350. Revolving Door For Drivers
By 1958, Clint Brawner was running one of the top teams in championship racing with no driver. Bob Sweikert, the first outstanding driver for the Dean Van Lines team, left to win the ’55 Indy 500 for John Zink. Then, Jimmy Snyder jumped ship to win the ’58 prize shoeing for George Salih. After years of leaving IMS without the trophy, Brawner determined to hire a driver who would listen to reason and bring Al Dean his first Indy win. Brawner chose an Indy unknown with incredible skill and a drive to learn everything about the sport, to become the very best.
Brawner liked A.J. Foyt Jr because, from the beginning, he wanted to know everything about every part of the car and every detail to set the car up perfectly. Young Foyt was a sponge, eagerly soaking up twenty years of Brawner’s Brickyard experience.
Foyt’s performance was even better on the track. His rookie year, he finished in the top ten in half his races and placed 10th in the championship.
Although Foyt was the top Indy rookie qualifier, his stellar Month of May was overshadowed by other drivers. Ed Elisian, driving John Zink’s Watson, seemed to run the hot laps each day and started in the first row. When Elisian and Dick Rathmann tangled on the first lap, they damaged half the cars in the field, including Foyt’s. George Amick, starting 25th, ran a superb race and stormed his way through the field to finish 2nd and take rookie of the year.
Foyt's rookie year
Foyt and Brawner’s second season didn’t live up to expectations. The Dean Van Lines team expected victories that didn’t come. Late in the ’59 season, Foyt learned that Brawner intended to add a second car to be driven by Elisian. The thought of driving the old Kuzma chassis while Brawner prepared a new roadster for Elisian alienated Foyt. There was one too many roosters on the chicken ranch, and the two drivers tried to settle it with fisticuffs. Neither drove for the Dean team in 1960. Foyt found a ride with George Bignotti and the Bowes Seal Fast team.
Eddie Sachs took the wheel for the 1960 season. Brawner never got close to Sachs. He felt the “Clown Prince” was a talented driver, but had no technical knowledge. Still, Sachs grabbed the pole at Indy in his first two years driving for Dean. When Sachs pitted for fresh tires 3 laps short of victory in the ’61 classic, Brawner wondered if he was doomed to prepare the best cars, but never win Indy. “… I was lost and whipped and beat, and knew that I’d muffed my chance to finally win Indianapolis.” To make matters worse, Sachs finished second to Foyt.”
The relationship deteriorated. In ’62, Sachs struggled all May before finally qualifying 27th. “This had been such a screwed up month that I had no idea whether or not Eddie would even come around to complete the pace lap. Instead, that incredible Sachs proceded to turn in… one of the greatest driving feats in Indianapolis history.” After a season with no wins, Sachs left for the DVS-Bryant team.
In the early 60’s, fielding multiple cars for the Dean team, Brawner hired promising mechanic Jim McGee. The revolving door continued for drivers including Troy Ruttman, Chuck Hulse and a special guest appearance by stock car racer Curtis Turner.
Brawner, Dean, McGee & Mario
Although Brawner was still bitter from the experience of developing A.J. Foyt, he finally came to the conclusion that he needed to try another rookie. He stuck his neck out for, arguably, the most promising Indy rookie ever, the driver who finally took him to victory circle, Mario Andretti.
The first years that Brawner, McGee and Andretti teamed were magic. His first year at the Brickyard, Andetti qualified in the second row, and finished 3rd. Later in the season, he won his first championship race and the national title. With experience, he improved.
Brawner Hawk 65
Unable to buy another Lotus, Brawner and McGee began contructing their own rear-engine cars, known as “Hawks.” The first Hawk was a copy of a Brabham. Andretti repeated as Champion in ‘66, but lost to Foyt by a few points in ’67. Winning didn’t bring harmony.
Al Dean died of cancer in December of ’67. The team became unsure who was calling the shots, and who owned the cars and equipment. By the middle of the ’68 season, Andretti was paying the bills from his own pocket. Overseas National Airways, their major sponsor, and Firestone both backed out. Andretti sold the team to the Granatellis for the ’69 season. Dissension followed the Indianapolis victory. “Winning Indianapolis wasn’t the thrill I expected it to be.”
Art Pollard's Brawner Scorpion '71
Goodyear hired Brawner and McGee to form Hayhoe Racing, with Roger McClusky driving. A year later, McGee left to rejoin Mario, whose STP team was struggling. Brawner returned to Indy for three more races, with little success before retiring.