Daily Reporter staff and wire reports

INDIANAPOLIS

Bryan Clauson, a popular driver considered by many to be the top dirt-track racer in the country, died Sunday night from injuries suffered in a crash during a race in Kansas.

He was 27.

His death was announced Monday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“This is truly one of the darkest days in the 60-year history of the United States Auto Club. Not only have we lost one of our greatest USAC champions, we’ve lost a true ambassador for all motorsports,” USAC president and CEO Kevin Miller said.

Clauson was leading Saturday night’s race at the Belleville (Kansas) Midget Nationals — which Miller called “one of the most prestigious races on our challenging schedule” — when he crashed while passing lapped traffic; his car rolled and was hit by another competitor. He was airlifted to a hospital in Nebraska, where he died surrounded by his family.

“Our Bryan fought to the end with the same desire that he demonstrated behind the wheel of all the various race cars he would park in victory lane,” the Clauson family said in a statement read by IMS President Doug Boles. “However, we were more proud of our Bryan that took a moment to make a young fan’s day, or demonstrated his uncommon kindness and appreciation toward his friends, family and fans.”

It was another tough loss for the racing community, which has had several drivers die in recent years. In 2013, Jason Leffler died following a crash at a New Jersey sprint car race. The following year, Formula One driver Jules Bianchi suffered head injuries in the Japanese Grand Prix that ultimately cost him his life. A year ago, Justin Wilson was killed when he was struck in the head by a piece of debris during an IndyCar race at Pocono.

Clauson was injured just 24 hours after a crash Friday night. Afterward, he posted on Twitter his appreciation for his safety equipment, his chassis manufacturer and his team for getting his car ready for him to race Saturday.

Clauson was on pace to compete in 200 races this year. He had 27 victories in 116 starts, and he led three laps in the Indianapolis 500 on May 29 — hours before winning a sprint car race in nearby Kokomo in what he called an “Indiana Double.”

Miller said Clauson’s 112 victories are “behind a very, very short list of USAC Hall of Famers and champions: Rich Vogler, A.J. Foyt, Sleepy Tripp and Mel Kintz.”

Clauson came from the same mold of old-school racers such as Foyt, Gary Bettenhausen and Tony Stewart — he would race anything, anywhere. A four-time USAC national champion, Clauson was aiming to become the winningest driver in series history. He was a three-time winner and the defending champion at Belleville.

“He was a leader not only on the track, but in the pits with his fellow competitors,” Miller said Monday.

The California native earned a USAC-IndyCar scholarship for winning the 2010 USAC national driver’s title, giving him six Indy Lights starts in 2011 in a car shared with current IndyCar Series rookie Conor Daly at Sam Schmidt Motorsports. Clauson also raced eight times in USAC’s national series, with his best finish, third, coming in Iowa in 2011.

He won the scholarship award again in 2012, allowing him to make his Indianapolis 500 debut in 2012 with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. He returned to the Indy 500 in 2015 with KVSH/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing, and this year led his first career laps driving for Dale Coyne.

“Bryan Clauson combined his passion and enthusiasm for grassroots racing with a God-given talent that made him the favorite to win every time he got in a midget or sprint car,” Boles said. “He possessed a humility and character out of the race car that made him a person that fellow competitors and fans alike enjoyed being around.”

Clauson was a development driver for Chip Ganassi in NASCAR, where he competed in 26 races over the 2007 and 2008 seasons. He also spent several seasons driving for Stewart’s sprint car team. Stewart said Sunday after the NASCAR race that he hoped to see Clauson’s parents and fiancee, Lauren Stewart, soon.

“I don’t care what happened, no matter how bad his day was, he always found a way to smile with it,” said Stewart, who is not related to the fiancee. “Him and Lauren being engaged, kid had such a bright future. It sucks when it’s anybody in racing, it’s hard when you lose them, but it’s even worse when they’re somebody as close to you as Bryan was.”

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president, called Clauson a friend to many in racing.

“He touched the lives of so many in our motorsports family, and his warm presence and relentless enthusiasm will be missed,” he said.

Clauson is survived by his parents, Tim and Di, sister Taylor and fiancee Lauren. Funeral arrangements were pending. A memorial service in his honor will be scheduled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway later.