His Philosophy: “Man made it, man can fix it”
As a chief mechanic, Phoenix-born Clint Brawner put 24 cars into the Indianapolis 500 in his career, with four of them on the pole. He also won 45 national championship races on dirt and paved ovals with his cars and drivers, and six national driving titles. In a career that spanned more than 40 years his drivers won 51 IndyCar races. His ability and longevity in racing led to the creation of the Clint Brawner Mechanical Excellence Award, presented each May for the past 27 years to a deserving Indianapolis 500 chief mechanic.
Brawner saw his first Indianapolis 500 in 1938 when he was 19 years old, accompanied by Johnny McDaniel, a midget-racing pal from Phoenix. Prior to going to Indianapolis, the largest track he had ever seen was Gilmore Stadium’s quarter-mile near downtown Los Angeles. He was amazed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s size and the enormous racing spectacle, which was won by Floyd Roberts. And though while walking through the pits Clint received some offers for employment from teams at the track, he went back to his Phoenix home to resume his job as machinist. Later on he said he “regretted not taking up an offer at that time to be an apprentice mechanic.”
Back home, Brawner helped prepare midgets for McDaniel, whose father had a successful produce business and backed his son’s racing adventures. After high school, Brawner worked at being more or less a self-taught machinist, a profession that gave him experience in the workings of a racecar, giving him the ability to discover flaws in a part that might fail under stress, and improve on the original. Though he enjoyed the excitement of racing and working on the midgets, World War II interrupted his career. Thanks to an injury in his teens, he was unfit to join the Army, and instead joined the SeaBees construction battalion, and spent his Navy life repairing and servicing boilers at Hawaii’s Hickam Field hospital.
After the war, Brawner saved up enough money to return to the Indianapolis 500 for the 1947 race–which he watched from way up in the Main Grandstand. As he put it, “About halfway through, I fell asleep!” It wasn’t because the race wasn’t exciting–it was simply that Clint would have preferred to be down in the “crowded and dangerous pits…being totally involved,” not way up in the grandstands.
Returning home to his machinist job, Brawner also continued to work as chief mechanic for his pal Johnny McDaniel for the next five years at dirt tracks from Flagstaff to Casa Grande, Tucson and Phoenix. At that time, midget racing was booming, and McDaniel’s dad paid for his son’s “hobby.”
In the 500 for the First Time
In 1951, McDaniel applied as an entrant in the Indianapolis 500. With money to spare, he had Quinn Epperly build a long-wheelbase chassis, powered by a $6,000 Offenhauser engine. To help defray expenses as car owner, McDaniel went to Phoenix oilman Morris Blakely, who owned a string of gas stations. Blakely put up the money and Brawner provided the driver: Phoenix local midget phenom Bobby Ball. Though he was a rookie (as was the rest of the Blakely Oil team) and qualified 29th for the 500, the talented Ball came in fifth place, a great start for Brawner and his team. Brawner went home with the desire to return to Indianapolis and win the biggest race in the world.
In 1952, the Blakely boys returned to Indianapolis with high hopes and Ball again as driver. As luck would have it, a broken gear case dropped the talented Ball to 32nd place, so Brawner had to put his desire to win at Indianapolis on hold while he continued to work as a mechanic. Ball was their driver; racing mostly in the Western U.S., he won the 100-mile dirt race at San Jose’s mile, going away. He finished seven times in the top six in Champ car races, but at a midget race at Carrell Speedway in L.A. in 1953, Ball had a horrific six-car crash that left him in a coma that lasted 14 months until his death at age 27. A Bobby Ball Memorial race was created at Arizona State Fairgrounds featuring USAC Indycars. Fittingly, Ball’s good friend Jimmy Bryan won the first memorial race in 1955, and repeated by winning in 1957 and 1958.
Racing With the Cowboy
With his driver gone, Clint aligned himself with a hard-charging Phoenix driver, Jimmy Bryan. The big, cigar-chomping cowboy lived large and drove like the wind. In his career with Brawner, Bryan won seven dirt track races in a row in 1954 alone.
Brawner and Bryan campaigned across the country on dirt and paved ovals in Champ Cars, sprints and midgets. At Indianapolis in 1953, Bryan took the Blakely Oil car to 14th place in the 500, with Brawner as chief mechanic. Then the two friends parted, though Bryan was lured back to Indy again in 1954 as full-time driver for owner Al Dean’s Dean Van Lines team with Brawner.
After putting the Dean Van Lines car on the front row, Bryan finished second, at that time the closest Brawner had come to winning the 500. The race was won by Sam Hanks, driving a George Salih/Howard Gilbert-designed car called the “Sidewinder.” that had the Offy engine laying on its side, making it lower to the ground than a lizard’s belly.
The team of Brawner and Bryan continued to race sprints, winning on mile tracks around the country. Their Indianapolis 500 record was a second, a 24th, a 19th and a third.
A real thrill was the “Race of Champions” at Monza in Italy, held in 1957 and 1958. The notorious high-bank track hosted American teams from USAC to compete against Formula One drivers. The concept was appealing; the disappointment was that although the F1 drivers were invited, the high-speeds of the Monza course led to all but three European entrants to withdraw, leaving English drivers to compete with their Jaguars, which were woefully underpowered. The three separate heats were held, with the first two won by Bryan–the third by Troy Ruttman, giving Bryan the victory, to the delight of Brawner and car owner Dean, who remarked after the race that “We sure did have to come a long ways to win our first 500-miler!”
In 1958, the Race of Champions was held once again at Monza, this time with a few more F1 drivers competing. The event was won by Jim Rathmann, with Bryan coming second. This year, it was George Salih’s team that Bryan raced for, having left Brawner and Dean. Bryan said it was “an offer too good to pass up.”
Losing the Arizona Cowboy, Picking Up a Texas Rookie
Brawner had a dilemma; whom could he get to replace the hard-charging Bryan for the ’58 racing season? His answer was a 22-year-old rookie from Texas…A.J. Foyt.
Brawner had met Foyt the previous year and was impressed with his questions about the Dean Van Lines car that Bryan was driving. Of course, with Bryan as his driver, Brawner had no reason to think about hiring Foyt. However, a couple of months later when Bryan left the team, Foyt was the first driver Brawner thought of as a replacement for the 1958 Indianapolis 500.
In qualifying for the 500, Foyt wound up in the fourth row–not bad for a first-time drive. Foyt was the youngest driver in the field, did a workmanlike job for his first 500, finishing in 16th place. The irony of the race was that after trying mightily to win the 500, Brawner’s former driver Bryan won the race, not the last time an ex-driver of Clint’s would go on to win the world’s most prestigious racing event.
A Champion’s End
In June of 1960, Bryan returned to racing, choosing his comeback at the infamous Langhorne racetrack–a place that Brawner never liked. Just before the race, Brawner spoke with Bryan, who was attempting a return to racing. Bryan took over the seat of the Leader Card Special after regular driver Rodger Ward refused to drive again at the deadly Langhorne dirt mile. On the first lap, Bryan lost control of his car in the dirt, and the 34-year-old driver was killed instantly when his car flipped after hitting a rut.
With Brawner working as chief mechanic for Foyt, they campaigned the Dean Van Lines cars across the country in 1959. Though he won no races in ’59, Foyt was a strong competitor and showed that even as a rookie, he was going to be a real contender.
At Indianapolis, Foyt finished 10th. In August, before the 200-mile Milwaukee dirt race, car owner Dean told the team that in 1960 they would have a two-driver combo, with Ed Elisian driving the newer car. Soon after, Foyt approached Brawner to tell him he would not be driving for him any longer, that chief mechanic George Bignotti and the Bowes Seal Fast team promised him a brand-new roadster to join the team.
In his career, Brawner worked with many drivers and team owners, including Ed Elisian, Bob Sweikert, Chuck Hulse, Roger McCluskey, Stan Bowman, Jimmy Caruthers, Donald Davis, Eddie Sachs and Art Pollard, along with Bryan, Foyt and Mario Andretti.
The irony of Clint Brawner’s racing career was that he brought up some drivers who went on to win the Indianapolis 500 after they had left his team. Brawner lamented that fact occasionally, but noted that it was “Just the way it goes in racing.”