INDY POLE-SITTER DIES : FLAT TIRE APPEARS TO BE CAUSE.
The Brickyard became a graveyard again Friday, claiming one of its most notable victims.
Scott Brayton, who last week captured the pole position at the Indianapolis 500 for the second consecutive year, was killed on the same Indianapolis Motor Speedway track Friday when his car spun out and crashed into a wall during a practice session.
Brayton, 37, of Coldwater, Mich., was testing a backup car - identical to the year-old Menard-powered Lola he used to win the pole position in a four-lap average speed of 233.718 mph - and had just completed a lap in excess of 228 mph when his car experienced equipment failure as it entered Turn 2.
There was speculation the tragedy was caused by a flat tire.
Although Firestone officials at the track were reluctant to give a reason for the cause of the accident, they said initial indications were that Brayton's right, rear tire had lost air pressure.
``The manner in which it occurred leads us to believe the tire (ran over something and) was cut,'' Firestone spokesman Tony Troiano said.
According to an accident report released by speedway officials, Brayton's car spun 420 feet, doing a half-turn before striking the wall on its left side. It slid 360 feet along the wall before coming loose, then skidded for another 600 feet before doing a quarter-turn and coming to a stop inside the track near the middle of the backstretch.
The crash comes in the wake of controversy over the speeds being run in practices for this year's race. But Brayton, who had qualified for the pole with an average speed of 233.718 mph, was not running that quick at the time of his crash. He was coming off a relatively tame lap of 228.606 mph.
``It's not a factor of going too fast and that's what happened,'' Al Unser Jr. said on ESPN2 from Brooklyn, Mich., where he and some other CART drivers had criticized the speed at Indy while preparing for the U.S. 500, also May 26. ``The cars are safe.''
Brayton was unconscious and bleeding from his ears when he was removed from his car by track safety personnel. He was accompanied by Henry Bock, IMS
medical director, to Methodist Hospital, where he died at 1:50 p.m. EDT from what appeared to be massive head injuries.
``Today we lost a great friend, a great husband, a great father, a great competitor. Words just can't describe how I feel right now,'' team owner John Menard said.
``Scotty just loved this place. He loved running fast here. He loved the competition. He was so proud of the fact he had that pole,'' Menard said. ``I've just lost a great friend. If I know Scott, right now he's probably telling God a joke.''
The tragic reality is that Brayton became the 40th driver killed at Indy - the first since rookie Jovy Marcelo in 1992 - and the 66th fatality in the 80-year history of the 500. Ironically, Brayton, who was preparing for his 15th Indy 500, was the most-experienced driver in a field diluted by the feud between the fledgling Indy Racing League and the PPG IndyCar World Series, which will stage the inaugural US 500 in Brooklyn, Mich., in direct competition with Indy a week from Sunday.
The deafening din in that ongoing war of rhetoric fell silent after Brayton's death.
Known as one of the more affable drivers in Gasoline Alley, always quick with a smile and a quip, Brayton helped Menard realize a personal dream by winning the Indy 500 pole a year ago in an average speed of 231.604 mph.
It was a first for both Brayton and Menard, a renegade owner whose only alliance with Indy car racing was at the Indy 500.
``I have to thank Scott because he's taught me a lot of the finer points about racing,'' Menard said at the time. ``We spent a lot of time talking about commitment. Racing is a lot like retail. It's all about people. If you have a store with good people, you're going to do well. It's the same with racing.''
Last Saturday, Brayton brought more glory to Team Menard when he became the first driver in seven years to win back-to-back poles, doing so with a dash of derring-do and last-minute high drama.
It was all set into motion when Brayton's former Team Menard stable-mate, Arie Luyendyk, bumped his current teammate, rookie driver Tony Stewart, off the pole with a record-setting gallop of 233.390 mph late in the first day of qualifications.
With less than 18 minutes left before the track's closing, Brayton rolled the dice by pulling his qualified car out of Row 2 to attempt another shot at the pole in the same car Luyendyk drove for Team Menard a year ago.
Brayton stunned everyone at the Brickyard when his gambit paid off with a run of 233.718, which broke the track's four-lap record for the fourth time that day. Asked how he felt about winning the pole after his younger teammate, Stewart, held it earlier in the day, Brayton gave an ominous answer: ``Tony is a great talent and will have a lot more chances, but I'm old and don't know how much longer I can do this.''
Brayton, who is survived by his wife Becky and 2-year-old daughter Carly, followed in the footsteps of his father, Lee, a former Indy car driver, after receiving a go-kart for his fifth birthday.
Brayton began his Indy car career in 1981 and spent his first six seasons campaigning a family-owned car. He made his first front-row start in 1985, when he qualified second fastest in 212.354, .229 mph slower than Pancho Carter's pole-winning speed.
Menard - who fielded cars not only for Brayton and Stewart but also Eddie Cheever and rookie Mark Dismore - was at a loss when asked what he planned to do in the aftermath of the tragedy.
``We've got a lot of grieving to do,'' he said. ``There are very, very heavy hearts at Team Menard right now. It just reminds you that this is a very serious business we're about.''
PHOTO (1-2--color) Scott Brayton's car heads backward do wn the Indianapolis Motor Speedway backstretch, left, before losing its front end near a crowd of spectators.
(3--color) Becky and Scott Brayton walk their daughter, Carly, through the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Sunday, one day after he won the pole position for next Sunday's race.
(4) The wreckage of the backup car driven by Scott Brayton is taken to the Indy garage area.
Associated Press and Bessie Strickle/Indianapolis Star