Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The House That Bucko Built

Watch an NBA basketball game on television some time, and invariably you will see at least one player -- LeBron James maybe, or Dwayne Wade -- make a huge dunk in front of the home crowd and proclaim, "This is my house!" It happens all the time.

Over in Plattsburgh, New York, at Airborne Speedway, there is a race car driver that would have every right to pull a showstopping move like that after a big win, not that he ever would. After all, Airborne is for all intents and purposes, "his house."

Twenty-seven years younger and wet behind the ears, a kid named Brian Branham -- known universally as "Bucko" -- tried his luck in a stock car at his hometown race track.

"In 1982, me and my cousin bought a car, we split a car," says Branham, leaning up against his familiar #20 Tiger Sportsman racer. "He ran one race and I ran one race and that was pretty much the end of it right there. I decided it was what I was going to do." The two were following in the footsteps of Bucko's father, Bill, who was a master short track racer in the northeast for more than two decades.

"The next year, I built my own car and finished second the first race out. It was pretty fun. Since then it's just been climbing the ladder, stepping back down a couple times, and moving back up. And I've raced with some great people."

More than two decades later and unquestionably the most popular driver at the track, Branham says his greatest accomplishment came in May 2005, during a four-year stretch when he raced in two divisions at the track. During Airborne's first year running dirt-style Modifieds as its headline class, Branham came home a winner in his first-ever start in the open-wheel division. He won a feature race every Saturday night during the first four weeks of that season, twice each in the Modified and the Sportsman.

He also has fond memories of the 1990s, when he and his cousin, Robin Branham, who was his partner in that first car in 1982, were a force in the Late Model division. "I had a lot of fun doing that until it started getting too expensive," Bucko says. "But the Tiger division is probably the best it's ever been right now."

Away from the race car, Branham is a construction worker for Plattsburgh-based Fuller Construction, owned by the same man that purcahsed Airborne Speedway two years ago, Steve Fuller. Fuller's company spent many hours revamping the track in 2005 and 2006, when Elizabethtown, N.Y. automobile dealership mogul George Huttig leased the facility. As a driver, Branham knew Airborne perhaps better than anyone, but now his relationship with the 51 year-old race track became something more. It was his own sweat and hard work going into the track to ensure its future.

When Fuller bought the property from deed holders Tom Curley and Ken Squier in 2007, Branham became even more involved in the beautification of the speedway. This spring, he took part in the estimated half-million-dollar facelift the track received, including the construction of a new VIP/media tower, new fencing, new lights, and a completely new track surface.

Airborne Speedway quite literally became the house that Bucko built. Ever the jokester, Branham realized the irony of his involvement with the speedway in two different facets of his life -- work and play -- and capitalized on the moment with a symbolic joke.

"When I was paving it, I threw some money on the track before the roller came through," he laughed, "so I can say I've got a couple dollars in it." But quickly, Branham becomes serious again. "[It feels] just like I own the place. I've been here so long, I probably wouldn't know what to do if I didn't come here."

Obviously an established veteran, Branham said that he has been called upon many times by track promoters and technical inspection officials at multiple tracks in the region for his input on rule changes and procedures. Last year, in his 25th full season of racing, Branham finally earned his first championship at Airborne. His wife and daughter are his biggest cheerleaders in the grandstands and pit area, his nephew, Robin Wood, is not only an unofficial crew member, but a fierce competitor in the Sportsman class. Branham -- who has recently taken on the nickname "Professor" -- beat Wood in a thrilling Sportsman finish to open the season two weeks ago.

But even as competitive as he still is after two-and-a-half decades, Branham sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

"I'm probably retiring pretty soon," he says. "Ain't much else to do, you know? Modifieds, I've done that, had some success in that. I'd like to run [an ACT Late Model at the Fall Foliage 300 in September] and see how that works out. Other than that, I'm happy in the Tigers. I'll race for probably a couple more years."

And it's Branham's family that he's keeping in mind. "They've stuck with it because I like to do it. That's why I think it's probably time for me to start giving back to them. Even though I hate to get away from racing, they deserve more. I think it's time."

For now, race fans can still delight in watching the black-and-silver #20 charge through the field at Airborne on any given Saturday night. But they know that when the time comes for Bucko Branham to hang up his helmet, it will be a tall task to replace him.

Especially in his own house.

(Photos: 1. Bucko Branham takes a break from building a portion of the frontstretch catch fence at Airborne Speedway last month; 2. Branham carries Late Model checkers in 1995; 3. Branham (#20) and nephew Robin Wood (#61) race closely together on opening day two weeks ago; 4. Branham (center) with his family and crew members in victory lane. Photos 1 and 4 by Justin St. Louis/VMM, Photo 2 Justin St. Louis collection; Photo 3 by Leif Tillotson)

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