Two ARCA Menards Series championship contenders, West Virginia’s Travis Braden and New Jersey’s Joe Graf, Jr., are heading to the second event of the 2019 season, the March 9 ARCA Pensacola 200 presented by Inspectra Thermal Solutions at Five Flags Speedway, each looking for their second career victory.
Braden (No. 27 MatrixCare/Consonus Health Care/Liberty Village Ford), a two-time ARCA/CRA Super Series late model champion, stunned the ARCA Menards Series when he pulled off an improbable victory in his first career series start at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2015. Driving for his family’s self-funded team, Braden made sporadic series appearances in 2016 and 2017 before getting the call to drive for Don Fike’s RFMS Racing team to close the 2017 season.
One of just three full-time employees of the RFMS team, Braden does much more than just drive the racecar. He puts his education to good use within the team too; he has dual degrees from West Virginia University in aerospace and mechanical engineering. Braden earned those degrees while pursuing and achieving short track glory. He was attending classes full-time when he earned those ARCA/CRA Super Series championships in 2013 and 2014.
“Obviously, always having attended school throughout my childhood while racing somewhat prepared me for doing it while attending college, but it really turned out to be an exceedingly difficult task,” Braden said. “Not only because I was reaching a higher level of racing, in the ARCA/CRA Super Series which required more time and focus, but I also chose to study two degrees, both very challenging. I also chose to exceed the “recommended” curriculum pace and graduate early. I did all this from hundreds of miles away from the race shops I worked in and race tracks we raced at. For those four years, if I wasn’t sleeping, I was on the go somewhere. Oddly enough, I really enjoyed staying full-throttle.
“A lot of people have asked me if I feel as though I’d be higher up the ranks if I hadn’t gone to college, and I really don’t know the answer, nor do I really care. It wasn’t an option. I had no desire to gamble one hundred percent on racing being my only career. What I do know, is the life I chose to live through that stage of early adulthood has really given me the confidence that no matter how insurmountable a task may be, it can be accomplished with enough desire and dedication.”
Braden is currently sixth in the ARCA Menards Series championship standings, 30 points behind second-place Christian Eckes. Point leader Harrison Burton, winner in the ARCA opener at Daytona, is racing fulltime in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series and is not entered at Five Flags.
A short track specialist, Braden has a lot of experience and dozens of paved half-mile tracks across the country. But despite his experience and success across the Midwest, he doesn’t have a lot of laps at Five Flags Speedway. His career includes only two attempts at Five Flags, the 2014 Snowball Derby and the 2016 Snowflake 100. Lady Luck wasn’t kind in either attempt, something he and his dedicated team are working hard to reverse when the ARCA Menards Series takes to the track.
“Unfortunately, I’ve not gotten as much experience at Five Flags as I would like to have, being the short track guy I am,” Braden said. “In the few times I’ve been there, we’ve always been fast, but never had the whole deal come together. Whether it be failing tech inspection, having a tire failure, or most recently getting rained out, I’ve actually never run a full-race yet in Pensacola. I’m glad the ARCA Menards Series is going to Five Flags this year. I feel like it’s going to be a great show, and a great race for RFMS Racing.”
If there is anyone who Braden can relate to on the track, Joe Graf. Jr. (No. 77 Eat Sleep Race Ford) may be the one. While their backgrounds are vastly different, Graf is following in Braden’s educational footsteps. Graf is studying business, media, and sports management at New York University full-time while also pursuing the ARCA Menards Series championship.
“The biggest challenge has been balancing the college work load with racing every weekend,” Graf said. “I am a full-time student so I have twelve hours of classes on Monday, then one on Tuesday and another big day on Wednesday before we fly out to go racing for the weekend. I’d get back on Sunday and try to get all of my work done.
“There always has to be something after your sport,” he continued. “No athlete plays forever, no racecar driver drives forever. I still want to be a part of the industry after I am done racing, and the best way to do that is to get a great education.”
Graf is currently 19th in the ARCA Menards Series championship standings after overheating problems put him several laps down at Daytona. Graf earned his first series win in a fender-banging duel with Zane Smith at Berlin Raceway in Marne, Michigan last August. Berlin is known for its weathered asphalt surface that is abrasive on tires, something it has in common with Five Flags. With previous success at Berlin, Graf hopes it translates to another win.
“I’m really excited to see a new track on the ARCA Menards Series tour this year,” Graf said. “I don’t have any prior experience at Five Flags, but we tested there with our No. 77 EAT SLEEP RACE Ford and I think that test will put us a little farther ahead for race weekend.
“The short tracks are tough in ARCA competition and even though it’s a new track, I expect the race to be very competitive. We had some bad luck at Daytona, so we’re all eager to go to Five Flags and have a good showing that will give our Chad Bryant Racing team some momentum heading into Nashville and Salem.”
Braden and Graf and the rest of the ARCA Menards Series take to the half-mile Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida on Saturday, March 9. Practice starts at 1 pm ET/12 pm CT; General Tire Pole Qualifying is set for 4:30 pm ET/3:30 pm CT; and the ARCA Pensacola 200 is set to go green at 8 pm ET/7 pm CT and will be televised live on MAVTV. ARCARacing.com will have live timing & scoring, live chat, and live track updates throughout all on track sessions free for ARCA for Me members. New members may register for free at ARCARacing.com/login.