Requiem For A Racer
May 18, 1996

In this country, there is a place where one can go and find a small stretch of roadway which is paved with brick, just like they used to pave roads a long time ago. Even though this stretch of roadway is only three feet long, it still feels the scorching kiss of quick rubber on the earliest days of summer. Two hundred times on one special day of this year, every tire on that roadway will leap out of the present and, faster than the eye can see, cross eighty-five years in three feet of brick.

It is the Start/Finish line.

The place is Indianapolis. That special road is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, known to the faithful as "The Brickyard". Since 1911, the most determined people in a very special class of motor racing have been coming to this place to push back the limits of automotive performance technology.

This quest to be the best in a very narrowly focused field of challenge has provided us a magnificent history rich in single moments of triumph, heartbreak, inspiration, and dazzling displays of skill and sheer nerve. Over these many years there has risen an almost supernatural aura around this place.

The Indianapolis 500 predates every other five hundred mile race by almost 50 years. The grand nature of the track itself can be seen in the fact that although originally designed to accomodate race cars which only averaged 90 miles per hour, cars now running at more than 230 mph have not outgrown its challenge.

Nor have the men and, lately, the women.

Sometimes the Brickyard has made perfectly clear the price which can be exacted. It has happened many times, yet the people and machines keep returning to face the risk. In 1992, Roberto Guerrero held the pole position on race day (the fastest qualifier). Two years earlier, his career seemed certainly finished after a crash during testing of a new car. His car flipped on the front straight and skidded upside-down for more than a quarter-mile. When he finally stopped, the asphalt of the track had ground the roll bar completely off the top of the car, and had begun to abrade a hole in the top of his helmet. As a result of the concussion he suffered, it was more than two weeks before he could remember his name. During the 1992 qualifications, he turned in the fastest four lap average speed in the history of Indy to date - 232.482 miles per hour.

On the day before that triumph, Rick Mears (one of only three people to win the race four times) crashed head-on into the wall, breaking his ankle. He was back out on the track, the next day. Try to understand the determination: he could not afford the luxury of pain-killing drugs at more than 200 mph.

A.J. Foyt told everyone that 1991 would be his final race at Indy. He was forced to leave the race after running over wreckage from a nearby crash, severely damaging his front suspension. He would not let it go like that. He was out there again in 1992. The man was 57 years old. Try to understand: the cockpit of an Indy car is a very uncomfortable place. It demands tolerance to extreme heat, noise, and G-force. Handling the car demands physical strength and crisp reflexes. As Danny "Spin-to-Win" Sullivan put it: "If you goof out there, it's not exactly a five-yard penalty."

On his entry to turn two during a practice session on May 17, 1996, Scott Brayton was 37 years old. With a four-lap average speed of 233.718 mph, he had qualified for the pole position in the starting grid of this year's race, and for the second year in a row. This was his fifteenth qualification for the revered event which was a part of his life from early childhood. His father, Lee Brayton, had been an Indy car racer, and Scott had grown to manhood in the smell and scream of fast cars in the summer heat. He had seen the toll of the Brickyard: 1973--Art Pollard, 1973--Swede Savage, 1982--Gordon Smiley, 1992--Jovy Marcelo (all killed on the track); as well as Walther, Guerrero, Mears, Piquet, et al, who suffered terrible injuries in that shoulder-wide (and no more) "tub" when it punched through the veneer of control, and into the deep-black of ballistics.

Racers are a confident lot, though, and they do not permit such episodes to intrude on their work. The portion of their times which is available to television cameras on race day is only a small percentage of the long-range devotion of effort calculated to shave fractions of a second from the time it takes to travel any given 500 mile run. Johnny Rutherford coaches Indy rookies that, "The walls are white, the track is grey, the grass is green, and the sky is blue...your job is to keep them all where they belong." This is really a tongue-in-cheek reduction of process to essence, but the professional Indy car driver can only divine the context of the essentials after long days, weeks, and years of grasping myriad subtle engineering nuances in concert with dozens of support specialists. The conceptual effort consists of identifying performance limits and their causes, and then refining techniques to push back the limits along very narrow margins.

The very idea of taking up such challenge implies clear knowledge of error, and its consequences. The people who do this, also do not dwell on the possibilities of defeat because that's not where the action is. They know, of course, what the possibilities are, but the reason for the pursuit discards such things as irrelevant. They consciously take up the risk with the confidence of their ability to find a way through the numbers, to the place where walls, track, grass, and sky are kept in proper relation...faster and cleaner than ever.

Scott Brayton chased his love of performance into turn two yesterday. Onboard telemetry tells us that he was making 235 miles per hour when a perfidous freak of timing drained his right rear tire of air pressure at the very worst possible moment. Instantly, every hard-won calculation of many decimal points was tossed into eternity. Universal constraints of physics made the call: there was no place else for car #2 to go except straight at the outside apex of the turn, where the first aspect of Rutherford's Rules of Order waited. The walls are immutable, and more than 100 G's of impact will always have their way.

When we think of those who have turned those timeless laps - Vukovich, Sachs, Bettenhausen, Malloy...among the 41 who have died in the quest at the Brickyard - we see them frozen in mid-stride along the course of achievement. We will never know what they might have done in the fullest length of a successful career. However, we know what they were after. Scott Brayton also knew as he gassed it through the short straight.

That is why he did it, and there is no finer reason to remember him.

Good-bye, Scott.

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