Ask the casual race fan to tell you something about Scott Brayton, and the most you could expect to hear is that he is an Indy-car driver.
Brayton isn’t exactly a household name.
But look at the lineup for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, the biggest race of the year with the fastest lineup in the sport’s history, and check out the name at the front of the pack: Scott Brayton.
The 36-year-old driver from Coldwater, Mich., has never won an Indy-car race and no longer has a full-time ride in the series. But here he is, the Indy 500 pole-winner.
Not only that, but Brayton’s 14 Indianapolis starts are the most of any of the 33 drivers in field for the 79th Indy 500.
This isn’t his first brush with fame at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
In 1985, with the help of a developmental Buick V6 turbocharged engine, Brayton set a one-lap qualifying record of 214.199 mph and started from the middle of the front row.
Nobody took Brayton seriously because he wasn’t expected to finish. He didn’t, leading one lap - the only one he has led at Indy - and running just 19 before a burned turbocharger ended his day.
Brayton did finish sixth in both 1989 and 1993, but was not a factor in either race.
Now, he is the man up front, joining a long list of pole-winning luminaries that include such renowned speed merchants as Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt.
So how much of a chance does Brayton have to win Sunday?
Las Vegas thinks the odds are pretty good. Michael Andretti is the early favorite at 5-1, but Brayton is in a group, including his teammate and frontrow sidekick Arie Luyendyk, rated right behind at 8-1.
People at the track aren’t as kind.
The engine that propelled his Lola to a four-lap qualifying average of 231.604 is the linear descendent of that 1985 Buick. It’s called a Menard because owner John Menard is paying for its development.
And questions about its reliability have come up in every interview Brayton has done this month.
“Reliability has always been an issue, and I think Team Menard has tried very hard to address that,” Brayton said. “Last year, we had one engine that finished and one engine that failed.
“I hope this year both of us can finish, but there have been Menard engines that have successfully finished and I think we’ve made major improvements over the last year. But so have (Ford) Cosworth and … (Mercedes) Ilmor and … Honda.”
Even with all the doubters, the son of former driver Lee Brayton, who never made the Indy 500, is confident he has a shot at winning on Sunday.
The reason is his experience on the famed 2-mile oval.
“It certainly is an advantage in that you’ve seen a lot of race activity, different things … so you have a natural comfort zone… . One thing I think you really understand is the pace required to run this race and be up front.”
Car in, but is driver?
Bryan Herta’s backup car will start from the outside of the last row. He still doesn’t know whether he’ll be behind the wheel.
Herta sustained a concussion in a crash during practice May 16 and was told he would have to wait one week to get medical clearance. He was examined by Speedway medical director Dr. Henry Bock on Tuesday and should know the results today.
Meanwhile, his Reynard-Ford that was sent back to the factory in England for repairs was scratched from the lineup, and his backup car was substituted.
Herta qualified at 225.551 mph, which would have put him 18th in the lineup, on the outside of the sixth row. But because of the switch, his car must start 33rd, on the outside of the 11th row. The 15 drivers who qualified behind Herta were moved up one spot each on the starting grid.
Mike Groff practiced in the backup car last week and would drive in the race if Herta does not get medical clearance.
The failure of 1994 winner Al Unser Jr. to qualify kept his father’s streak intact for at least one more year. No one has won consecutive Indys since Al Sr. in 1970-71.
Incidentally, this is the first time the defending champion won’t be in the field since 1982 when Unser Jr.’s uncle, Bobby Unser, the 1981 winner, decided to give up driving to coach Josele Garza.
It’s probably not something she wants to brag about, but Lyn St. James will collect $5,000 as the oldest starter. She is 48 years and 2 months old.
Stefan Johansson’s car will have an Indiana Pacers logo on its sides. Car owner Tony Bettenhausen lives in Indianapolis and is a big fan of the NBA team.
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