Clint Brawner: IndyCar Chief Mechanic Pt. 2

Published On February 27, 2014 » 5228 Views» By Richard Dowdy » Blogs, Indy 500, IndyCar

Working with a number of talented drivers through the years taught Clint Brawner a lesson: as he put it, “Race drivers will always jump to where the money is. Bob Sweikert, Jimmy Bryan and A.J. all quit our Dean Van Lines’ team as soon as they received better offers from other teams. What galled me was that in each case I was the last to know.”

 

The Racing Revolution

In the 1961 500-mile race, Australian Jack Brabham arrived at the Speedway and drove his rear-engine racer to ninth place. Though the first rear-engine car to qualify for the 500 was a Miller driven by George Bailey in 1939, and several other rear-engine cars had tried to compete, in reality they were oddities that couldn’t sustain the power and reliability of the roadsters that dominated up into the 1960s. With the arrival of Brabham’s Cooper at the Speedway, the genie was out of the bottle, and the progressive car designers, mechanics and team owners began to jump on the rear-engine bandwagon.  Dan Gurney drove Mickey Thompson’s Buick-powered rear-engine racer in ’62; in 1963 Jimmy Clark finished second in a Colin Chapman rear-engine Lotus. Each succeeding Indianapolis 500 saw more and more rear-engine cars make the race, while the roadsters declined in number. The smaller rear-engine racers had the ability to corner better and run as fast, if not faster, than the big Offy-powered roadsters.

The real turning point came in 1965 when Jim Clark won the 500 with his Ford-powered Lotus. The writing was on the wall: the rear-engine design was the way to go if you wanted to run up front. In 1964, Clint Brawner had hired mechanic Jim McGee (for free) and in the following year took him on as an assistant mechanic, with pay.

photo 1-Brawner AJ Al Dean (2)

Clint Brawner, AJ Foyt, Al Dean

In 1965, Clint was without a driver. He was desperate to find someone who could shine in the Dean Van Lines car. He wanted a married driver, not one who would be out all night at a party and show up hung over. He wanted an experienced driver, and he was sure he didn’t want a rookie! Several of the drivers who had worked for him, at one time or another, left by dying or being injured. Bobby Ball, Jimmy Bryan, Stan Bowman, Donnie Davis, Eddie Sachs and Art Pollard all died in racing accidents. Clint lost driver Chuck Hulse in early 1965 when a sprint car crash in New Bremen left him with double vision, unable to race.

Searching for a talented driver was frustrating for Brawner. At Indy’s Gasoline Alley, he ran into a sprint car owner named Rufus Gray. Introducing Clint to his driver, Gray said, “He drives my sprint car and he’s good.” Clint had enough tragedy and heartache with sprint cars, the dangerous, high-powered beasts that took too many driver’s lives through the years. But owner Gray persisted, and introduced his driver to Clint. Rufus Gray had been working to get the rookie a ride in the 500, without luck. He visited Andy Granatelli, who wasn’t impressed with the kid. Twice, Gray ran into Clint in Gasoline Alley and again recommended his driver. Clint blew him off. Later in the day, Chris Economaki coincidentally recommended the same driver to Clint. Clint was not interested, he told Economaki.

Weeks later at the Terre Haute track, Clint was in Rufus Gray’s pits for a sprint race–still without a driver. Prior to the race, he watched Gray’s boy help set up the car and select the tires he was to use, much as A.J. had done as a rookie with Brawner’s team. Clint was impressed.

Driving back to Indianapolis, Clint decided to give the kid a try. He was a “…little Italian boy,” Clint told his wife, “and though I didn’t want a rookie, this kid’s a special rookie. His name is Mario Andretti.” And Clint’s relationship with Mario was born.

In the winter of 1965, Clint and his mechanic Jim McGee bought a rear-engine Brabham Ford from owner John Zink that his driver Jim McElreath wrecked while testing. He employed builder Ed Kuzma to create the shell for a new rear-engine car, while Clint copied the chassis of a wrecked Brabham to build the new racer. With he and McGee working on the car, the result was the Brawner/Hawk. The car had a flat bottom–unlike the Lotus that had a round, cigar-shaped body. Clint and Jim didn’t know anything about ground effects at the time (no one did), but in retrospect, the Hawk proved to have a 1,000 pounds or more of downforce than the other rear-engine cars. In a month of hard work, the car was ready. Of McGee, Clint remarked, “He had as much mechanical talent as Andretti had racing talent.”

Mario reflects: “In the hands of Brawner and McGee we really got that thing working. We developed some aerodynamic aids as time went on and they only made it better. That was a great car for me. It launched my career really well. I became a factor right away and it was a pretty car, wasn’t it?” Driving the Brawner Hawk, Mario was rookie of the year in 1965 at Indianapolis after finishing third in the 500, and went on to beat Foyt for the USAC championship with seven second places, and two thirds.

Returning to the 500 in ’66, the team of Brawner-McGee and Andretti were ready, but Indianapolis was a disappointment. Andretti qualified on the pole, but finished 18th with engine problems. To make up for that failure, Andretti won at Milwaukee, the Atlanta 300 and Langhorne. For the second year, Andretti and company won the road race at IRP. He took the Hoosier Hundred win from Foyt, making Andretti the American driving champion twice in succession. And not only was Andretti driving Champ cars and sprinters, he also competed in sports cars and stock car races. Andretti had become a goodwill ambassador for racing, according to Brawner.

As far as Brawner was concerned, 1967 at Indy was best forgotten. Despite qualifying the Hawk on the pole, 58 laps into the race Andretti’s car lost a wheel and he was finished. The last straw for Brawner was the death of team owner Al Dean, from cancer. He and Brawner had been together as a team for 15 years.

1968 wasn’t much better: Dean Van Lines was on the ropes and there was no money left for sponsorship. Through his personal efforts, Andretti and his lawyer gained financing from Overseas National Airways and put the HawkIII/Ford on the inside of the second row at Indianapolis. But two laps into the 500 the car lost a piston and Andretti finished last. Though the team battled gallantly through the season, the Championship winner was Bobby Unser, with Andretti finishing second.

1969 had to be a better year, thought Brawner. It didn’t start out that way, as Overseas Airways pulled out of racing, leaving the team high and dry. As team owner and driver, Andretti didn’t want to be saddled with such responsibilities, so he found a deep-pockets team owner: the flamboyant Granatelli. Not only did Granatelli pump money into the team, but also he was close to Lotus owner Colin Chapman. Andretti had become enchanted with the new four-wheel-drive Lotus racers, and was adamant that one of them would be just the thing for the upcoming Indianapolis 500. Brawner disagreed, saying it was flimsy and the four-wheel drive was more work and worry, and the Ford engine was backwards in the car with the gearbox behind the driver’s seat. Andretti wouldn’t budge, so with Jim McGee agreeing with Andretti, Brawner went along for the tests up at the Hanford track in Northern California, where the car quickly ate up the rear hubs. With McGee and Mario still high on the Lotus despite Clint’s misgivings, the cars were sent back to England with a long laundry list of fixes from Brawner–138 of them. With the Lotus cars still in England, the April Champ car race in Hanford was won by Mario in the Hawk racer.

 

Mario Flies at Indy with the Hawk

During practice for the 1969 Indianapolis 500, Mario got the “improved” Lotus racer up to nearly 170 mph, as the four-wheel drive car reached 160 mph in the corners–an unheard of speed in those days. In a final practice, Mario had the car’s speed over 171 mph.

Late in the day, with few cars on track, Mario was motoring around the oval at high speed when the rear wheel hub sheared off, sending the Lotus into the wall, which then spun wildly before contacting the concrete barrier once again. The car burst into flame, and Brawner and McGee feared the worst. But the indomitable Mario jumped from the car and ran to the infield. Having suffered only minor burns to his lip, Mario was more than lucky. He’d just written off a $100,000 racecar, but he was safe. The Granatelli team was finished with the Lotus racer after the Andretti crash.

photo 2-ColinMarioBrawner

Colin Chapman, Mario Andretti, Clint Brawner

Fortunately, Clint had the foresight (or stubbornness) to bring one of the HawkIII/Ford racers of his to Indianapolis. So they had a car to get into the show. Following Mario’s crash, Colin Chapman had a conversation with Clint. He was concerned that his two drivers, Jochen Rindt and Graham Hill, were unable to get them up to qualifying speed. In his autobiography, Clint recounted the conversation with Chapman: “Colin, you have two choices: try to qualify your cars, though I don’t think they have the speed.” Chapman asked for his second option. Clint replied, “Withdraw the cars as being too dangerous.” That afternoon Colin Chapman announced the withdrawal of his two Lotus cars from the 1969 500-mile race.

Mario went out in Brawner’s Hawk and qualified second to his nemesis A.J. Foyt, who would start on the pole in a Coyote Ford. When the green flag fell, Mario went on to break 13 speed records at the 500, and in winning, averaged a record speed of 156.867, leading 116 of the 200 laps.

So at last Clint Brawner had won the Indianapolis 500. He recalled later that he wasn’t all that happy; the disagreements with Mario and McGee over wanting to run the Lotus car had split apart the team. Even though the season ended with Mario winning his third Championship title, there was little if any celebration among the trio. Later on in the year, Goodyear Tire offered Brawner financial incentives to start a team of his own, with Jim McGee, and they hired Roger McCluskey as driver. In 1970, without Brawner and McGee, Mario won one race. And without Mario, Clint and Jim won none.

With a career seemingly winding down, Clint continued to work on preparing cars for drivers. For the 1973 Indianapolis 500, he had two brand-new Eagle cars ready. Now all he needed was a driver. His choice was Art Pollard, a popular, talented and friendly, though aging driver, who knew his way around the Speedway. In practice, Pollard was quick, giving Clint hope that he would not only make the show, but would finish high in the points. That wasn’t to be. During a practice run before qualifying, Art’s Eagle racer hit the wall coming out of turn one and overturned, and he died within the hour. Apparently Pollard had misjudged the approach to the corner at 190 mph. Clint put driver Jimmy Carruthers into the backup car and managed to get into the 500.

The 1973 Indianapolis 500 was another that Clint Brawner would prefer to forget. His driver had been killed before the race began; rain delayed the start until the afternoon; at the start Salt Walther flipped over multiple times, spraying burning gasoline into the main grandstands. After the cleanup of the Walther accident, it began to rain again. More delays. Once the race resumed on Wednesday, rising star Swede Savage had a violent crash coming out of turn four, as his car slid across the track and hit a car that had been disabled and left in the grass. Swede would pass away a month later. When the green flag again waved, Gordon Johncock soon took the lead and won, making the 1973 500 the shortest race in the track’s history.

For Clint Brawner, it was a depressing event. He’d lost his friend Pollard, and his replacement driver Jimmy Carruthers could only manage 21st when his Eagle/Offy suffered suspension breakage. Brawner later realized his racing career was winding down. The toll of friends and drivers was quickly growing; after the ’73 tragedies he was at loose ends. He returned to his home in Phoenix and while he kept working on cars, in the early ‘80s he retired, and following his wife Kay’s death a month earlier, Clint Brawner passed away in late December 1987.

To recognize and honor Clint Brawner’s determination, ability, preparation of cars and his enthusiasm for racing, 27 years ago the Clint Brawner Mechanical Excellence Award was inaugurated. The award and a check is presented each May to a deserving Indianapolis 500 mechanic who exemplifies the traits of Clint Brawner. In May 2013, the award was given to Lazier Partners Racing’s chief mechanic Dennis LaCava, recognizing his perseverance and expertise in helping get Buddy Lazier’s car into the 2013 500-mile race.

 

Postscript:

My mother would often take me to midget and sprint races when I was a kid in Phoenix, as she was friends with Clint Brawner and his wife Kay. I met him numerous times, though being a kid, I paid no attention; it was the racing that interested me. In my IMS blog “The First Time,” I recalled that Clint offered to take my mom to the 500 “anytime she wanted.” She never did go–but I have, for the past 22 years as a Speedway photographer.

photo 3-ariz fairgrounds race-me at 7

Me at age 7 at Ariz Fairgrounds

Later in life, my wife and I were friends with Swede Savage’s wife Sheryl. In ’73, I was living in Encinitas, Calif, and on race day (postponed from Monday due to recurring rain) we were taking care of Swede and Sheryl’s daughter Shelly, as the couple was in Indianapolis for the race. Driving to San Diego to drop off some film for processing, I had the IMS radio broadcast on and heard the description of Swede’s crash. I returned home as soon as I could and by then a friend had come by to take Shelly to relatives. It was a shockingly sad time.

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About The Author

Richard Dowdy

From a diverse background as a magazine editor, art director, writer, photographer and co-owner of Studio 2055 (a branding/web design studio), Richard blends eclectic array of expertise with his varied interests that include popular culture and film. He was editor/art director for Surfing magazine, a writer at Capitol Records and is the author of two nonfiction books. As a writer for TV’s the X-Files he created the script for a live-action game and a digital encyclopedia of the first four seasons of the show. For the past eighteen years, he has worked as a staff photographer for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

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