When Travis Braden turned 16, he told himself he’d drive on Daytona International Speedway “in some way or form in the next five years.”
He’s closing in on that goal after only two years.
Braden will zoom around the race track that is home to the Daytona 500 on Dec. 15.
The 18-year-old freshman planning to study mechanical engineering at West Virginia University has been racing most of his life. In Daytona, he’ll suit up and participate in an open testing event of the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA), an association viewed as a stepping stone for aspiring NASCAR greats.
And Braden hopes his Daytona experience serves as just that a stepping stone to a grander stage.
“Some of NASCAR’s biggest names have come up through ARCA,” said Braden, son of Don and Rhonda Braden of Wheeling. Divers such as Kyle Petty and Ken Schrader have advanced through the ARCA series on the path to their successful NASCAR careers.
“It’ll also be an opportunity to network and meet with people in the racing industry,” Braden said. “This is a big deal.”
At his age, Braden himself is already a big deal. Last year, he was named the 2011 NASCAR Whelen All-American National Rookie of the Year.
In 2011, while still attending Wheeling Park High School, Braden competed in more than 30 races and earned enough points to also be crowned Rookie of the Year by Jostens Standings.
Not bad for a guy who doesn’t even own a car to get from Point A to Point B (If he could have a car, it would either be a Chevy Camaro or Dodge Challenger.).
Braden’s need for speed sparked at an early age growing up on a farm in Wheeling. Between ages 6 and 8, he raced ATVs at local fairs until his parents felt he needed to switch to something a tad safer.
He then started racing go-karts. By 14, he was racing legends cars, a style of race cars that resemble automobiles from the 1930s and 1940s.
Soon enough, he began racing late model cars, a broad term that refers to recently designed or manufactured vehicles. His passion for auto racing was fueled by watching Jeff Gordon race in the 1990s. At first, Braden liked Gordon due to his car’s “paint schemes and flames.” But after watching NASCAR for a while, he began to “like the way he drove.”
“Racing has been a hobby for as long as I remember,” Braden said.
This hobby has morphed into a career, and Braden is now balancing that with an education at WVU. An 18-year-old national racing wizard and rookie of the year could very well likely pass on college and focus solely on racing.
He has the glimmer in his eyes for a bright racing career, only they’re not blinding him from reality.
“I need a backup plan, in case racing doesn’t work out,” Braden said.
Going to WVU was a no-brainer for the state native and fan of Mountaineer sports. Selecting a major was just as easy.
“If I can’t race, I want to work on race cars,” he said. “Studying engineering makes sense. When you see these drivers with members of their race team working on cars, ask them about their backgrounds. Ninety percent of them studied mechanical engineering.
“Race teams use computer programs to improve the performance and safety of their cars. Physics and calculations are involved. Racing is more than turning left and hitting the gas pedal.”
In West Virginia, Braden isn’t afforded many opportunities to practice his craft. Often, he’ll travel to Ohio to drive on tracks there. But mostly, he practices daily in the virtual world from behind a computer screen. Braden uses iRacing.com, an online, subscription-based racing simulator marketed as a training tool for actual racers.
This is just as beneficial as practicing on a real track, he said.
“You can burn 30 sets of tires in a video game and it’ll cost nothing,” Braden said.
While at WVU, Braden hopes to help establish a greater racing presence on campus. In a state where NASCAR is loved, Braden believes that the University can capitalize on that popularity by introducing programs and organizations around the sport. He referenced the University of Northwestern Ohio, which offers a high performance motorsports program.
After his Daytona trip and future races, Braden may indeed bring visibility to racing and WVU.
There will be up to 50 teams participating in the testing event, where officials will keep track of times and performance. It’s neither a race nor a competition, but completing the test earns drivers a certification to race in upcoming series events.
“From where I come from,” Braden said, “to get that far is a big deal.”
By Jake Stump
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