Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Daytona 500 dreams coming true

There are days in racing that confound and utterly frustrate you and make you question why you chose to pursue working in the sport for a living. Every racer has felt it – the feeling that the mountain is too tall and the rock being pushed up that mountain is too heavy. The urge to throw in the towel and go back to some normal semblance of life beckons, and some give in.

They return to lives of driving a truck or working as an automotive technician or a plumber. The calls of the fans in the stands are long since replaced by customers walking through the door, the phone ringing, or smoky truck stop restaurants off some state highway just outside of town.

For the thousands of drivers, owners, mechanics, and yes, even PR reps like myself, who have felt the urge to throw in the towel and have gone through with it and returned to “civilian” life, there is the one underdog story out there that proves it can be done. And in this Daytona 500, there are two such stories and both come from the same geographic corner of the country.

By now, everyone has embraced the Brian Keselowski story. Working in a small shop with just himself, his father Bob, and his uncle Ron (along with some part-time help), Keselowski went from the outhouse to the penthouse once his younger brother Brad hitched to the back bumper and literally shoved from from being Tail-end Charlie to nearly winning the second Gatorade Duel.

I’ve had the great fortune of being around the Keselowski family for the better part of the past decade, which came on the heels of being a huge Bob Keselowski fan while growing up and watching him win races in the famous “Black Bandit” No. 29 late model at Toledo Speedway.

While trying to find my footing in this sport, I hooked up with the Keselowski’s driver, Terry Cook, and his wife, ESPN truck series pit reporter Amy East for the 2001 season. I went to virtually every race that season and spent much of those weekends either in the K-Automotive transporter or sitting between the Cook motorhome and the Keselowski motorhome once the garage closed, talking racing and sharing a laugh or two.

In those days, Brian was a mechanic and an over-the-wall crew member, while Brad was a tall, lanky kid who put all his efforts into learning the mechanics and engineering, toting a briefcase and watching everything those around him were doing. Soon, the brothers were racing late models, just like Bob.

Brian won a track championship at Toledo Speedway in 2003, exactly 20 years after his father did. He also scored a couple of ARCA wins, which put him in the same class as his dad again, as Bob was the 1989 ARCA Racing Series champion. Brad also raced late models, but tended to travel between tracks instead of chasing points at any one. I recall one night at Toledo he showed up with a brand new car; it was beautiful and fast. He was making his way to the front when the left rear wheel flew off coming off the fourth corner, sending him hard into the wall and destroying the car.

Brad made his way to the family Truck Series team, but by then they were down on funding and struggling. He still made an impression, and when Ted Musgrave was suspended for a race in 2006, Brad got the call. He immediately showed he had the right stuff by winning the pole and nearly winning the race; a late-race bump from Travis Kvapil taking him out of contention after leading late in the going.

We all know where Brad’s career has gone since. He moved on to JR Motorsports and then on to Penske, with a Cup win for James Finch thrown in for good measure.

Brad has earned his time in the spotlight. Brian has shown the same level of skill and ability behind the wheel, but for whatever reason hasn’t had the breaks his younger brother did. Maybe that’s exactly what happened when Brad spun midway through Thursday’s second Duel race. Maybe that was Brian’s good break. Once Brad went to the back and latched on to his brother, the cameras took notice. Fans started to learn that there are two Keselowski brothers, and the second one isn’t just a start-and-park Nationwide Series driver, he’s actually a pretty competent shoe looking for a good break.

The second story also comes from the state of Michigan. In fact, the Whitney Motorsports team with driver J.J. Yeley has also planted its roots at the same short tracks that the Keselowski family did.

Dusty Whitney was one of the youngest late model owners at Toledo Speedway in the early 2000s. Although his drivers didn’t necessarily win a lot, they did run up front quite a bit and he found his path in the sport. He helped the Keselowski family during their ARCA foray, owning Brian’s cars and collecting a couple of wins along the way. His Dusty’s Collision sponsorship can still be seen on cars racing at Flat Rock and Toledo Speedways, showing he hasn’t forgotten where he came from either.

Whitney moved to the Cup Series in 2010 and found it a tough row to hoe. His start-up team failed to qualify for the first five races, and went through several drivers trying to find the right combination.

Working with a tight budget, Whitney’s cars made 22 starts in 2010 and scored a top-20 finish in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona with J.J. Yeley at the wheel. Yeley and the team split shortly thereafter, but neither found much success while apart. The off-season brought the two back together and new Chevrolet Impalas and some strong engines under the hood brought the team a renewed sense of optimism heading to Daytona.

A sub-par qualifying run left Yeley at the back of the grid for the first Duel and meant he had to race his way into the starting field for the 500.

After a green flag stop for fuel, Yeley was a lap down and looked to be all but eliminated from the 500. But a blown engine and a resultant caution flag changed everything. Yeley picked up the free pass to rejoin the lead lap and darted into the transfer position over the final two-lap dash to the checkered, giving Whitney his first start in the Great American Race.

For Yeley, it marks his return to the 500 after a broken vertebra in a sprint car crash very nearly forced an early end to his racing career.

Dreams do come true. For the Keselowski family, that dream is realized with its two sons lining up in the Daytona 500. For Dusty Whitney, it’s the realization of a vision that took him from the short tracks to the biggest stage in the sport. For both, it proves that the opportunity still exists if you’re willing to reach for it.

1 comment:

  1. This was an excellent read! Reasons like this are why I keep coming back to watch. In little to no other professional sports does a competitor have a chance to work with such a grassroots effort and earn their way to compete with the best of the best.