Former ARCA/CRA Super Series late model champion Travis Braden (No. 27 MatrixCare/Consonus Health Care/Liberty Village Ford) started his ARCA Menards Series career with a victory in his series debut at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2015. Driving a family-owned car on a tight budget, Braden finished second in his second series start at Kentucky later that season.
Despite impressive performances, his small team couldn’t secure the funding to run a full season in the ARCA Menards Series so Braden, then a student at West Virginia University, ran a handful of races while staying active in super late models.
But by the end of 2015, Braden’s career was at a crossroads. Braden’s father Don is a towing service operator in their hometown of Wheeling, West Virginia. Despite owning a successful business, the family’s ability to keep Braden on track was waning. Braden had thought ahead, earning a dual degree in aerospace and mechanical engineering from WVU, but wasn’t yet ready to give up on his dream to be a racecar driver.
"Through all the ups and downs of my young career in racing, I've tried to always keep my mindset positive and tell myself it can be done,” Braden said. “And I think that's gotten me through the lows, and I've always come out better on the other side. Every time I've been kicked way down, for some reason, a huge opportunity has presented itself very shortly thereafter. It's been quite a rollercoaster, but I've loved it all."
Braden made the move to another late model team in 2016. He scored an impressive last-lap win at the 2016 Winchester 400 at the ultra high-banked half-mile in eastern Indiana, which put him back in the national spotlight. Opportunity knocked when RFMS Racing owner Don Fike was looking for a driver to evaluate his racecars in 2017, notably at the very same Winchester Speedway where Braden had found success in the late model.
“The 2017 season was a great example of those ups and downs for me,” he said. “I was coming off the two best years of my career in '15 and '16. I was getting a lot of attention. My following was growing rapidly. Yet all of the sudden, I was kind of getting pushed out it felt like. It was getting harder rather than easier to get sponsorship and support. We did everything we could in '17 and, honestly, in mid-summer I thought that 2017 would end up being my last season racing at this level. It was only a few weeks after I started having those thoughts that I was asked by Don Fike and RFMS Racing to test their car at Lucas Oil Raceway, and then wound up racing at Winchester shortly after. That eventually grew into the final three races of '17 and then a full season in 2018. I have never felt more grateful for an opportunity than this one.”
Braden qualified tenth and ran up front all day long in that race at Winchester, finishing fourth. It was his fourth top-five finish in seven ARCA Menards Series starts to that point in his career, and it opened the door for three more races at the end of the season.
Braden fit in with the small RFMS Racing group, led by long-time ARCA crew chief Dan Glauz. When the 2018 season opened, Braden had been selected as the team’s full-time driver. He relocated to the Indianapolis area to work in the shop full time with the team and despite a budget a fraction of the teams he was competing against, Braden scored four top-five finishes and eleven top-ten finishes, including back-to-back top-four runs at Springfield and Berlin. Despite virtually no experience on dirt, he was in contention to win at DuQuoin before contact late in the race while leading relegated him to 15th at the finish.
The “little team that could” started 2019 off with a renewed commitment from their sponsors, new uniforms for the crew members, and a renewed attitude. It has paid off handsomely as Braden is one of only two drivers with top-ten finishes in both ARCA Menards Series races so far, an eighth at Daytona and a tenth at Five Flags.
“The deal for last year came together pretty last minute,” he said. “We wanted to be more prepared and do more but ran out of time in my opinion. But in the end, we slowly progressed all season and really positioned ourselves for a breakout 2019 season. We haven't proven it yet but only two races in I picture us as sort of laying in the weeds. We've worked really hard on our equipment and it's going to shine through during the busy summer stretch.”
As the series heads to Salem Speedway for the third event of the season, Braden is optimistic for a chance to run for the team’s first top-five finish of the season. Salem is a sister track to Winchester, where so much of Braden’s success over the years has happened. And despite a 14th-place finish there last April, Braden rebounded to finish fifth on the high-banks at Salem last September.
“We finished in the top five at Salem last fall after struggling there in the spring,” he said. “We were realistically an eighth-place car that day, but I see us as a true top-five car for this year's show. Everything we learned from our struggles last year is finally coming full-circle.”
While the season has started with numerous positives, the RFMS Racing team was touched by tragedy on March 14 when long-time crew member Jason “Red” Morris lost his life in a traffic accident in Ohio. Braden and his teammates will be racing in Morris’s memory at Salem and throughout the 2019 season.
“I can honestly say that I have never wanted to win a race more than I want to win this race at Salem. You will have to claw it away from me this time,” he said.” Of course, we have been after our first win with determination but this one is going to be a bit more personal. Our first race without Red, at one of his favorite races. He had been talking a lot about how excited he was for Salem and felt it was our time to shine. He was a guy who understood what was going on. He knew. And so now it's my job to go get it done for him. I feel a lot of pressure, personally, to make this happen for him. It will be an emotional day.”
Practice for the Kentuckiana Ford Dealers ARCA 200 is set for 11 am ET on Saturday, April 13 with General Tire Pole Qualifying scheduled for 3 pm ET that afternoon. The green flag on round three of the 2019 ARCA Menards Series season will drop shortly after 2 pm ET on Sunday, April 14. The race will be televised live on MAVTV and ARCA for Me members can access live timing & scoring, live chat, and live track updates at ARCARacing.com. New members can register for free at ARCARacing.com/login
-ARCA Menards Series Press Release
-Photo credit: Speed51.com