midget champion. “Getting to see that aspect those two summers was something I really think has put me in the spots I am today and learn how to deal with adversity.
“Everything isn’t going to be perfect, but it’s how you deal with it is how those results change.”
Perhaps the period of Clauson’s life that defined his resilient, hard-nosed nature is when he ascended from the prolific ranks of USAC and into a developmental deal with Chip Ganassi Racing in NASCAR at the ripe age of 18. He barely met the age requirement and raced in the Xfinity Series in 2007 and 2008, compiling two top 10s and a pole award in 26 total races.
He was supposed to drive for Ganassi full-time in the second-tier series in 2009 until the team merged with Dale Earhardt Inc. and Ganassi’s Nationwide program folded. That thwarted Clauson’s stock car aspirations and ultimately sent him back to the dirt racing world for good.
But Clauson never withered. That was only the beginning of his eventual place in racing lore, and Levi Jones, a former USAC ace and current executive vice president of the series, had a front row seat to Clauson’s remarkable journey.
“To be mentally strong enough and focused, to have your NASCAR deal not work out, come back, figure out to make it work; win, be happy, make a living,” Jones noted, “in this world that’s what you have to figure out what to do. He did that.”
The list of Clauson’s accomplishments are astounding: three USAC National Midget championships, three USAC national driving championships, two USAC National Sprint Car championships, two Turkey Night Grand Prix wins, the 2014 Chili Bowl Nationals title, three Indianapolis 500 starts, a Knoxville Nationals prelim win, and a stock car win at the ARCA level are just the tip of the iceberg.
“I could be here all day and list everything he did,” Courtney said. “He was one hell of a race car driver.”
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