It was getting deep into Happy Hour on Pole Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and despite some morning rain, the crowd had got its money's worth. The 'fastest day in motorsport' had lived up to its name, with the track record having already fallen three times during the afternoon - first to Davy Jones, then to rookie Tony Stewart, then to Arie Luyendyk.
With just over 25 minutes left to run and nobody lining up to go back out, the battle for pole appeared to have been settled. Then Scott Brayton started to pull his helmet on.
The 1996 Indy 500 was the year of the CART boycott, and under the rules of the time - rules that contributed to the CART teams not being there in the first place - Brayton's #2 car had an Indy 500 entry guaranteed before it even turned a wheel, courtesy of a regulation that granted the top 25 in the IRL points standings an automatic place in the field.
Nonetheless, he'd been quick that day, his 232.684mph average enough to put him comfortably on the second row.
That wasn't enough for Larry Curry, Brayton's crew chief at Team Menard, who'd been watching Luyendyk and crunching some numbers.
"I knew I had back-up cars that were quicker than what Arie had put up, as well as quicker than the car I qualified Scott in," he says. "And I knew Arie didn't have a back-up car. So I needed Arie to post a time, and then I went to Scott and said, 'Do you want to go back out and go for the pole, because I believe this other car can do it?' And he said, 'Sure'."
It wasn't as simple as he makes it sound. Curry wasn't merely asking Brayton to scrap a time, he was asking him to scrap an entire car. And if they withdrew the #2, its guaranteed entry disappeared along with it. Any misstep could potentially send Brayton from fifth on the grid to not even making the field.
"I made sure he knew that if we messed it up, we were out," Curry says. They didn't mess it up.
Brayton, now in the #32 back-up, reeled off a four-lap average of 233.718mph - just over 0.3mph faster than Luyendyk - and secured pole position for the second year in a row.
The stunt drew a raucous reaction from the crowd and stunned those watching from pitlane. Richie Simon, who had worked with Brayton during the years that he drove for Richie's father Dick, couldn't believe what he was seeing.
"I've never seen another guy pull a [qualified] car from the race and then requalify a different car and put himself on pole," he says. "I still remember hearing [IMS track announcer] Tom Carnegie saying, 'He did it! He did it! He did it!'"
Six days later, Brayton was dead.
The stars were aligning for Brayton in 1996. At 37, he was already a seasoned campaigner at the Brickyard, with 15 previous appearances under his belt. His results up to that point had been modest, his best finishes being a pair of sixth places in 1989 and 1993, both with Dick Simon Racing. The move to Menard gave him access to the team's fearsome self-developed Buick engines, which rewarded him with pole at Indy in 1995, although he was down on boost during the race and faded into mid-pack anonymity.
But the team had learned its lesson in 1996, while the absence of the CART teams meant that some of the drivers who might otherwise have taken the fight to Brayton were racing at Michigan instead. It was far from a walk-up start, but he was certainly sailing into the Month of May with favourable winds.
Brayton might be described as his generation's answer to Ed Carpenter, but with an even more precisely defined skillset. He wasn't much of a threat to anyone on road and street courses, and nor was he the first guy you'd look for on a short track.
That said, he was capable of delivering the goods when everything was going right. His sole career podium might have been a third place that he inherited at Milwaukee in 1992 when Rick Mears fell back with engine problems late on, but Brayton had qualified on the second row and been running fourth all afternoon up to that point.
At Indy, though, he was in his element, especially in qualifying. Veteran journalist Robin Miller describes Brayton as one of the bravest drivers he has ever seen, and his cojones were reinforced with an instinctive feel for how to carry the car through a quartet of flying laps at incomprehensible speeds, on a track that changed by the minute.
"I never had anyone that drove a car that was 'freer' than how he would drive it at Indy," says Curry. "I mean, he was just an incredible qualifier. Incredible."
In a very real sense, Brayton's passion for Indy defined him as a driver. It was like a more rigid version of Steve McQueen's famous line from Le Mans: Indy was life; all the races that happened before or after were just waiting.
"I built a new aluminium-block Buick V6 engine for Indy that year ," Curry says. "It looked great on the dyno, but I only wanted Scott to run three corners [at speed]. I was just trying to get a little data. Back then you didn't want to show your hand because the sanctioning body would step in and change the boost and slow you down.
"So I said, 'Scott, don't go out there and run a [full] lap', because when you were testing at Indy, there were always a bunch of people standing around with stopwatches. So he goes out and runs, and I'm timing him out of Turn 4, and he's on a lap that's over 237mph.
"I'm on the radio saying, 'Scott, don't you dare finish this lap'. And there are all these guys standing there timing everyone, and he goes past in 237-something, and they all start tapping their watches like [they're broken].
"And then, instead of coming in, he runs another lap that was even quicker. He knows by this time that I'm madder than hell, so here he comes down the pitlane, the visor comes up, and he's got this big smile on his face. I said, 'What the hell did you do that for?' And he said, 'I saw the speed come up on my dash, and I just thought, 'That can't be right...'"
A little after midday on May 17, Brayton was out on the track in one of the team's spare cars working on his race set-up. It had been a productive morning: he'd completed 52 laps, and just gone through the speedtrap at 234mph when the rear of his car snapped around on the way into Turn 2.
There was no opportunity to save it: the elapsed time between the loss of rear traction and the hit with the outside wall was about two seconds.
"I kept saying over the radio, 'Scott, are you OK? Are you OK?'" Curry recalls. "And I wasn't getting any response. Lee [Brayton's father] was in the pit with me, and he had a radio. Lee looked at me, and I looked at him, and I said, 'Lee, we'd better get over there and find out what's going on'."
By the time Curry made it to the scene of the crash, Brayton had already been evacuated to a nearby hospital. His death was confirmed 33 minutes after the impact, although the public announcement took another three hours while IRL officials scrambled to contact his mother.
Analysis of the accident later revealed that Brayton had probably run over a piece of debris in Turn 4 on the lap before. Unaware, he continued on until his right-rear Firestone let go without warning.
"Our analysis tends to indicate the right-rear tyre did lose air, but the manner in which it occurred leads us to believe the tyre was cut," said Firestone's Tony Troiano shortly after the crash. "We are continuing to analyse what we have left of the tyre, and that analysis does not indicate any internal structural damage."
Grief in the paddock ran deep and wide, which was reflected in the scale of Brayton's funeral: more than 1000 mourners made their way to his hometown of Coldwater, Michigan, three hours north of the Speedway. IRL head Tony George led the funeral procession in a Dodge Viper pace car.
It's tempting at this point to overplay the timing of Brayton's accident. After his years of disappointment, of false starts and untimely exits, fate denied him what would have been his first swing at the 500 in a car that genuinely had both the speed and the reliability to win it. But that's the Speedway.
Twenty years after Brayton's death, Tony Kanaan mused that you can never feel that Indy owes you anything. "This place gets into your head," he said. "It can affect your life. It's cool, but you have to manage it, because it can ruin you."
That, of course, is what makes Indianapolis so compelling. And Brayton understood that better than any other driver of his generation.