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‘Old dog’ Matt Crafton preparing to make USAC Midget debut Saturday night

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Matt Crafton is proving it’s never too late for to try new things in auto racing.

Crafton, the 41-year-old driver for ThorSport Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, will break new ground Saturday night.

It all started a few months ago over dinner with Jack Irving, the director of team and support services at Toyota Racing Development.

“We were just sitting down, having dinner one night a couple of months ago and thought it would be a great idea for me to drive a midget,” Crafton said last Saturday during the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series awards banquet.

“I didn’t think it was too crazy when (Irving) brought it up,” Crafton said. “At that point, it was just casual conversation. I said ‘Yeah, let’s do it’ and he texted (Keith) Kunz to see if it was okay. Two days later, he told me, ‘Okay, pick where you want to go.’”

Crafton chose Saturday night’s USAC Indoor Junior Knepper 55 in DuQuoin, Illinois, as the place to make his midget debut.

He will make it in a car owned by Keith Kunz Motorsports.

On Dec. 6, the two-time Truck Series champion found himself sitting in a midget for the first time, getting fitted for the dirt car.

“About to find out if you can teach an old dog new tricks,” Crafton later tweeted.

But Crafton has already been fine tuning his dirt racing skills over the last five years. Since 2013, the Truck Series has visited Eldora Speedway, the Tony Stewart-owned dirt track in Rossburg, Ohio.

Crafton has been in every Eldora race, but before 2017 his best finish was eighth in the inaugural event.

Before this season, Crafton decided to really figure out dirt racing.

He and his father worked together to rebuild a Modified dirt car and in the downtime between Truck races, Crafton took it racing.

It worked out quickly, with Crafton coming in second in an event at Volusia Speedway Park in February.

Then in July, Crafton triumphed over Stewart Friesen to win the fifth Eldora Dirt Derby.

“It helped a lot,” Crafton said after the race. “Just learning what the track does. In the years past, I didn’t know what I was looking at to be totally honest. Just kept studying and kept studying.”

That Eldora win was the only victory for the No. 88 ThorSport Racing team in 2017, but it put Crafton in the Truck playoffs.

When the prospect of a midget race was raised to him by Irving, the pursuit of a third Truck title kept Crafton from it until the offseason.

“I wouldn’t say the Eldora win propelled any of this … but it’s definitely opened up some more doors,” Crafton said last weekend. “Now, everyone realizes how much I enjoy it and how much of a racer I am and that I love to race.

“I’ll say it again: I’m a racer. There’s a reason why I race dirt races and do everything that I do, and it’s because I want to go out and race anything and everything I possibly can. That’s why I got my own dirt modified, that’s why I got a go-kart … to be able to perfect road courses and that style of racing as well.”

One of Crafton’s teammates in Saturday’s race will be the defending Truck Series champion and dirt veteran Christopher Bell. Crafton’s also received advice from Chase Briscoe, who drove for Brad Keselowski Racing this season.

“(Briscoe) won’t be my teammate, but he sent me some in-car footage of him racing at DuQuoin and I’ve watched it 10 times, just to see what I can learn,” Crafton said. “I mean, you get about four laps, and then you try to race your way into the main event. There’s gonna be a lot of cars there, so it won’t be easy.”

“I talked to Bell this week, and he has a simulator with the midget on it, so I may go over to his house and run the simulator a little bit and see if I can figure out anything there.”

Crafton said he keeps getting pressured to take his dirt experience one step further and compete in January’s Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But Saturday’s 55-lap race comes first.

“I’d love to give (the Chili Bowl) a shot in the future. But we’ll see,” Crafton said. “I’m going out to DuQuoin to have fun; that’s the main goal.”

USAC’s national quarter midget series added to Daytona Speedweeks schedule

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Daytona’s International Speedway’s 2018 Speedweeks just got a little busier and little younger.

The track announced Monday that USAC’s national quarter midgets series, USAC .25, will begin its season there, marking the first time the series has raced at the track. The series is for kids ages 5 – 13.

The event will be held Feb. 9-11 on a temporary 1/20-mile tri-oval inside the track.

“One of our primary goals for our USAC .25 series is that we offer the kids an experience unfound anywhere else in motorsports,” USAC President Kevin Miller said in a press release. “We want to assure that the investment in time and money the families are making will provide experiences and memories that last a lifetime. What better way to give our competitors and their families the incredible opportunity to race where nearly all of the greats have than beginning our national season at Daytona.”

In 2017, the series’ schedule included Phoenix Raceway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway and Eldora Speedway.

The 2018 edition of Speedweeks will culminate with the 60th Daytona 500 on Feb. 18.

Bryan Clauson’s family statement: Organ donation helped five patients

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The family of Bryan Clauson thanked supporters for their “prayers and concerns” and stated Wednesday that the donation of the driver’s organs helped five other patients. It marked the family’s first statement since announcing Bryan Clauson’s death Sunday from injuries sustained in a crash at the Belleville Midget Nationals,

The family said the process was made possible by the “comforting” Nebraska Organ Recovery team. Clauson was transported to the Bryan Medical Center West in Lincoln, Nebraska, after his crash in Belleville, Kansas.

Clauson, who was 27, was in the middle of a season-long campaign called “Chase to 200” to compete in 200 races in 2016.

Below is the full statement from Clauson’s family.

“We would all like to thank you for all of your prayers and concerns over the last few days. It provided strength and comfort during a very difficult time for us.

Nothing prepares you for these moments. We have all watched from afar as other families have had to face their own tragedies or been there to support our family and friends as they have spent their own time in the hospital. However, nothing makes you ready to say goodbye. You take each moment as it comes and we could not have made it to this point without all of you.

One of the gifts that Bryan gave us while we sat next to him praying for some good news, was the moment we found out that he was an organ donor. It shouldn’t have surprised us. All of us have felt Bryan’s generosity throughout his life. The gift of life is the most amazing gesture and Bryan will live on not only through us and all the people he touched along the way, but from the lucky individuals that will benefit from Bryan making a decision to be a donor.

It was not lost on our family as we sat huddled around him, holding his hands, comforting him and each other, saying our last goodbye that five families were also sitting in a hospital room somewhere, comforting their loved one and each other while praying for a miracle that Bryan ultimately delivered for them. We are so proud of our Bryan for making this decision.

The Nebraska Organ Recovery team made the entire process very comforting. Their compassion, love, and respect when treating Bryan did not go unnoticed. We want to acknowledge every member of the Nebraska Organ Recovery team. Thank you for loving our Bryan.

If you are a donor, thank you. If you are not, please consider for a moment becoming one. We have seen first hand how amazing it feels on both sides of the coin. It is the greatest gift that one person can give another. We promise.

Again, thank you for all of your thoughts, prayers and friendship. We look forward to seeing you at the races.

Lauren, Tim, Di, Taylor”

Lauren Stewart, the fiancée of Clauson, tweeted this following the statement’s release.

NASCAR has announced that it will make a decal available to Xfinity Series teams this weekend for its race at Mid-Ohio. Clauson competed in 26 Xfinity Series races in 2007 and 2008.

Bryan Clauson passes away; Family thanks all for support

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Bryan Clauson, known for his driving prowess and illuminating smile, died Sunday from injuries suffered in a crash while leading the Belleville Midget Nationals on Saturday night. He was 27.

“Last night, the 7th of August, we said goodbye to our son, my fiancé, our friend, Bryan Clauson. He was surrounded by family and friends and we were grateful that we could experience his final moments with him,’’ read a statement from fiancée Lauren Stewart, sister Taylor and parents Di and Tim.

“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. 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.

“We would like to thank everybody who has shown their concern toward us and kept us in their prayers. We will never be able to truly thank you. We would also like to thank the staff at Bryan Medical Center who stood and fought with our Bryan since he arrived here early yesterday morning.’’

Clauson suffered severe injuries when his car encountered lapped traffic on the half-mile dirt track in Belleville, Kansas. He hit the wall and rolled several times before his car landed on its side and was struck in the cockpit by an oncoming car. Reports stated that rescue workers needed about 30 minutes to extricate Clauson.

He was airlifted to Bryan Medical Center West in Lincoln, Nebraska, and was listed in critical condition, according to an earlier family statement.

Clauson, a Noblesville, Indiana, native who began racing at age 5, sought to run 200 races this season, driving in winged sprint car, non-winged sprint car, midget and Silver Crown races. Saturday’s race was his 116th start. He had scored 27 wins, his last coming on Wednesday in a midget race in Beloit, Kansas. Clauson finished 23rd in the Indianapolis 500 —the third time he’s run that race — and won a 30-lap sprint car race later that night.

“I say a lot of times I have the best gig in racing,” Clauson told the News-Sentinel of Fort Wayne, Indiana, days before the Indy 500. “If I want to go run the Knoxville Nationals, I run the Knoxville Nationals. If I want to go run the Indy 500, that’s there too.

“I wake up every day excited to go to the race track. I don’t know any other way to describe it other than I am lucky to be in the position I am in.”

Clauson was a two-time USAC National Sprint Cup champion, two-time USAC National Midget champion, three-time Belleville Midget Nationals champion, 2014 Chili Bowl champion, won an ARCA race (Gateway in 2007) and also earned the pole for an Xfinity race (Daytona in July 2008). He drove 26 races in the Xfinity Series in 2007-08 as a development driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Clauson won the 2013 UASC National Sprint Car championship driving for Tony Stewart/Curb-Agajanian Racing.

“That kid drove for us for a long time and did a great job,’’ Stewart said after Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Car race at Watkins Glen International. “I don’t care what happened, no matter how bad his day was, he always found a way to smile with it. Him and Lauren being engaged; kid had such a bright future.”

Clauson was invited to run some laps with Stewart and Sarah Fisher in a midget car on a temporary 3/16-mile dirt track built inside Turn 3 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month. Indianapolis Motor Speedway built the track as a thank you gift for Stewart, who is in his final year racing in NASCAR’s top series.

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

Doug Boles, president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway said: “Short-track racing has always been the heart and soul of auto racing in America. 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. And he proved on the world’s largest racing stage – by leading three laps in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 – that he could use that talent in just about anything with wheels.

“More importantly, 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. His spirit, his positive outlook and his thrilling talent will be missed by the entire racing community.”

Clauson is survived by his parents, Tim and Di, sister Taylor and fiancée Lauren Stewart. Funeral arrangements are pending. A memorial service in his honor will take place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at a date soon to be announced

In lieu of flowers, or to make a donation, people may direct their contributions to the USAC Benevolent Fund website at http://usacbf.org/cash-donation/ or checks should be made out to the USAC Benevolent Foundation in the name of Bryan Clauson. The address is 124 E Northfield Drive, Suite F #129, Brownsburg, IN 46112.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wins USAC Midget race in Illinois

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It’s been three years, two months and one day since Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won a NASCAR event. But the Roush Fenway Racing driver got to celebrate a race win Saturday.

Stenhouse, driving for Tim and Clauson, beat his team owner in USAC’s inaugural Junior Knepper 55, a USAC Midget Special Event at the indoor Southern Illinois Center in DuQuoin, Ill. The win came after battling Bryan Clauson for the lead.

Stenhouse, the 2007 USAC National Sprint Car and National Midget Rookie of the Year, won the 55-lap race (the lap total honored the number used by USAC team owner Walter Knepper) after being involved in a first-lap crash. He then battled back from 20th to fight Bryan Clauson for the lead after a restart with four laps to go. He took the lead a lap later.

“I ran it in as hard as I could on that restart and knew that if I could get a good run off of two, I could slide him,” Stenhouse told usacracing.com. “I thought I would clear him, but he just hung right there with me. I had to go back in my head and think what I would do back in 2007 running USAC. It was eventful, and it was such a blast. I passed some cars top and bottom, but I was shocked when I saw (Tyler) Thomas and (Joey) Saldana crash, and knew then we had a shot.”

The race was the first full USAC Midget race on dirt indoors since a 1990 race at the Reno (Nev.) Livestock Events Center.