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The last time I spoke with Bryan Clauson, it was Toyota Pro/Celebrity Day a week or so prior to the 38th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and the 36th running of Toyota's crash-master event on Saturday. Clauson was driving in the Pro portion of the Pro/Celeb contest and told me he was close, oh so close to having a ride for this year's 96th Indianapolis 500 on May 27.
We both knew the team he was about to sign with, but didn't want to talk about it until they made it official: today Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing announced it hired Clauson to drive the No. 39 SFHR/RW Dallara/Honda/Firestone Indy car. Clauson, from Noblesville, IN is a multi-time USAC national champion and won several races behind the wheel of his family-owned No. 39 USAC midget. He teams with another rookie American driver, Nashville, TN's own Josef Newgarden. The duo were teammates in the Firestone Indy Lights Series last year.
"It's an awesome opportunity for me to enter the Indianapolis 500 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing," Clauson said. "It's almost surreal just talking about it. For me to be attempting to make the race with Sarah's team is just phenomenal. With her background in sprint car and midget racing and her continued involvement at that level, this is just a good fit for me. I'm also proud to be an Indiana boy driving for an Indiana team."
"I'm also excited about the continuity we're building into the program," added Clauson. "My car number will be No. 39 and I'm bringing along some of my short track supporters with me like Rotondo Weirich."
Bryan Clauson earned back to back USAC National Drivers Championships over the past 2010 and 2011 seasons, the title based on his performances in all three major USAC open wheel divisions; he won the USAC National Midget Championship in 2010 and 2011 and has more than 26 USAC wins. He also has four top-five results in the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights including a best finish at Iowa Speedway, where he took third place for Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
"It's quite an honor to bring a USAC champion to the Indianapolis 500," said Fisher. "I am very fond of my roots in short track oval racing, and watching Bryan at some of these events really brings back memories. Personally knowing his background," Fisher added, "I have complete confidence in his credentials, talent and capabilities, and look forward to working with him at Indy. It will be exciting to fill out our team roster with both of the Road to Indy Champions from last season, really solidifying the ladder program."
The pairing of Clauson and Newgarden makes a strong statement for the Mazda Road to Indy program. In addition to Clauson's USAC National Drivers Championships, which earned him an all-oval 2011 Firestone Indy Lights campaign, Newgarden won the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights championship.
Randy Bernard, INDYCAR president and CEO remarked on the strengthening of ties with USAC "as a path to the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. After a strong oval debut in Firestone Indy Lights last season, it made sense to utilize our USAC National Drivers Championship scholarship to enter Bryan in the Indianapolis 500. Not only is Bryan one of the most talented USAC drivers, his participation in the Indy 500 will attract the interest of short track fans across the country."
It's more than coincidental that SFHR has two American drivers for its Speedway, IN-based team. This home-bred group is very proud of its Indiana roots and routinely flies an American flag in its pit box. "SFHR is happy to welcome Bryan to the team," Wink Hartman, co-owner stated. "We've been working toward this program for quite some time and I feel we are prepared to present a first-class effort for the entry. Working with young American talent fits this team and its values perfectly.
"We are working hard to find a primary sponsor for Bryan to match that platform and we're also thankful to have the support of all our partners, including Honda, for this program and the excitement the total package brings," he said.
Both Clauson and Newgarden passed their INDYCAR rookie oval test on the high-banked 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway on April 5. They now are ready to participate May 10 in the Indianapolis 500 Rookie Orientation Program.
Clauson realizes he's joining an emerging team with a win (at Kentucky Speedway last October with Ed Carpenter) already in its portfolio. "With its performance so far this year with Josef on the road courses, combined with the fact it ran strong at Indy and won the last oval race in 2011, SFHR is proving it is a first-class team. I can't wait for ROP," he said.