The championship battle in the ARCA Menards Series may have looked to be a runaway before the season started, but it has proven to be anything but a quarter of the way into the 2019 season.
The pre-season favorites were the powerhouse Venturini Motorsports teammates, Christian Eckes (No. 15 JBL Audio Toyota) and Michael Self (No. 25 Sinclair Lubricants Toyota). The Venturini organization can trace its roots back to the 1960s short track scene around Chicago and has been a part of the ARCA landscape since 1983 when team owner Bill Venturini won the rookie of year award as well as a pair of races. He would go on to win series championships in 1987 and 1991 and along with wife Cathy, son Billy and daughter-in-law Emily, owns and operates the family team that at times fields five entries.
It was no surprise when the Venturini team won the opening race of the season at Daytona with part-time driver Harrison Burton. Self then won the next two at Five Flags Speedway and Salem Speedway, and Eckes took the checkered flag first in the series most recent race at Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville.
One might expect Venturini team to be dominating the series championship standings. But that hasn’t been the case through the first five races of the year.
The little team that could, RFMS Racing, owned by Don Fike and led by long-time crew chief Dan Glauz finds itself in the thick of the fight for the series championship. Driver Travis Braden (No. 27 MatrixCare/Consonus Health Care/Liberty Village Ford) leads the series standings by thirty points heading into the next race, the Sioux Chief PowerPEX 200, at Toledo Speedway on Sunday, May 19.
Braden, from Wheeling, West Virginia, is a graduate of West Virginia University with dual degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering. He’s a two-time ARCA/CRA Super Series champion and won in his ARCA Menards Series debut at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis driving for his family-owned race team. Not only does he apply his talents for the team behind the wheel, he’s also an integral part of the team that builds and maintains the racecars. In fact, he and Glauz are two of the three full-time employees the team has.
He and Glauz take a lot of pride in competing with, and beating, the bigger organizations.
“Everyone in the ARCA Menards Series takes a lot of pride in what they do. We are no different at RFMS Racing in that regard,” Braden said. “Each team, driver, crew member, you name it, everyone has a very unique background in this series. We are viewed as the “little team,” and we love to face that challenge head on. From ourselves, our sponsors, our fans, we all have that chip on our shoulders. It’s very fun working with this group. Right now we’re in the midst of a tight points battle that is going to continue for the length of the twenty race schedule it looks like, and we’re trying to apply more pressure on those bigger teams. They feel the pressure when we come in and compete with them.”
While Braden hasn’t been able to match Self and Eckes on speed just yet, he’s stayed in contention by staying out of trouble and being consistent. Meanwhile, despite winning two races, Self has been eliminated from contention in two other races due to crashes and Eckes missed the race at Salem due to illness and finished last the following race at Talladega due to a crash. Braden’s four top-ten runs aren’t enough to satisfy his desire to win but, for now, they’ve been enough to keep him in the title fight.
“We’ve by no means been satisfied with our performances,” Braden said. “The pressure to perform within our team is about as high as it could get. We’re all hungry. But as we reach that point, we’ve made sure to be as mistake-free as possible and it’s paying off right now. If our performance gets to where it’s headed and we stay mistake-free, that’s a perfect storm for us, after the solid start we’ve gotten.”
Although he will be making just his second ARCA Menards Series start at Toledo Speedway, he has had plenty of previous experience at the famed Glass City half-mile. He started from the pole and led the first half of an ARCA/CRA Super Series race there in 2013 before an electrical problem sidelined him. He was eighth last year, and his previous experience should come in handy in the Sioux Chief PowerPEX 200. Self has never raced at Toledo before, and although Eckes has raced there it’s not been kind to him in the past. He was 21st last year after an accident on lap 71.
“Toledo is a strange place,” Braden said. “It seems like everyone has inconsistent results here. Guys run good one race, then suck the next. There’s always a mishap for someone that takes them out of contention. It’s really one of the more mysterious places we go to. This is a place we have to keep up our consistency and capitalize.”
It’s not all hard work all the time for Braden and his crew. They often like to find local hot spots when they’re on the road for a little fun, such as Kid Rock’s Big Honky Tonk during their recent visit to Nashville. They are aware of the obvious go-tos in Toledo, like a Mud Hens game or a visit to Tony Packo’s but they’re looking for other fun things to do, too.
“Toledo is a pretty cool city. There’s a good bit to do, and it’s growing right now,” he said. “With this race weekend being a three-day affair, we have some downtime in the evening Friday and Saturday, and so we always make sure to get some good food and find a fun spot to hang out as a team. That’s not always easy to do in this busy schedule, so we take advantage every chance we get.”
Practice for the Sioux Chief PowerPEX 200 at Toledo Speedway is scheduled for 12:30 pm ET on Saturday, May 18, followed by General Tire Pole Qualifying at 4 pm ET. A 35-lap ARCA late model sportsman feature event will close Saturday’s activities at the track. The Sioux Chief PowerPEX 200 will go green shortly after 2 pm ET on Sunday, May 19. The race will be televised live on MAVTV. ARCA for Me members can access live timing & scoring, live track updates, and live user chat throughout all on-track sessions at ARCARacing.com. New users can register for free with a valid email address at ARCARacing.com/login. Tickets are available by calling the Toledo Speedway ticket office at (419) 727-1100. Discounted tickets are available at Northwest Ohio Menards locations for $15, a savings of $10 from the raceday ticket price.