Bryan Clauson's death tragic, but gift of life to others inspires

Tim Clauson didn't know the destination. He only knew he couldn't stay at the Nebraska hospital where life-support machines kept the beat going in the heart of his son.

The devastated father had just signed papers fulfilling Bryan Clauson's final wish. Doctors told Tim he could possibly spend as many as 72 more hours at the hospital with one of the best dirt-track open-wheel racers motorsports had seen in decades, but one who would die at age 27.

In no-how, no-way terms, Tim Clauson looked at his wife, Diana, and adamantly said to her: "I will not be here. There is no way I can sit here in this hospital for another three days with Bryan knowing that he's gone."

Tim Clauson sobs at the memory.

"As it turned out, as crazy as it sounds, it may have been the most impactful, special 72 hours of my life," Tim Clauson said.

In those 72 hours, Tim Clauson's heart overruled his mind. So he stayed with family and friends at the hospital. They took turns saying goodbye to Bryan. They left nothing unsaid.

In those 72 hours, Bryan Clauson's heart continued to beat. And it continues to beat today in the body of a 63-year-old Army veteran as part of a legacy that spreads way beyond those three days when doctors eventually declared him dead the night of Aug. 7, 2016, then ran several postmortem tests before recovering his organs and tissue so others could live.

"Nobody wants to die," said Dan Alexander, who lives with Clauson's heart in his chest. "I feel terrible that he died, I really do. But at the same time, he made a decision that gives me life, and that's a pretty, pretty heavy responsibility."

Clauson's death, the day after a piece of another car struck him in the head on Lap 14 of the Belleville (Kansas) Midget Nationals, has extended lives, literally, by inspiring thousands to pledge their organs to save others.

The race team Bryan Clauson owned continues to compete in a way Clauson would cherish, changing dramatically the life of one of its drivers.

Clauson's legacy surprises few who knew him. He once helped an 8-year-old fan with her homework the morning of a race, then asked her mother a year later what grade she earned.

"He's the kid next door," said Sarah Fisher, the co-owner of the car Clauson drove as a rookie in the 2012 Indianapolis 500. "He's your brother. He's your son. He's your neighbor.

"That wasn't a pretend role. That was genuine. ... No matter how many times he ran Indy, he was still genuine Bryan."

Maybe people don't appreciate the kids next door, the genuine ones, until they have passed. In Clauson's case, the appreciation grew as his legacy unfolded over the last 10 months in the spirit of a life filled with love and following one's soul.

And of course, racing. At 6 years old, he would tell his father's car owner that if his dad would just run a certain groove, he would win the race. Coupling that natural talent with making the most out of a bad situation seemed to fuel Clauson throughout a racing career that included a cup of coffee in NASCAR and a roller-coaster relationship to compete in the Indianapolis 500.

"He loved racing the more he lost in racing," said agent Jeff Dickerson.

"He didn't love racing less after the NASCAR deal didn't work out. He loved it more. ...

"He went to the speedway [for his first Indy 500] and he was going to qualify in the first three or four rows and then crashed in qualifying and set the program back and it didn't go great. And then he loved it more. ...

"A lot of people get discouraged, a lot of people get resentful, and a lot of people get, 'I shouldn't be there' or 'I am better than that guy or this guy.' And he just loved it more."

Have helmet, will race

Fellow racers readily admit that Clauson loved racing more than anyone else they knew, even themselves. His fiancée, Lauren Stewart, had one word -- insane -- for a love-of-racing plan that Clauson tried to turn into reality in 2016.

Clauson announced in August 2015 that he would compete in 200 races in 2016, a quest dubbed the "Chasing 200" tour. Stewart's response: "Me and the dogs will be at home. Call me when you can."

Finally on-board by about Race 30, Stewart will cherish the memories of singalongs to Garth Brooks concerts she shared with her love on those lengthy drives in the darkness of night.

Stewart knew she couldn't fault Clauson for chasing a feat unmatched in the racing world. She herself had proved a crazy idea could create history-making memories few could experience.

After working the 2014 Indianapolis 500, she drove the 65 miles to watch Clauson race at the 3/8ths-mile Kokomo Speedway. As Clauson made plans to return to the Indy 500 in 2015, Stewart dreamed up her crazy idea: The Indiana Double.

Clauson would compete in The Greatest Spectacle In Racing during the day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and then amid the flying dust of a nonwinged sprint car race at Kokomo that night.

While American racing has its own version of the Memorial Day weekend double of drivers attempting to compete in both the Indianapolis 500 and the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, Clauson's double reminded people of the stories they heard when racers in the 1950s would compete at 16th Street Speedway, across the street from IMS, the night before the Indy 500.

"You're going from extreme to extreme," explains three-time NASCAR champion and former IndyCar champion Tony Stewart, the most accomplished of those who have completed the Indy 500-Coke 600 double. "To get out of an IndyCar and then get in a sprint car at a place like Kokomo is pretty damn cool.

The first year Clauson and Lauren Stewart (no relation to Tony) offered a ticket package combining the Indy 500 and Kokomo, they sold out their 100 tickets.

In 2016, they easily sold 208 tickets, and Clauson made their day and night worth it. Clauson finished 23rd in the Indy 500 -- leading laps 97-98-99 -- then rode to Kokomo while a nurse administered fluids.

The Kokomo track conditions that night didn't favor Clauson. The top groove -- "the cushion" in dirt-track vernacular -- proved the fastest. And Clauson -- "the most boring, successful race car driver out there," Lauren Stewart joked -- made his living on the bottom groove.

But on this night, Clauson put boring aside and created a magical moment at his favorite track, the only track that would allow him to race years before at age 13.

"I really thought I was going to win that race that night," said Chris Windom, who finished second. "[The best groove] went to the top side of the racetrack up on the wall, and I thought I'd be able to get Bryan there.

"Bryan went up and got up on the wheel and he beat me. I was pretty dejected. Looking back on it, it was a pretty cool story."

In an epic moment, the track's hometown kid led laps at Indianapolis and took home a Kokomo Speedway trophy all in the same day.

"That's what made Bryan an instant legend," said driver Brad Sweet, who competes in premier sprint car circuit World of Outlaws. "He almost was like the wrong generation because he would do anything and he could do it all.

"And he was great at it all."

Living in that moment, signing autographs and taking photos for more than an hour after the race with many of those who rode the buses from Indy to Kokomo as part of the ticket package, Clauson probably had no cares that he didn't spend that night completing 600 miles in Charlotte with his former sprint car rivals turned NASCAR stars Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson.

Long removed from a brief shot at NASCAR, Clauson had put any stock car aspirations in the rearview mirror. He competed in 25 Xfinity Series races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2007-08. He showed some promise -- a best finish of fifth at Kentucky -- but only two top-10 finishes didn't convince sponsors, or Ganassi, to invest more into his stock car career.

Clauson could have remained in Charlotte at 19 years old. He could have tried the start-and-park route. Instead, the true throwback racer wanted to make a name for himself at Belleville, Kokomo, Knoxville and the Chili Bowl rather than seeing his career go nowhere while pedaling in the back at Bristol and Darlington.

"Quite honestly, when he came back from his stint in NASCAR, I think he truly found where he wanted to be," Tim Clauson said. "I think he truly appreciated getting up every day, getting to go drive race cars that he wanted to drive. It wasn't dictated to him what he was going to drive.

"Going to NASCAR at such a young age, and ... when that falls apart as a young race car driver, you really see if you really, truly love the sport or you were doing it to get someplace."

He rarely spoke about any regrets. Lauren Stewart heard Clauson talk one time with a little bit of envy after they had dinner in Indy with NASCAR drivers Stenhouse, Danica Patrick and Larson as well as Larson's girlfriend, Katelyn Sweet. He said if he had made it in NASCAR, they could have lived in North Carolina, and Stewart could go shop with Katelyn and Danica.

"I'm like, 'I don't want to go shopping with Katelyn and Danica,'" Lauren Stewart said. "I was like, 'I love our life. I love wearing jeans and a T-shirt to the races.'"

Why live in that society where every time they walk on pit road, fans and media want to meddle in all their business? Why do that, especially, if not in a top-tier ride just to stroke the ego of competing in NASCAR?

"The NASCAR deal didn't work out for us, but we were happier than ever doing what we were doing," said Brad Sweet, Katelyn's brother who had a part-time NASCAR career from 2010 to 2013 and followed a path similar to Clauson's in returning to his open-wheel roots.

"Bryan was perfectly happy to be one of the greatest dirt racers of all time, and the fact that he didn't make it in NASCAR didn't tarnish that at all. ... Honestly, I don't feel like Bryan missed out on anything in NASCAR."

The heart lives on

Even in death, part of Clauson continues to live life.

Alexander, a father of five, lives with the heart of Clauson beating in his chest.

"Their son is my hero," Alexander said. "And I don't say that lightly, [having] 26 years in the Army. I've known a lot of heroes. I define a hero as someone who willingly decides to give you life, and so I've known a lot of soldiers, Marines who I would call heroes.

"But I never thought that it would be a civilian who I would call one of my greatest heroes."

At any given time, approximately 1,500 people in Indiana and 120,000 people nationwide need transplants, according to the Indiana Donor Network. A donor can typically donate five organs as well as additional tissue.

Clauson and Stewart had talked about organ donation for a moment when changing the address on their driver's licenses. She didn't think about that conversation when at Bryan Medical Center in Nebraska, and she checked Clauson's license only at the urging of her father the morning after the accident.

"If Bryan wouldn't have been an organ donor and we would have had just to leave the hospital, I don't know where any of us would be," said Stewart, thankful for the time to lie in bed with Clauson in his final hours. "The healing that we did in those three days in the hospital is unmatched."

With their original goal of registering 500 donors viewed as unachievable, the Clausons lowered their goal to 200 -- in line with the Chasing 200 tour. In five minutes after the program launched, they had their 200. Within six hours, they had cracked 500. They have registered more than 6,000 people, possibly resulting in as many as 30,000 organ transplants.

"For them to start such a grassroots campaign in Bryan's name to register people to save lives, my expectation would have been very, very low," said Indiana Donor Network COO Steve Johnson. "I think if 100 people that they had gotten to sign up who hadn't previously been registered, my gut instinct would say, 'Wow, you guys did a great job.'

"I was blown away with the impact. ... What a testament to the Clausons as well as Bryan."

Why such a successful campaign? That Indiana Double kid inspired fans, those who had seen him compete and those who only knew of the legend of the driver who died in Race 117 (with 27 victories) of the Chasing 200 tour.

Hoosiers love their racing. Clauson, who moved to Noblesville (35 miles from Kokomo) at age 10, carried the dreams of Indiana racers to the most famous track in the world by competing three times in the Indianapolis 500.

"Your neighbors and everyone were supportive of what you were doing all the way through," said Tony Stewart, one of Indiana's biggest sport stars. "They'd support you no matter what. Now you go to the big stage and they've watched you from day one. That was everything to guys like us."

It also meant everything to the short-track racing community. Indiana has 40 oval racetracks, including 27 dirt tracks. Clauson fulfilled the dreams of all those who toil every week just for the need for speed, looking to claim that they, as Clauson would say, "Parked It" in Victory Lane.

"For the short-track racers and fans, he was the guy that was representing the short-track dirt racers [at Indy]," said Kokomo Speedway co-owner Jill Demonbreun. "Hey, look, this is what we have here -- Bryan loves it, and you will too if you pay attention to it."

Clauson even found love at the track beyond the race cars. Lauren Stewart's family had worked in the industry for years selling merchandise. She met Clauson while serving as a "Miss Eldora Speedway" but was unable to muster the courage to ask him herself; it took a Tony Stewart employee asking Clauson to attend the track banquet with Lauren for them to have their first date.

The couple appeared much like the homecoming king and queen riding into real life.

"It was a combination -- it wasn't just him; it was Lauren, as well," Tony Stewart said. "They were like two perfect people. ... To go through a tragedy like that and, when you have a family and when everybody found out what Bryan had done, it's like, it meant something to him so why not get behind it ourselves?"

Kyle Larson laughs when he says that he and Clauson had the type of competitive relationship where they hated to lose to each other -- but Lauren hated it most. Clauson once had to pull the car off the road to tell her, "Lauren, if you can't lose with me, you don't deserve to win with me."

If upset or frustrated, Clauson wouldn't tweet his anger. He just stated his case, politely, through the channels he felt needed to hear his side. And then, just like with his fiancée in the car, after he delivered his message, he calmly pulled back on the road and continued the journey.

"He was the one guy I ever met in my life that could be upset and tell you he was upset about something and tell you with a smile on his face at the same time," said Tony Stewart, whose Tony Stewart Racing won the 2013 United States Auto Club (USAC) sprint car championship with Clauson as its driver the year after Clauson won it with his family team.

Another reason Clauson's death spurred such a response relates to the emptiness his death created. Clauson had won seven national titles in his career. His public funeral could occur at only one place -- Kokomo Speedway.

"To me, he almost seemed invincible," Demonbreun said. "It almost seemed like nothing ever was going to happen to Bryan.

"So when it did, it shocked everyone. Everyone loved him. To me, he felt like a family member. In the whole racing community, everybody felt that way. That inspired people to want to be like Bryan and go sign up to be an organ donor."

Some of those who signed to donate their organs have since died and helped others, Tim Clauson said.

"It's surreal," Lauren Stewart said about the response. "When we talk about the people who have signed up to be organ donors in honor of Bryan, it's almost like we're not talking about my Bryan.

"Sometimes it's almost like we're just talking about a person and their organs."

Lauren Stewart wrote a letter to the recipients of Bryan's organs, describing Clauson and their relationship. She said initially she wanted to meet all those people, wanting them all to turn into her besties. She and the Clauson family have met Alexander and listened to Bryan's heartbeat.

"Now I'm more at peace with everything," she said. "If I never meet [all] the recipients, it's OK. ... A person that I never met, that I may never meet, they have a part of Bryan.

"They are alive because Bryan died. It's weird. There's no other way to put it."

Clauson team races on

Tim Clauson didn't know whether his son's race team would continue as he sat in the hospital awaiting final word that his son's life would end at some point that day.

"At 8 a.m. Aug. 7, Sunday morning, I couldn't even have told you I'd ever make it back to Noblesville," Tim Clauson said.

But others knew that Tim Clauson would continue to run the Bryan Clauson Racing team, a team that Bryan owned, that Bryan drove for some (although he also drove for other teams) and that Tim helped manage.

Less than a week after Clauson's death, Tim sat in a suite at Knoxville (Iowa) Raceway and talked with Stenhouse, his son's longtime friend who had planned to start a World of Outlaws team for Bryan in 2017.

"I was like, 'Hey, Bryan wants you to run. He wouldn't want this thing to just fold up and not do anything,'" Stenhouse said about the conversation. "It was at that time Tim and I kind of decided that Tim needs to be at the racetrack.

"It's still tough. ... It's one big family still -- missing an integral part of it in Bryan, but all of us being together is really neat."

Bryan Clauson Racing lives on as Clauson-Marshall Racing with co-owner Richard Marshall, and it entered six cars in January for the Chili Bowl Nationals, the biggest midget-car race on the calendar.

Months earlier, Matt Wood, who owned winged sprint cars Clauson drove and who co-owns the World of Outlaws team with Stenhouse, called Tim, and Tim had to get something off his chest:

"Matt, I'm about to make the stupidest decision of my life. ... I think I'm going to run Chili Bowl."

Wood replied, amid the tears: "Bryan and I were going to build you a car this year."

But on the practice day of Chili Bowl week, Tim Clauson realized something worse than the fact that he didn't even have helmet tear-offs: He had not even finalized the setup for Donny Schatz, a wizard in the World of Outlaws whom Bryan had begged for years to get into a Chili Bowl midget.

"I've got this iconic team that we put together, and if I don't give it my full attention, it's going to be a failure," Tim Clauson said. "That was the one thing that I didn't want."

Tim decided right then and there he couldn't do it, couldn't afford to make his team performance suffer just so he could go off on an emotional journey. Tim Clauson called Justin Grant, a driver he knew had potential but didn't have a top-tier Chili Bowl ride. Grant answered the phone in a raspy voice, and Tim Clauson wondered whether his choice of driver had spent the night partying.

Instead, he learned that Grant's wife, Ashley, had just given birth to twins and that Grant had not even showed up in Tulsa.

"My wife and I had actually talked, and I'm probably going to go ahead and skip it and stay home [with the babies]," Grant said about his 2017 Chili Bowl plans. "I hadn't called [my car owner] yet to tell him at that point.

"And then Tim called and I told Ashley that and she said, 'If it's that, you've got to go.'"

It turned into a career-changing move. Grant won the main event on his qualifying night, won the pole for the Chili Bowl and finished third overall. That performance landed him more races with the Clauson-Marshall team as well as additional opportunities. The 26-year-old leads the 2017 USAC sprint car standings.

"In the middle of last year was probably the lowest point of my racing," Grant said. "I had no rides, and everything I did get in went horrible.

"I was pretty much ready to hang it up and be a truck driver or something."

Clauson's death literally extended the career of Grant, a driver he knew from racing in California before his move to Indiana but more of an acquaintance at the time of his death.

"What would Bryan think?" Tim Clauson said. "For him to be involved, to give a kid like that an opportunity, he'd love it.

"He'd absolutely love it. ... The one regret is I wish they could have known each other now because they're so similar and they both have this respect."

Clauson-Marshall Racing competes in select events and has recently moved into a new shop.

The shop includes a room filled with Clauson's trophies. Tim Clauson envisions a place where fans can come and remember Bryan, but he can spend only about 20 minutes amid the memories before leaving to compose himself.

Included among the impressive hardware: A beer can "trophy" from a 2009 cornhole tournament at the Chili Bowl where Clauson won $500 while raising money for injured drivers.

Tim Clauson saw the trophy last year and couldn't figure out why his son, who gave away many trophies, kept that unspectacular one. He figured that would remain a mystery.

It wouldn't. In a chance meeting the morning after the 2017 Chili Bowl, a man noticed Tim Clauson and explained how he had received the funds raised at a cornhole tournament several years ago.

"As Bryan gets his money and trophy, he walks over to me and goes to shake my hand and says, 'Nice meeting you, and I hope you are doing better,'" the man tells Tim. "And when Bryan takes his hand away ... there was $500 laying in my lap."

The future

Stewart has plenty of photos and memories to have forever. On Feb. 4, the date she and Clauson had set to get married, Stewart went to an Indiana Pacers game with friends. Clauson had introduced her to the Pacers, and they enjoyed going to games. The Pacers allowed them to play on the practice court, and she received a pair of shoes from her favorite Pacer, Myles Turner.

"We made the best of it," said Stewart, laughing at the memories of carrying around Turner's size 18 shoes. "It was a really, really fun night."

Stewart's racing friends made sure she had fun on that day, and they still found a way to smile amid the sadness. She tries to do the same when she visits his grave. A ball remains on the site, and she plays catch with their dog Chevy. She hears noise from a sports facility nearby.

"You can hear kids laughing," she said. "I noticed that early on. I liked that. Because Bryan would like that."

She likes that she can see a playground by a marker in a Noblesville park that commemorates Clauson, a marker stating that, even with 112 USAC career victories and his Indianapolis 500 starts, "Bryan is best remembered for his humility."

Clauson would cherish much of his legacy. Ten years before his death, he realized just how much he loved the sport, how badly he wanted to embrace its culture and just how quickly it could end. He had suffered a neck injury and had to sit out for eight months.

As Bryan sat at home while his friends raced in Eldora, Tim Clauson noticed a tear running down his son's face.

Tim Clauson sobs at the memory.

He rarely saw his son cry. He had to ask: What was wrong? Was Bryan in pain?

"No," Bryan replied, "I've just come to the realization that this sport will go on without you."