by Frank Kurtis
In Jimmy Bryan, American racing had a champion who looked like a champion should -- big, brawny and broad-shouldered, good-natured but tough to the bone, with a cigar between his teeth and his foot flat on the floor.
Bryan was a man who believed it was his duty to represent the sport at all times as favorably as possible. He was a master of the dirt ovals that dominated the Big Car circuit during the 1950s, and on them in the middle of the decade he won three national championships.
Only a broken oil line at Indy on the day Bill Vukovich was killed kept him from taking four straight titles, as the points lost then could never be recovered.
The previous Memorial Day, in a race rampant with relief drivers, he soloed Al Dean's Clint Brawner-prepared Kuzma-Offy upright home second only to Vukovich, despite driving nearly half the race with broken suspension.
The beating he took on the old bricks that day kept him out of the following weekend's race at Milwaukee, but he earned 800 crucial points toward his first championship, 600 more than were even available in Wisconsin.
Between Oct. 25, 1953 and Veterans Day 1957, he won 17 of 34 races run on the dirt, dominating the discipline's most elegant era with a brilliant blending of brute force and delicate precision. On that autumn day in 1953, he lapped the field in Sacramento to claim his first dusty 100-miler his only triumph with Clay Smith in Bessie Paoli's Springfield Welding Kurtis rather than the familiar Dean Van Lines Kuzmaand.
Born in the Roaring '20s, he began racing track roadsters before switching to midgets in 1947. Within four years he was trying to qualify at Indy, but it didn't come together until he hooked up with Smith and Paoli for the '53 season.
Perhaps his most memorable moment came in November of 1957 on his hometown track in Phoenix. While leading Pat O'Connor late, lapped traffic forced him through a hole left in the turn four fence by an earlier crash. He wrestled his car back onto the track through another break in the wall, and re-passed O'Connor for the victory.
In addition to the dirt track triumphs, a pair of pavement wins loom large on his resume. In 1958 he left Dean to drive George Salih's radical lay-down Belond Special Indy, winning that year's tragic 500, and in Italy the previous summer he had beaten the best from both Europe and America in the Race of Two Worlds on the fabled banks at Monza.
After the Indianapolis winner's disappointments at the Brickyard in '59 and '60, he abandoned the championship trail. Later, however, he talked himself into A.J. Watson's car for Langhorne and qualified on the front row for his first dirt race since the win at Phoenix.
Lady Luck, to whom he'd dedicated so many victories over the years, deserted him at the start, and in the first turn his car caught a rut and flipped violently, sending the Arizona cowboy on his last ride.