Morrill’s Travis Benjamin has endured a healthy dose of frustration during his auto racing career.
In 2010 after wrecking his race car in a couple of races, he was ready to hang up his racing suit.
But Richard Moody offered him a six-race deal and Benjamin regained his confidence by racing well in good cars while also learning how a successful race team operated.
On Sunday night during the 41st annual Oxford 250, he was frustrated because he had a fast car but wound up in a heat race full of fast cars. He didn’t qualify so he had to do so in the second set of heat races known as consolation races.
He won that consolation race but still started 27th in a 44-car field.
That didn’t stop him from making his way up through the field to become just the fifth driver to win consecutive Oxford 250s.
“I was discouraged (early). I knew we had a good car but because we had to start so far back, I didn’t know if we could get to the front or not,” admitted Benjamin.“When you start 27th, you’re already half a lap behind the leaders and they can come up on you in a hurry.”
But he continually moved up, took the lead from Richie Dearborn with 23 laps to go and held off Fort Kent’s Austin Theriault to take the checkered flag.
“This is very special,” said the 35-year-old Benjamin. “I never thought we’d win one and now we’ve got two. To be on a list with (consecutive winners) Geoff Bodine, Mike Rowe, Eddie MacDonald and Ralph Nason … it doesn’t get any better than that.”
Benjamin said that in many ways this win was even more gratifying than last year’s win because he started eighth a year ago and didn’t have to use up his car or tires nearly as much as he did Sunday night.
“We earned this one, no question. We passed a lot of race cars,” said Benjamin, who got shuffled back to the mid-30s during the race. “We knew we were going to have to work real hard.”
When you’re back in the pack, there is a higher likelihood of getting involved in a wreck, but Benjamin said his 2007 Ford Fusion was dialed in.
“We ran (well) on the top, on the bottom and in the middle,” said Benjamin.
Benjamin said there were two turning points in the race.
When he pitted for four new tires on lap 180, “we knew we had to come out of the pits ahead of (Theriault) and we did.
“The pit crew really killed it. The whole team worked together great,” he said.
Benjamin said hecame out of the pits “between 15th to 18th” but the cars ahead of him were on much older tires so he knew he eventually would pass them.
The pit crew included crew chief Ryan Leadbetter, tire changers Shane Grindle and Dylan Turner, tire carriers Doug Wilshire and Kyle Keene, jack man Burn Ferris and gas man Howard Whitney. Nate Littlefield monitored the tires, Jimmy Hayes served as a jack-of-all-trades and Benjamin’s father, Ron, and uncle Bruce are also important contributors. Tim Turner and Kyle Turner helped out, too.
The other turning point came on a restart with 40 laps left.
Theriault had passed Benjamin but Benjamin went outside on that restart to make a three-wide pass because he didn’t want to get stuck behind a damaged lapped car and get shuffled back in the field.
He passed Theriault on that restart and once he got around Dearborn 13 laps later, he knew victory was within his grasp.
“I felt real confident. And my spotter (Bruce Benjamin) kept telling me I was four or five car-lengths ahead,” said Benjamin.
Leadbetter said the team had practiced pit stops a number of times Sunday morning and also ran some practice laps on new tires and rattled off the fastest lap times of the weekend, which gave them confidence.
He said crew members moved their equipment to a pit stall that didn’t have cars in front or behind them, which made it easier for Benjamin to get in and out of the pits.
Leadbetter said he gambled and kept Benjamin out on the track at the 110-lap mark rather than bring him in for tires so he wouldn’t get caught up in a crowded pit area.
He was afraid it could backfire but it all worked out.
Leadbetter and Benjamin have flourished together. They won the PASS Super Late Model North points title in 2012 and now have two Oxford 250s.
Leadbetter had worked with Benjamin several years ago but they wouldn’t have paired up in 2012 if Benjamin had quit the sport in 2010.
That’s when Moody called.
“I finished second in two races for him, I was running first or second in three races but got flat tires and I finished seventh in the other race,” said Benjamin. “It was a wakeup call for me. They have a real good organization and I paid attention when I was there. I learned how to be a better driver and how to maintain my cars better.”
He also hired Brian Burgess, who had worked for Moody, to be his crew chief in 2011. But the long commute from the Portland area made things difficult for Burgess.
“I learned a lot from Brian,” said Benjamin, who asked Leadbetter to replace Burgess. “Once I put my team back together, we’ve been rolling.”
Leadbetter, who helps keep Benjamin calm and patient during races, said another aspect of their accomplishments is that they aren’t a highly funded team.
“To be competing like we have at this level is incredible. We don’t have a full-time paid employee, and we don’t have two or three cars. We have one,” said Leadbetter. “Winning the 250 this year absolutely feels better than last year because Travis had to work up through the field.”
He also said it proves last year wasn’t a fluke.
“This just confirms everything,” said Leadbetter.