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Scott Brayton had already won his second straight Indy 500 pole. He was

taking a practice run Friday under near-ideal conditions on a track he knew better than any other driver in this year's field.Suddenly, his right rear tire went flat, and one of the fastest drivers in Indy 500 history went spinning to his death - his car careening helplessly into a wall at more than 230 mph.

Brayton, 37, died without regaining consciousness 33 minutes after the 12:17 p.m. accident at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The son of an Indy car driver, Brayton was the 40th Indy 500 driver to die during practice, qualifications or the race, and the first since Jovy Marcelo was killed during practice in 1992. In all, 66 people - drivers, mechanics, spectators and a bystander - have died in accidents at the track since 1909.

"Scotty had a perfect race car, a perfect day, and a perfect track, and yet it reached out and bit him," said John Menard, owner of Brayton's car.

"Scotty just loved this place. He loved runing fast here, he loved the competition," Menard said. "He was so proud he had the pole. He worked for that pole."

Brayton, the most experienced driver in this year's field, was testing possible setups for the May 26 race in a 1995 Lola-Menard, one of the Team Menard backup cars.

He had just completed a lap at 228.606 mph when his right rear Firestone tire deflated rapidly as he headed toward turn two.

The car did a half-spin and traveled 420 feet before smashing backward into the wall. The car continued sliding along the wall for 360 feet with parts flying off. It then did a quarter-spin and traveled another 600 feet before coming to a stop in the back straightaway.

The right rear and entire left side of the car were extensively damaged.

An investigation "revealed conclusive evidence" that a "rapid deflation" of the tire caused the car to spin out of control, the U.S. Auto Club said.

"Working closely with Firestone engineers, USAC will continue to pursue a possible cause for this rapid deflation," said USAC technical director Mike Devin.

Jack Lang, executive director of the Indy Racing League, ruled out driver error.

Former Indy driver Steve Chassey, who reviewed a tape of the crash, said that as the tire deflated, the underbody of the car started to scrape the ground.

"And then when the tire deflated all the way and the car was riding on the underbody, there's no traction, it's just like riding on ice, and the back of the car spun around," Chassey said.

Firestone spokesman Tony Troiano said it appeared Brayton's right rear tire lost air, "but the manner in which it occurred leads us to believe the tire was cut. We are continuing to analyze what we have left of the tire and that analysis does not indicate any internal structural damage."

Brayton was removed unconscious from the wreck, put on a stretcher and taken to Methodist Hospital, accompanied in the ambulance by Dr. Henry Bock, the track's medical director.

Track spokesman Bob Walters did not provide any details of Brayton's injuries.

"From my understanding, he went quick, and that's the best situation. You don't want to lay in a hospital," said Al Unser Jr., at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Friday night's IROC race. "The Good Lord decided everybody's fate. He decided to take Scott. This is a part of racing we all accept."

The announcement of Brayton's death was delayed more than three hours until track officials could notify his family. His mother was at the hospital, Walters said.

Fans at the speedway watching the practice runs on the eve of the second weekend of qualifying heard about his death over the public-address system shortly after Walters' announcement.

Menard did not say who, if anyone, would drive Brayton's car in the race. If another driver is substituted for Brayton, he would have to start the race at the rear of the field, with every other car moving up one spot in the lineup.

"We've got a lot of grieving to do. There's very, very heavy hearts at Team Menard right now," Menard said. "I haven't gotten to my personal feelings now, much less my race team's."