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His Life Took Checkered Flag Way Too Soon

MIKE DOWNEY

May 19, 1996|MIKE DOWNEY

He won a $100,000 bonus. He won a $35,000 Dodge Tiara van. He won them for driving an automobile 234 mph, to take the pole position for the 80th running of the Indy 500.

Say a car passing you on the freeway is doing 58. Picture one going four times faster.

Scott Brayton's did.

"The good Lord willing, He allowed us to get through it all. I'll tell you, we had a major heart rate going," Brayton said.

May 11, 1996.

*

May 27, 1982.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Thursday morning, three days before the Indy 500.

Old guys with new guys. Thirty-three drivers, out of their cars, talking things over near the pit-road terrace seats.

The veterans--A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti, Gordon Johncock, 21 more--trying to tell the Indy rookies what to do, what to watch out for, how to merge when leaving the pits, why the first lap wasn't necessarily the one that would win or lose the race.

The rookies--Danny Sullivan, Bobby Rahal, Jim Hickman, six more--listening to every word, amazed that the old guys finally were acknowledging the young guys.

Hickman, saying later: "There's no Welcome Wagon here. Nobody's going to go around and shake every rookie's hand.

"After you've been here a while, you are an accepted person. Anybody else is an outsider."

Sunday.

The race.

Johncock, from Coldwater, Mich., takes the checkered flag, with Rick Mears right on his tail.

Hickman, a young Oklahoman, is never accepted at Indy again.

Three months later, in a crash at Milwaukee, he is killed.

*

May 17, 1996.

Dick Simon was pulling for Scott Brayton, as ever.

Scott wasn't driving for him any more. For several years, he had. But that didn't matter, not to Simon, not to his wife.

"Scott, to us, was a son," Simon says. "He loved racing more than anything in the world, except for his wife, Becky, and that beautiful daughter of theirs.

"I'm a romantic. I just love when two people get together who belong together.

"Becky got cold feet before the marriage, even though they'd known each other forever. But I knew I had to make sure these two stayed together.

"So I told Scott, 'We're not going to pay you any more money until you and Becky get married.' And I literally withheld some prize money.

"So they got married, and had this beautiful child.

"I guess I got closer to Scottie than anybody. He's probably the finest person I've ever known."

*

Six days earlier.

Going faster for four laps than anyone had ever gone, Arie Luyendyk averages 233.390 mph, to take the Indy 500 pole.

Brayton, from Coldwater, Mich., just like Gordon Johncock, sits by the pits, thinking: "I can go faster than that."

In 1981, he was just another rookie, waiting for a Welcome Wagon that never came.

In 1996, he is qualifying for his 15th Indy 500, more than any driver who is present today at the track.

Brayton runs over to John Menard, for whom he now drives, rather than for Dick Simon.

"You gotta give me a chance to drive it," Brayton says, meaning a backup car in Menard's garage.

They wheel it out.

Brayton is unfamiliar with the car, but he zooms five laps at an average of 233.718 mph, to take the Indy speed record away from Roberto Guerrero, and to take the pole away from Luyendyk, who curses as he says, "A perfect . . . end to a perfect . . . day."

For Brayton, this is perfect.

"This is the most emotion I've ever been through," Brayton says. "To only have five laps in the car all month and put it on the pole. . . . I doubt that's ever been done before."

There are other races, other places.

Brayton isn't interested. He says, "This is what Indy is all about. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

*

Four years before.

Roberto Guerrero owns the Indy speed record. He is on the pole for the 76th Indy 500. His car is in Garage 8.

In 1987, Guerrero was in a coma.

He was preparing for the race when he hit a wall. The right front tire broke free. It slammed into his helmet.

Guerrero was comatose for 17 days.

Now he is back, and the speed record is his. Guerrero says, "The speeds are too fast. But what can we do about it?

"I have always been comfortable on this track, from the first day I drove here. And I am comfortable at these speeds, until something goes wrong."

He says this in Garage 8.

Above the door of Garage 9, someone has hung a red rose. This is Jovy Marcelo's garage.

Jovy's equipment is still inside. Jovy is an Indy 500 rookie. Jovy has just been killed, in a crash.

*

Last Friday afternoon.

Scott Everts Brayton has just been killed, in a crash.

"He didn't have selected friends. The whole world was his friend," says Simon, who feels he lost a son.

"He probably was the most liked guy out there," says Jimmy Vasser, one of Brayton's rival drivers.

"God bless us all today," says Menard, whose car Brayton drove.

Scott Brayton (1959-1996).

Another life that went by too fast.

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