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Indy Polesitter Scott Brayton Killed in Crash During Practice

May 18, 1996 GMT

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) _ It was called a rapid deflation. What killed Scott Brayton was nothing more than a plain old flat tire.

When Brayton, the Indianapolis 500 pole-winner, came through the second turn during practice on Friday, something caused his right rear tire to go bad. The tire appeared to be cut, and once the underbody of the car started skidding on the pavement, Brayton was helpless.

His race car crashed against the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s concrete wall at more than 230 mph.

Brayton never regained consciousness.

``Scotty just loved this place,″ car owner John Menard said. ``He loved running fast here, he loved the competition. He was so proud he had the pole. ... He died doing what he loved, I guess. And if I know Scott, right now he’s probably telling God a joke.″

The easy-going Brayton, one of the most glib and most popular drivers, was also one of the fastest. With the retirements in recent years of many of the old guard drivers such as A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Mario Andretti, Brayton also was the most experienced Indy driver and had 14 previous starts at Indianapolis. He had driven in 150 Indy-car races overall.

His qualifying speed of 233.718 mph a week ago today put him on the pole for the second year in a row.

There was ``conclusive evidence to support the report that rapid deflation of the right tire occurred,″ U.S. Auto Club technical director Mike Devin said. ``Working closely with Firestone engineers, USAC will continue to pursue a possible cause for this rapid deflation.″

Brayton, 37, of Coldwater, Mich., was driving a backup Lola-Menard, a routine practice for almost every team. He had just completed a lap at almost 229 mph when the tire went out. The car did a half-spin and went 420 feet backwards into the wall. It slid along the wall another 360 feet, then made a quarter-spin and traveled another 600 feet before coming to a stop in the back straightaway.

He was taken by stretcher to an ambulance, driven to the infield hospital and then taken to Methodist Hospital downtown, where he was pronounced dead 33 minutes after the 12:17 p.m. crash.

``Scott and I were great pals besides being competitors,″ said former teammate Arie Luyendyk, who broke Brayton’s track record last Sunday but could not take the pole because it was on the second day of qualifications. ``We just had a great time together last night. I wish we could turn back the clock, but we can’t.″

Brayton, whose father, Lee, passed an Indy rookie test in 1972 but never drove in the race, was the 66th Speedway fatality since the track was built in 1909. He was the 40th driver to die in practice, qualifications or the race, and the first since rookie Jovy Marcelo was killed during practice in 1992.

Before that, the last driver killed at the track was Gordon Smiley in 1982. Both deaths were blamed on their cars’ nearly head-on impact against the wall.

``It reminds you this is a very serious business we’re involved in. Scotty had a perfect race car, a perfect day, and a perfect track, and yet it reached out and bit him,″ Menard said.

Brayton’s parents, his wife Becky and 2-year-old daughter Carly came to the hospital before the announcement of his death was made at the Speedway.

With Brayton’s death, Team Menard could put another driver in the car and start it at the rear of the lineup or withdraw it from the May 26 race completely. In either case, rookie Tony Stewart, who qualified second-fastest last Saturday, would get the pole on race day, making him the first rookie to do that since Teo Fabi in 1983.

``I don’t know. I have to go over and meet with all my crew,″ Menard said of his plans. ``We’ve got a lot of grieving to do. There’s very, very heavy hearts at Team Menard right now. I haven’t gotten to my personal feelings now, much less my race team’s.″

Brayton, who also started on the pole last year before finishing 17th, had two sixth-place finishes at Indy in 1989 and 1993. His best finish in any Indy car race was third at Milwaukee in 1992. He hadn’t had a full-time Indy-car ride since 1992, but was one of the beneficiaries of the new Indy Racing League and was 15th and 18th in the league’s first two races this year at Orlando and Phoenix.

News of the death spread quickly to Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Indy driver Al Unser Jr. was preparing for Friday night’s International Race of Champions.

``From my understanding, he went quick, and that’s the best situation. You don’t want to lay in a hospital. He died doing what he loved,″ Unser said. ``Our hearts go out to Becky and all the Brayton family and friends from the whole Unser family. The Good Lord decided everybody’s fate. He decided to take Scott. This is a part of racing we all accept.

``He was a cheerful man. I didn’t know him real well off the track, but he was a good man. He was a talented race driver and I haven’t seen him make mistakes at Indy. If he was making mistakes at Indy, I don’t think he would have been where he was in racing.″

Indy driver Jimmy Vasser, who is driving the rival Championship Auto Racing Teams series, was in Indianapolis on Friday and went to Methodist Hospital ``as a friend.″

``I found out the news while I was there. ... Scott was a great driver. I raced with him for many years,″ Vasser said. ``He probably was the most liked guy out there. He always had a smile on his face.″

Former Indy driver Steve Chassey, who reviewed a tape of the crash, said that as the tire deflated, the underbody of the car started to scrape the ground.

``And then when the tire deflated all the way and the car was riding on the underbody, there’s no traction, it’s just like riding on ice, and the back of the car spun around,″ Chassey said.

Firestone spokesman Tony Troiano said it appeared Brayton’s right rear tire lost air, ``but the manner in which it occurred leads us to believe the tire was cut. We are continuing to analyze what we have left of the tire and that analysis does not indicate any internal structural damage.″

Speedway president Tony George, who founded the IRL, called Brayton ``a great ambassador to this sport. His family is one that has put their entire heart and soul into automobiole racing. There was so much love in that family and they were so loved by the racing community.

``He died doing what he loved, going fast at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There’s not much more that can be said than that.″

The crash was the third of the month at Indy. Johnny Parsons and rookie Scott Harrington walked away from earlier accidents.

The Indy 500 is competing this year with the new U.S. 500, which will also be run on May 26 at Michigan International Speedway with most of the top drivers and teams. The split occurred after George started the IRL and reserved up to 25 of the 33 starting spots at Indy or regulars of the new circuit.