On first glance, not much seems to be different now with 17-year-old racer Travis Braden compared to this exact same time last year. No ride officially lined up, facing going back after winter vacation to another semester at Wheeling Park High School, just bunkering down for another cold winter in Wheeling, West Virginia, where the Ohio Valley intersects the Alleghenies and the Appalachians.
But short track racers’ seasons aren’t defined by the outlook of things at the break of January. They’re instead remembered for years to come by the hardware on the trophy shelf at the close of December. In that light, Braden can be excused for wearing an easy-going smile as the new year sets in. He’s confident big plans are in store for he and his team in 2012. In the interim, there’s still a lot of remembering to do from 2011.
Braden’s rookie season in Late Model racing was record-setting, prolific, and yet somehow went largely unnoticed. Part of it may be that his deal with legendary car owner and former racer Gary Estes didn’t come together until the latter stages of the offseason. Part may be that Braden, albeit charismatic and a good interview, seems to have an “under the radar” type personality. Part of it honestly might be where he raced. Ohio, despite a strong Late Model history, is just outside of the geographical and media periphery of where widely-followed series like the CRA or PASS call home.
But Estes’ faith in the high school senior should have been the first sign that bright things were in store for Braden. In fact, Braden points to one moment with Estes that he says he will remember, more than any trophy or accolade, from 2011.
“He was someone we honestly didn’t know,” said Braden of Estes. “But he raced around where we raced, so when I heard he didn’t have a driver for this year, someone gave me his number and I called him. We didn’t even meet until mid-March.
“The first time I ever drove the car, was just a practice session. I had never been in the car before, so I just went out and made a few slow laps, started getting a little faster, just feeling things out. I ended up going a little too fast and turning the car back into the wall. I thought I destroyed it. My heart probably didn’t beat for five minutes.
“Gary – who really at this point I didn’t even know him still – came up and his first words were, ‘It’s all right, we’ll get it fixed. We’ll go back and we’ll go on to win races.’ I’m thinking, ‘I’ve never even won a race for you. Why do you expect me to?’ I was expecting the worst, but he gave me the best. That was the story of the season for me.”
Braden’s car was repaired and Estes’ confidence in the youngster was fulfilled. They finished third on opening night at Columbus Motor Speedway and began a full-out attack on the weekly schedules of both Columbus and Kil-Kare Speedway in Ohio. With Estes turning the wrenches off-track and being surrounded by talented veterans such as Don Mahaffey, Chad Pendleton and any member of the Sibila or Muncy familes, Braden began to pick it up. On May 14th, in just his fourth start in a Late Model, Braden found Columbus’ victory lane.
“They [Kil-Kare and Columbus] are two of probably the hardest tracks to drive in the industry, especially with some of the smartest, talented, best veterans in the country racing there too,” said Braden. “I like to say that I didn’t learn much about driving the car this year, I learned about racing the car against good people. I learned little tricks that I really never even thought about. It was a lot more in knowledge than skill I grew this year.”
With each “little trick” came another victory. All in all, he would go on to win six times at Columbus and seven times at Kil-Kare. Even with all the hardware he would earn during the season, it was clear that Braden was most earnest in simply enjoying both the moment and the education he got behind the wheel in 2011.
Not to say the hardware wasn’t nice too.
In addition to the 13 local feature wins, the Columbus track title would go to Braden. So would the Ohio NASCAR Whelen All-American Series state championship after finishing 12th amongst thousands of drivers in the national standings. Most prestigious of all was the NASCAR Jostens Rookie of the Year award as top rookie in the country. He was honored at the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series banquet at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in December. With all his titles and trophies, Braden might have left the facility with the most hardware of any driver.
Braden’s brightest and career-propelling moment though might have come in October. Competing in just his third CRA/JEGS All-Star Tour career race, Braden conquered the high banks of Winchester Speedway to win the Crate Late Model race on Winchester 400 weekend.
“That [winning at Winchester] wasn’t planned, obviously. We just wanted to go out for some experience on a bigger stage. It was a great way to show that we were really strong on power, not just at the local stuff. It was probably the most fun win this year and a great way to end the season.”
“Great” was definitely the word Braden used over and over to describe his season and there’s every reason to suspect it was be attached to him for years to come. The NASCAR Rookie title and the CRA/JEGS victory have already opened doors for Braden and while nothing is set in stone as we stated earlier, all signs point to Braden making a splash in the Midwest in some race series or another this season. His success continues off the track as well as he has consistently been an honors student at Wheeling Park High.
“Mid-March to Mid-September,” Braden said when finally reflecting on the whirlwind as a whole that was 2011, “It took us that long to get used to the car. That’s a short period of a time for a 17-year-old to bond with a veteran.
“It’s just - just amazing. Amazing.”