Bryan Clauson says he might need a few days to fully grasp the accomplishments of the 2010 USAC season. On Thanksgiving night at Toyota Speedway in Irwindale, Calif., he was truly thankful for the bounty.
The 21-year-old from Noblesville, Ind., wrapped up the inaugural USAC National Drivers Championship, which includes the $300,000 Firestone Indy Light scholarship to compete in the six oval races on the 2011 schedule.
IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard and Firestone Indy Lights team owner Sam Schmidt were among the spectators at the one-third-mile racetrack as Clauson charged to the overall national championship and the Mopar National Midget title by winning the 70th Turkey Night Grand Prix. Clauson overtook Cole Whitt on lap 9 of the 98-lap feature and went on to take the checkered flag in a national Midget race for the sixth time this season.
In the process, Clauson became the first back-to-back winner of the USAC Mopar National/Western Midget race since Billy Boat (1995-'97) and will be associated with the likes of A.J Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Stan Fox, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Mel Kenyon, Ron Shuman, Rich Vogler and Robby Flock.
"To be mentioned in the same sentence with a lot of great drivers who have won this race is pretty special," said Clauson, who accepted the "Road to Indy" scholarship check from Bernard.
The Firestone Indy Lights program begins with the Firestone Freedom 100 on Carb Day (May 27) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"I'm really excited about it," Clauson told IndyCar.com. "It's been a long time since that door has been open for the short track racer. A lot of us grew up at Indianapolis watching the Month of May and knowing how special a time that is and dreaming to be a part of it. Now to have that opportunity is pretty unbelievable and I don't think that will fully set in until get to the track.
"Everyone at IndyCar has put me in a situation to go out and have some success. It will be a completely new venue for me with the rear-engine open-wheel car, but I tell people all the time when they ask how we're going to adapt, I don't think there's anything tougher than running USAC. You have to run a mile dirt track in Illinois on Friday with the Silver Crown car and come back on Saturday and run a quarter-mile paved track in a Midget. I think we'll be able to adapt to the Firestone Indy Lights car pretty quickly."
The National Drivers Championship is based on the best 25 races of each driver in one of the three national divisions (Silver Crown, Sprints, Midgets). Clauson outpointed Levi Jones of Olney, Ill., 1,108-1,094 in the standings. Jerry Coons Jr. (1,044), Tracy Hines (1,030) and Damion Gardner (1,001) followed. Overall, Clauson posted 10 feature victories, two runner-up finishes and seven thirds.
"I've been chasing the national championship for a couple of years and it's really something I wanted to accomplish as I moved up the racing ladder," said Clauson. "Growing up in USAC, it was the pinnacle of racing and it meant a lot to me and my family. To win it is special, and to do it with our Midget team that we kind of hand-built over the last couple of years is a lot of fun.
"To win the drivers championship – being the best overall in all three series – was pretty cool, too."
The USAC season, which kicked off Feb. 19 in Arizona, was another learning experience for Clauson, who made his USAC National Sprint Series debut two days after his 16th birthday on June 17, 2005, at Limaland Motorsports Park (Ohio) with a third-place finish. Four months later, he won the Open Wheel Oktoberfest Midget race at Columbus Motor Speedway (Ohio) to become the youngest driver in USAC history to win a National feature event.
Clauson, who joined Tony Stewart Racing in the off-season, said being associated with the 1996-'97 Indy Racing League and multi-NASCAR series champion has been a big plus in his development.
"I've learned so much from him over the years – not only on the racing side of things but also off the track," Clauson said. "He's a huge guy to have in your corner when it comes to racing. I could go to him tomorrow and ask him about IndyCars, and though it's been a while since he's been there, he could probably help me out a little bit.
"To have somebody like that who is so well-versed in so many forms of motorsports is a big advantage to a young guy like myself."