No more than six weeks ago, as Braden fought his last fight against diabetes, he made sure Branham knew to issue him a pass.
As Braden absorbed the shock of learning that his left leg had been amputated from the thigh down, the Talladega fixture assured Branham that he’d find a way to get up the long staircase from the parking area to his familiar press-box perch for this weekend’s races.
Even as Braden seemed to begin making peace with his circumstances, he still envisioned being at Talladega on race weekend.
“After our initial conversation, where he said he was going to be here to work the press box, within a few weeks, he realized he probably wasn’t going to be able to,” Branham said. “He said, ‘I need some handicap tickets, and I’m going to be perched right there below the press box, so people up in the press box can look down at me and know I’m still here.'
“He said, ‘I may not be working, but I’m going to be there.’”
For the first time in almost 40 years, Boss Hogg’s press pass will go unused on race weekend. He died Tuesday at age 75. A memorial service is set for Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the Jim Hunter Press Box.
Meanwhile, the races will somehow go on at Talladega.
Media regulars and White Flag Club members used to seeing the outwardly tough --- but ultimately warm --- story teller who ran the Talladega press box will muddle through it.
There’s a sign on a tri-pod stand in the Ken Patterson Media Center. Above a picture of Braden, it reads, “We miss you, Boss!” and “Press Box Legend.”
Below the picture: “In loving memory, Richard ‘Boss Hogg’ Braden, 1938-2013.”
Below the tri-pod a vase of calla lilies, yellow roses and daisies sits on a box covered with a folded crimson table cloth.
For Talladega race fans who don’t know what we’re missing, Braden was a 1957 graduate and sports star at Alexandria High School who worked at M & H Valve for 43 years. He retired then worked at Cane Creek Golf Course and Talladega Superspeedway for several years.
He was a charter member of the White Flag Club, a booster organization started in 1974. The group of volunteers does “whatever needs to be done” in and around the races, TSS chairman Grant Lynch said.
Lynch estimates it would take about 20 employees to cover everything White Flag members do. Braden was most known for his work in running the press box.
He was also known for spinning a yarn.
“He had war stories you wouldn’t believe,” said Les Mathison, a close who met Braden while joining the White Flag Club in the mid-1980s.
One of those stories involved M & H Valve’s need for a player for their rec-league basketball team. Braden could play back in the day.
“He worked there about three years doing that and never left them,” Mathison said with a laugh. “He could tell some of the funniest stories with his phraseology and his pronunciation of words. He just had you in stitches.”
Sometimes, Braden’s phraseology mixed with a minor misunderstanding for comedy.
Lynch tells the story of meeting, in which he gave White Flag members a standard warning against scalping their season tickets. Talladega had fewer seats back then, so there was quite a demand.
Braden came in on the conversation late.
“He may not have been in the meeting when we had that conversation, but he came back into the meeting, and he got all flustered,” Lynch said. “He said, ‘I just want you to know that I can testify that no White Flag Club member has ever scaffolded a ticket one time! We’re not scaffolding tickets, and we never would scaffold any tickets!’”
Lynch and others tried to stifle laughs but couldn’t.
“We made him madder, because he thought we were laughing at him,” Lynch said. “We were giggling and laughing, and he said, ‘Why are you all … ?!’
“I said, ‘Boss, it’s scapling. It’s not scaffolding. That’s what you climb up.’”
Hunter, Talladega’s late former PR chief, gave Braden his nickname, Branham said. Mathison said the tag borrowed from the ‘Boss Hogg’ character on the early-1980s television show Dukes of Hazzard.
“It had something with (Braden’s) early days in the club,” Mathison said. “We always related him to ‘Boss Hogg’ on TV, and he’d introduce himself as ‘Boss Hogg.’”
Braden hardly looked like ‘Boss Hogg’ actor Sorrell Brooke, and Braden’s Wilfred Brimley look lent to his tough, boss-like presence.
It was more than a look. Branham likened Braden’s presence in the room to that of late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt. Everybody stiffened up.
Mathison said Braden could come off “like a gumpy old man,” but Branham saw a “teddy bear” behind Braden’s venir.
It showed in Braden’s last days, as he talked to Branham and Branham’s son Pierson. Braden told Pierson to take care of his dad, “because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Branham, who had known Braden since 1989, when Branham worked at Darlington, will be one of two people officiating in Braden’s memorial service Wednesday. When Braden died, Branham noted the timing to Braden’s wife, Carol.
“I told her, ‘It’s amazing, isn’t it? Typical Boss, making his mark during race week,’” Branham said. “He still has the big hand. He still has that manner of voice showing he’s in charge.
“Here it is race week. Of all the times he’s going to say, ‘I’m ready to go see the Lord’ and kick the bucket, it’s race week. He’s going to be a part of this race weekend, no matter what.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, email@example.com. On Twitter @jmedley_star.