So many tears and so much pain. That is the only way to describe the death of Charlie Bradberry. As many of us sat at the funeral home in Alabama on Tuesday with wet eyes and sniffling noses, we wondered why something like this was allowed to happen to such a good person with so much promise, both on the professional and personal side of life. But as we mourned for the loss of our friend, Charlie’s pastor reminded us of one thing; Charlie Bradberry enjoyed life and through him, so did we.
Charlie’s effervescent smile could make anyone feel a little bit better. Behind those blue eyes and sandy blonde hair was a character that was determined, yet fun loving. He was one who could not hide his emotion; instead he wore it on his sleeve, or more accurately, on the chiseled face of a young man who was eager to achieve his goals. If he was happy, you could not wipe away that ear-to-ear grin. If he was mad, his chin would be as stern as granite. And if he were embarrassed by something, his cheeks would glow rosy red.
“He was a horrible poker player,” friend of the family Jeff Hamner would tell me on the ride to the cemetery. Jeff claimed that if Charlie had a good hand, you would see his eyes pop out from behind the hand of cards, with his cheeks already turning red and that classic Bradberry smile, half-crooked at times, already gleaming with happiness.
One way to describe Charlie is “happy-go-lucky.” And there is one weekend in particular that was one of the happiest of Charlie’s life and I feel fortunate to have shared in the experience. In 2003, Charlie won the NASCAR Southeast
Charlie's smile is something that all of us will remember.
Series championship. And as part of the championship laurels, Bradberry was invited to New York City by NASCAR to take part in the Cup Championship banquet.
The Friday of that week, we all gathered in Central Park for a photo shoot. But in the midst of all the ceremonious acts, it began to snow. There stood this boy from Alabama alongside of all the NASCAR regional champions and that year’s Winston Cup champion, Matt Kenseth. Charlie’s classic grin was lighting up the Big Apple.
Charlie (fourth from left, bottom row) was a part of the NASCAR Champions banquet in New York.
Yet, as the day progressed, so did the storm. And by the next morning, more than a foot of snow was dumped on the metropolitan New York area. Problem was, both Charlie and I were to travel to Pensacola, FL, and Five Flags Speedway that morning for the prestigious Snowball Derby (Super Late Model race).
I remember getting a call from Charlie that Saturday morning. “We’re stuck. All the flights are canceled,” he said. “My dad and I are trying to rent a plane, if we do, you in?” Heck yes I was. You see, to Charlie and me, the Snowball Derby was one of the most important races in the world. In fact, on a short track perspective, it ranks right up there with the Daytona 500, and both of us just knew we had to be there.
As the snow continued to fall, Charlie and I stayed in touch from our hotel rooms all day. Nothing. I had basically given up hope, and if my memory serves me correctly, at about 7pm I got another call from Charlie. “We found a kamikaze pilot,” he said. “He’s going to take us to Pensacola. You still wanna come?” Let’s go.
He arrived at my hotel; I threw my bags in the back and climbed in with Charlie and Mr. Bradberry, his dad. We slipped and slid on the highway, but that was nothing like we’d experience once we arrived at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. We climbed in the plane and made our way to the runway and much to our surprise, there was still six-to-eight inches of snow stuck to the asphalt.
The plane gathered speed down the runway and as it did, you could feel from the seat of your pants, much like a racecar driver does, the plane go sideways. And just as we were about to hit the blue lights on the side of the runway, the plane lifted off. After releasing my grip on the arm rest I looked back and there sat Charlie, relaxed as can be. “Little bit loose, huh?” he said. Typical Charlie.
We arrived in Pensacola around midnight, I think. Charlie and his dad dropped me off at my hotel and we said we’d see each other the next day at the track. But none of us expected what was in store for that, now memorable, day.
You see, Charlie was a guaranteed starter, so he began the race at the rear of the field, without ever turning a lap on the track himself that weekend. In short, Charlie went a lap down, made it up and then survived a classic battle with two-time Derby winner Gary St. Amant to claim the win. So after the champions’ week in New York, the blizzard, the anguish, and the survival, Charlie Bradberry was a Snowball Derby champion. That’s a title that can never be taken away from him and to his untimely death, the most coveted prize in his short, but successful, career.
That’s a story I said I was going to write about someday, but never did, until now. I will always remember Charlie’s smile in victory lane and the joy on his dad’s face as we shared a manly hug in victory lane. Mr. Bradberry and I
Charlie made the most of his Snowball Derby adventure, winning the race and then getting interviewed by Bob on SPEED.
shared a hug Tuesday in Alabama and as we did, he brought up that wonderful weekend. I was just lucky enough to be able to share it with them.
There are so many other stories that can be told. How he taught me where “LA” was – Lower Alabama. The first time we met at his hometrack of Birmingham Int’l Raceway. Or how, just recently, he apologized that he was missing the PASS race at Hickory Motor Speedway in August because he was getting married.
Charlie's recent marriage to long-time girlfriend Brandi was a point of joy in his life, as was his soon-to-be son.
Charlie was so proud to be married, even if it was for only a little more than a month. Charlie told me at Montgomery Motor Speedway just last year that he was going to marry Brandi and when he did, that grin and those rosy cheeks appeared once again.
Brandi is expecting her and Charlie’s child in February. The family knows it is a boy and have named him Charlie Tucker Bradberry. “Tuck,” as I am told they will call him, will have plenty of good stories to listen to about his dad.
As we all stood around and told some of those stories on Tuesday, one of Charlie’s long-time crewmembers told me, “Charlie always liked you.” I immediately found myself with one of those Charlie-type grins on my face. It is something I will cherish forever.
Charlie Bradberry was a family-man, a successful racer and I’m proud to say, a friend. We will miss him dearly. He may have never accomplished his dream of racing in Nextel Cup, but as the pastor claimed, Charlie now has the best car he’s ever driven and he’s driving on the track right alongside of Dale Earnhardt.