OXFORD, Maine — Travis Benjamin’s elation after winning the 40th annual TD Bank 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway on Sunday night is completely understandable.
It has been a long road for the 34-year-old Morrill native, who began racing at Unity Raceway when he was 15.
Benjamin admitted he considered retirement on more than one occasion when the frustrations that come with the sport took their toll.
In the 2001 and 2002 seasons he ran in the K and N Pro Series East tour and never cracked the top 10 in 35 races. An 11th was his best finish.
He began running part-time on the Pro All-Stars Series in 2003 and, in 2005, he became a full-time racer on the tour.
But it took until 2008 to get his first win and top-five points finish (3rd).
His second trip to Victory Lane didn’t come until last season, when he also captured his first ever PASS SLM North points championship.
Sunday’s victory was his second in nine days at OPS, as he had won a 150-lap PASS North SLM race on July 12.
Benjamin said fatherhood and maturity have played important roles in his recent success. He has a 6-year-old son, Kaiden, who races go-karts.
“I have finally learned to relax,” said Benjamin. “I always felt I had to prove myself to my sponsors and to other people that I deserved to be here [racing].
“If I go out and finish 15th, my son doesn’t care,” Benjamin said. “And I’ve learned to tell myself that it’s not that big of a deal. I have friends of mine who dream of qualifying for the 250. That used to be me. But now I’m at the point where I’ve won the 250. As a driver, I’m so much better now because I’m much more relaxed.”
Camden native Ryan Leadbetter, Benjamin’s crew chief, has witnessed the driver’s development.
“He has really come to the front,” said Leadbetter said. “He is in his prime now. He has changed the way he does things. He’s a lot more confident and he socializes a little more in the pits. It’s a lot harder for people not to like you if you spend time talking to them in the pits. He has earned a lot of respect from the other drivers.”
In 2008, Benjamin and his father, Ron, who owns the race team, hired two full-time employees, mechanics Kevin McDaniel and Buster Bean. It paid dividends with the third-place finish in the points standings.
That came with the win, seven top-five finishes and 12 top-10 finishes in 14 races.
“We started to turn it around. We lost the points championship by only 10 or so points,” said Benjamin, who wound up 16 points behind winner Johnny Clark of Hallowell and six behind second-place Ben Rowe of Turner.
He had one full-time employee in 2009 when he finished seventh in points but, due to the expense, they began the 2010 season without a paid full-time employee.
“We were on our own and we struggled and I thought about getting done,” Benjamin admitted. “But Richard Moody [from Richard Moody Racing] called about me driving his car and I was competitive again.
“Racing for them gave me quite a bit of confidence. Once you get around that type of equipment and those types of people, you feel you can do it [be successful],” he added.
After the Moody deal concluded, Benjamin and his own team added Brian Burgess as the crew chief for several of the early races in 2011 and Benjamin finished fifth in points.
“I learned a lot from watching the way he maintained the car and handled the setups,” said Benjamin, who added that he also picked up a great deal from McDaniel, Bean and the personnel at the Moody race shop.
Leadbetter, who had worked with Benjamin off and on, became Benjamin’s full-time crew chief for the 2012 season.
“Ryan used to help me [occasionally] but I could never get him to commit [on a regular basis]. He finally committed. I always told myself if I had Ryan, we’d be good,” said Benjamin. “He doesn’t panic. He doesn’t overthink things. He makes real good calls.”
They annexed the points title last season and are having another memorable season highlighted by Sunday’s triumph. He is second in points in the PASS SLM North tour behind Berwick’s Joey Doiron, who finished second on Sunday night.
Benjamin has been pleased with his team’s consistency. He has four top-five finishes in five PASS North races and six in seven overall races this season. Dating back to last season, he has 14 top-five finishes in 20 PASS North events.
“We have put things all together,” said Benjamin, whose crew also includes longtime friends Kerry Merrifield (car chief) and Nate Littlefield (tire man); father; uncle Bruce Benjamin (spotter) and mechanics Jim Hayes, Doug Wilshire and Shane Grindle.
“Travis believes in Ryan. They get along real well,” said Ron Benjamin. “They seem to have a bond and that has really made a difference.”
Ron Benjamin called Sunday’s victory a “special moment.”
“It’s a family team and we’ve done it a long time. My brother Bruce and I have put a lot into it. We love it. To pull off the big one [Oxford] made [our dreams] come true, that’s for sure,” said Ron Benjamin, who has two nephews, two grandsons and a granddaughter who race.
Leadbetter downplayed his role, saying the crew deserves most of the credit.
“They’re the backbone of the team. Of all of us, I spend the least amount of time at the race shop,” said Leadbetter, who is also a crew chief for Appleton’s Daren Ripley in the Late Model class at Wiscasset Raceway and has three wins in four races.
Leadbetter said veteran crew chief Seth Holbrook taught him a lot about setting up the car for the 250.
Adding to the victory was the fact they weren’t favorites. Benjamin’s previous best finish at the 250 was a fifth in 2006.
“You’ve got the underdogs from Morrill winning the 250. That’s pretty awesome,” said Leadbetter.
Benjamin pocketed $33,800 for the win and said he will put the money to good use.
“I’ll pay some bills and I’ll finally be able to put some money in the checking account,” quipped Benjamin.