The transition to a sportsman late model was seemingly pretty simple for Coos Bay Speedway’s Braden Fugate.
Fugate previously spent two seasons racing in the hornets division at Coos Bay, a 3/8-mile dirt oval track in Coos County, Oregon, and raced a handful of times in a sportsman in 2018.
In 2019, Fugate rattled off seven straight sportsman victories to start the season on the way to 12 wins in 15 races and a championship at his home track. It was his first career championship in three years of racing.
Fugate’s expectations going into the season weren’t as high as he ended up finishing, but the help of both his dad, Len Fugate, and his car owner, Mike Redmon, helped ease make the learning curve.
"It happened pretty quick," Fugate said. "My dad was Johnny-on-the-Spot, I guess you could say, with the setup. We just had to make small changes to get where we really wanted to be. It was just an incredible year with where we started. We basically rebuilt the whole car and from Day 1 we had speed. It was good."
Fugate needed the help of his dad and owner, because during the first four races of the season he was three hours away finishing up his degree at the University of Oregon, where he graduated this spring. Thankfully, with his class schedule he was off on Fridays, giving him a day to come home and get the car ready, race on Saturdays, and wash his car on Sundays before heading back to school.
During the offseason while Fugate was at school, his dad rebuilt the car, and would get it ready every week with the help of Redmon.
Fugate would do his own work away from the car.
"I practiced a little bit on iRacing over the winter and that helped me out a little bit to stay fresh on driving," he said.
The championship winning sportsman car was "sitting out in a field," Fugate said, and Redmon originally bought it for his daughter. But, his daughter wasn’t ready, so they did a car swap, with her driving Fugate’s old hornet while he drove the sportsman.
He won a race in the sportsman in his first year, "which was pretty crazy," he said.
Even though success came a lot quicker than he expected, the 23-year-old Fugate was no stranger to the racetrack. His brother, who is 12 years older, was driving sprint cars when Fugate was around 5.
"I spent like every weekend at the racetrack watching races," he said. "We quit when I was like 8 years old. I didn’t go to the races as much, but I was still there doing whatever I could to be at the races, checking things out.
"I’ve always wanted to do it and when it finally worked out, I had experience watching it but it just kind of happened. I don’t even know what to explain the transition being so quick."
Fugate built such a lead in the sportsman division that he pretty much knew he had the championship locked up with two weeks to go. While championship night didn’t provide drama, he still wanted to make sure he put a cherry on top of his title.
"I didn’t feel like it would be validated if I went out and went, ‘Oh, we have it locked up, we don’t really have to try.’ We still worked hard and we won on championship night."
After the final checkered flag waved, Fugate got out of his car, put his hands up, and waved to the crowd. It was the first time he’d been in a position where everyone in the stands was cheering for him.
"I had never won a championship in my life in anything. It was a crazy feeling because I knew my dad and Mike and everybody that helps us, we all put so much work into getting it, so finally getting to stand up and have the picture, it just showed that all that hard work did pay off for us so it was exciting.
"It was a pretty incredible feeling."
Fugate thanked sponsors Ken Ware Chevrolet Buick Cadillac GMC, Canaday Coffee and the Canaday family, Memory Road Photography, Napier Auto Body, WSK Diemert Racing Engines, API Coatings, Angela Cardas Meredith, and Bandon/Coquile Hwy Deli Mart, and his crew members Steve Kreutzer, Janet, Trace, and Bryce Fugate, and Kirsten Canaday.
Three years into his career, Fugate has never raced anywhere but Coos Bay. He hopes to start traveling more this upcoming season in his super late model, a division he’ll move up to in 2020. He spent a good portion of 2019 driving the super as well as his sportsman.
For the first time in three years, in 2020 Fugate will be racing in just one division, focusing on just one car. He’s excited about that prospect, but knows the transition to another new car may not go as smoothly as the one into a sportsman.
Even if it doesn’t, just getting the chance to get behind the wheel of any car every weekend is enough for him.
"The sportsman, I can’t explain it," he said. "It was nerve-wracking but once you get on the track and you’re going, it’s the best time of your life. You’re excited, you’re so pumped up before the race and once you’re out there you’re so focused and you just do it. I don’t even know how to explain it.
"Just the opportunity to be able to do this. It’s just crazy to be able to have the opportunity drive the car. I’m honestly just thankful I get the opportunity to get in a seat and do what I’m doing. We’re probably going to eventually chase the championship at Coos Bay, but just the fact that I get to race and do what I’m doing is what I’m most excited about going forward."