OLDSMOBILE PERFORMANCE PROFILE: JIM WRIGHT/BRAYTON ENGINEERING Note: This is one of a series of profiles on the people who have made Oldsmobile's IRL Aurora V8 the dominant engine in the Indy Racing League. Jim Wright is a big, big man.
OLDSMOBILE PERFORMANCE PROFILE:
JIM WRIGHT/BRAYTON ENGINEERING
Note: This is one of a series of profiles on the people who have made Oldsmobile's IRL Aurora V8 the dominant engine in the Indy Racing League.
Jim Wright is a big, big man. With his broad-brimmed felt hat and suspenders, he could be the archetypal "mountain man." His huge hands are calloused and worn -- not from a lifetime of swinging an axe, but from decades of machining and assembling race engines.
Jim Wright, general manager of Brayton Engineering in Coldwater, Mich., casts a big shadow at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this year. Brayton-built Oldsmobile IRL Aurora V8 engines will power one-third of the 33-car starting field for the 82nd Indianapolis 500. A Brayton powerplant propelled unheralded Greg Ray to the middle of the front row with a 221.125 mph qualifying speed.
Wright, 64, is a veteran of the famed Speedway. His first visit was in 1952, and the immense track left a deep impression on the 17-year-old. "The first year I came here was with Troy Ruttman and we won the race," Wright recalls. "I thought it was pretty easy at the time -- but I've only won it twice since then!"
Wright never raced himself, but he provided the horsepower for dozens of drivers since the early Fifties. He's built engines for Top Fuel dragsters and motorcycles, for Indy cars and midgets. His resume reads like a capsule history of American motorsports: he worked for actor James Garner's American International Racing team, Dan Gurney, Lee Brayton, Ron Hemelgarn, and Pat Patrick, among others. His mentor was Keith Black, the mechanical genius who created the engine that dominated drag racing's nitro-burning classes for decades.
"Keith was a second father to me," Wright reveals. "My Dad wasn't alive when I went to work for him. I was shop foreman at Keith Black Racing Engines, and I had a great time there for seven years."
Wright vividly remembers his reintroduction to open-wheel racing. "I was crew chief for Gary Beck's Top Fuel dragster that won the NHRA championship two times in three years," he recalls. "One day I went to an Indy car test at Ontario Motor Speedway. Gordon Johncock was testing; I'd been on Gordie's winning team in '73 and again in '82. Johncock put Scotty Brayton in the car at the end of the day, and he drove really well.
"Scott's father, Lee, asked me if I would consider coming back to Indy car racing. I agreed, and I was with the Braytons from '81 to '85. Then I went to Patrick Racing, and later to Fisher Engineering in California, where we built Buick V6's. In '87 I came back to Indy with Kenny Bernstein's Buick V6 program. In '88 I joined up with Lee Brayton again, and I've been there ever since in the engine shop."
Brayton Engineering's engine business has flourished since the IRL introduced its production-based engine formula. "Before the IRL, we strictly built racing engines for midgets and sprints," Wright reports. "The IRL has really helped smaller engine builders to get involved again. With the engine leasing programs in CART, you can't buy or work on the engines. The IRL has really benefited shops like Speedway Engine Development, NAC Engines, and Brayton Engineering. We've grown from four people to 28 people in a year and a half -- and 26 of them work full-time on the Oldsmobile IRL engine program."
Brayton Engineering has emerged as the most prolific Oldsmboile engine supplier at this year's Indy 500. "I think we have a total of 43 motors here," Wright revealed. "When you come to Indianapolis, you better bring all the horsepower you can possibly get. Depending on the camshafts, there's probably not more than a 5 horsepower difference between those engines.
"The cylinder heads and fuel system are the key to making power," Wright observes. "Ed Keating at GM Motorsports has worked hard on the fuel system, and it's a very good system. The people who leave it alone run fast, and the people who mess with it slow down."
Wright takes genuine delight in the performance of Greg Ray and the low-budget Genoa Racing team. "It's really satisfying to see a team like Greg Ray's come up and run real good. You could see there was something special there because every time Greg went out, he ran a little faster. They're a good team, but underfunded. They listen to what you say, and they do exactly what you ask them to do. It's a fun team to work with.
"Ray's team has two Oldsmobile engines. They put one in and ran fast with it, and then put the second engine in just to see how it would run. They said it was just as good was the first one, so they decided to leave it in for qualifying. When a little team comes along and runs fast when some of the big teams are struggling, then you know that they have their car set up really well."
Along with the good times in Indianapolis, Jim Wright also remembers the bad times. Scott Brayton's death at the Speedway had an impact on Wright that still reverberates. "I'd been close friends with the Braytons," he remembers. "We were almost like a family, and Scotty was like a son to me. Sometimes he'd call me late at night and just want to talk about things. I enjoyed that. There have been a lot of good people involved with Brayton Engineering."
In a lifetime devoted to the art of engine building, Jim Wright has learned how to coax horsepower out of steel and aluminum. But he has also learned that racing is ultimately about friendships, relationships, and people.