In the time period covered by this book, kids believed in heroes. So did lots of adults. The subjects of their adulation viewed their status in the world as a responsibility that had to be met every single day. This is the story of one such relationship between a Phoenix kid and a sensationally good race driver of the Fifties.

When My Hero, My Friend, Jimmy Bryan was first published in 1992, it immediately was recognized as best book of the year by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. That’s a big deal. The thing is, the title had a limited print run and largely vanished from availability, until its recent reprinting. It’s the story of Len Gasper, a Pennsylvania kid whose family relocated to Phoenix, Bryan’s hometown. Len befriended Bryan, who was pounded nearly senseless on rutted dirt tracks and became a patient of Len’s father, a physical therapist. Phil Sampaio co-wrote the story.

If the name of Jimmy Bryan escapes you, that’s regrettable. He won the Indianapolis 500 in 1958 (aboard the same George Salih-built “laydown” Offy roadster that Sam Hanks had driven to victory the previous year), but also had raced to second- and third-place finishes. He was a national champion for both AAA and USAC, and was an utter terror doing what you see in this photo, manhandling an Offy-powered championship car on a big dirt mile, this one being the Arizona State Fairgrounds. The artist Ralph Steele immortalized a Bryan scene at this track, where he jumped the cushion, hit the fence, but continued around the corner’s outside, ripping the fence apart as he went.

Bryan was far from a one-dimensional race driver. He captured the inaugural Race of Two Worlds at Monza in 1957, and ran this 3.0-liter Maserati on the road course at Willow Springs, California, circa 1956. See that guy in the background, in the sport coat? Does he look like Dan Gurney, or what?

Most of Bryan’s great accomplishments came while he was in the seat of the Dean Van Lines cars fielded by Al Dean. This was how a team at the absolute pinnacle of American championship racing got to the tracks in 1957. An Indy roadster for the pavement is behind the Mercury station wagon. The team’s dirt car is being towed by what looks to be a Chevrolet or GMC pickup. Jimmy stands in the background next to the great mechanic Clint Brawner.

This, folks, was what a real race driver used to look like, not a yapping Chihuahua like Kyle Busch. Jimmy Bryan died in 1960 during a savage flip at his self-proclaimed favorite track, Langhorne, in a car that Rodger Ward had refused to drive because of Langhorne’s lethal reputation. This, then, is far from a happy book, but it’s still a very worthy piece of American racing history. It’s $24.99 (a premium edition with slipcase is $49.99) at