Two years since his last time behind the wheel, 2019 Snowball Derby champion Travis Braden is set to return to the driver's seat for Friday and Saturday's Pepperjack Kennels Twin 100s at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.
Braden, the setup mechanic for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team in the NASCAR Cup Series, will pilot the No. 9 Super Late Model for Jett Motorsports in both races, which will be streamed live on Racing America. The pairing is unique as Jett Motorsports were the initial winners of the 2019 Snowball Derby, but were disqualified in post-race inspection, which handed the victory to Braden. Four years later, Braden is driving for them.
On Wednesday, Braden stopped by Racing America's The Bullring to talk about how the opportunity came together.
“It’s probably kind of funny, right, thinking back to the 2019 Snowball Derby. That was the first time I had met those guys," Braden explained. "I hadn’t really raced down south much with them."
Braden says this past winter, he agreed to serve as the crew chief for the Jett Motorsports entry at the Snowflake 100, and from there, conversations blossomed into the deal that is now in place.
“We met, just casually back then, then went and [served as] crew chief [on] one of the Snowflake cars for Pat and Jett this past Snowflake, Snowball Derby week. Got to know them, great group of guys. We had chatted while I was down there about maybe it would be cool to do something someday. That’s the long and short of it. We just made it happen this time.”
While Braden running his first race in two seasons is emotional enough if you don't know his full back story, when you hear all of the behind-the-scenes layers of the story, things get ratcheted up quite a bit.
The now 29-year-old Braden was a budding race car driver, who had been working his way up the stock car racing pipeline in the mid-2010s.
Braden was such a natural talent that he led 21 laps and scored a victory in his ARCA Series debut at IRP in 2015.
The following year, Braden took the victory in the prestigious Winchester 400, and it seemed his star was on the rise. Braden ran back-to-back full-time seasons in ARCA in 2018 and 2019, and then he and his girlfriend Jess Ballard moved to North Carolina in January 2020 so he could chase his dream.
Then, Braden's ARCA team closed its doors, and the company that sponsored him was sold off. Braden, now without a ride, or funding, went back to the regional short-track scene.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Jess Ballard, Braden's girlfriend, who also served as his public relations representative and sponsorship pursuer, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Prior to the diagnosis, Ballard says the couple's relationship had begun to erode due to the stressful and pressure-packed nature of the racing industry.
“Just the week before [my diagnosis], I was like, 'Travis we have tried everything, but it’s just not going to happen. I’m so sorry,' It was affecting our relationship," Ballard recalled to Racing America. "Working together is not fun for anyone sometimes, especially driver/sponsorship/PR. It was an interesting dynamic for sure.
"We were at a rocky point in our relationship. We’re all frustrated. You want to place blame, you don’t want to blame each other, but you don’t want to blame yourselves. And we had just had a conversation a week before about how I can’t do this anymore. I was miserable, I was stressed.”
Then, the diagnosis came, and Ballard and Braden reached a pivotal fork in the road.
While racers, in general, are a selfish lot, racing took a backseat for Braden, and he focused on what mattered most -- Ballard's health, and the health of the couple's relationship. What Ballard noticed was a complete flip of the script of their daily life.
Where she had sacrificed so much in order to try to make Braden's dreams a reality, now he was doing the same to support her through her battle with cancer.
“[Prior to the diagnosis] Everything we did revolved around him and his dream of racing, but I never really looked at it that way. But to see it basically totally reverse, where he has dropped everything for me... you go from I’m using all of my vacation days to make sure I’m at all of his races, to him driving me to every appointment, and totally canceling all plans when I’m recovering from chemo," Ballard said.
While she isn't sure what she expected out of Braden when she was first diagnosed, what Ballard says she got was unconditional love. She knew truly deep down that Braden was her person.
"From him, it was so no-brainer," Ballard said of Braden's decision to shelve his racing career. "There wasn’t even a conversation. I think us still being in our 20s, a lot of men his age – that’s really tough and I think a lot of people wouldn’t do the same thing. It was just – it felt really good to know that I sacrificed a lot for him, but when it came time for him to do the same for me, for the first time, really, it was a no-brainer.
"I felt so loved. It’s unconditional. That’s what they mean by unconditional love. To drop something that you have done your whole life, and done nothing but. I’m very, very lucky, and it’s a side of Travis that I hope people get to see. He’s extremely loving and selfless.”
As Braden changed his career to better support Ballard, he took on roles within the shop at race teams. While he was still in the racing community, Ballard knows it was initially a struggle for Braden.
"I think candidly that’s something he struggled with, a lot of drivers struggle with it," Ballard explained. "The minute they commit to the shop life or the road crew life, or whatever it is that they’re losing control of their career. He definitely didn’t want to do that. He felt like that would be the end for him. I think in his head, there were days where he definitely felt like that.”
While there were days when Braden dreaded the shop life, his new path led him to a fantastic opportunity. Last winter, Braden landed a job in the shop at Hendrick Motorsports, where he now helps put together the No. 48 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1s that Alex Bowman drives each weekend.
Braden fell in love with the job, and now his team is allowing him time to go run some races at Five Flags this weekend.
“It was really cool," Braden said of landing the Hendrick Motorsports job. "Most people of course knew what Jess and I have been going through the last couple of years so in general, first off thankful everyone is working with me to make sure I can get out of town early enough to get down to Pensacola. But across the board, before this, even before this, when I started working there, everyone has been super cool to work with, and just great. It’s pretty fun.”
This week, Braden and Ballard announced that she had officially finished her fight against cancer. On Twitter, Braden signed off on his Twitter post by saying, "Now it's time to get back to living life." They'll get to do just that this weekend at 5 Flags Speedway.
It won't be an easy task for Braden this weekend, as the conditions in Pensacola, Florida in July are not ideal for a driver coming back after a two-year hiatus. But he's just excited to have his partner healthy, and that he can get back behind the wheel again at the track where the couple first met in the stands back in 2017.
Photo Credit: Will Bellamy, Racing America