NASCAR Champ Brad Keselowski Brings A Little Old, New School
A brash, young champion will begin defending his title at NASCAR's highest level in February. He's outspoken, funny and down-to-Earth. And he has a knack for connecting with both old-school fans and savvy, young Twitter users. His name is Brad Keselowski.
If you don't follow NASCAR closely, you may have been introduced to the sport's 28-year-old champion last fall through his celebratory interview on SportsCenter.
An ESPN anchor introduced Keselowksi, who was holding a massive glass of foamy beer and standing above a huge crowd after he won the championship. He asks Keselowski what it's like to have just won.
"Pretty damn awesome," Keselowski says with a big laugh. "I've got a little buzz going here - I've been drinking for a little bit. But it's been pretty good man. I can't lie. Look at these guys behind me, they're pretty excited."
Keselowski drinks from his giant beer throughout the interview. The video went viral on Youtube, Deadspin, The Huffington Post and about every other site. And Keselowki's racing team started selling replicas of the 15-inch tall beer glass.
A few months later, that interview still comes up anytime Keselowski is near a microphone.
"Those moments, soaking them in and enjoying success as a team are always a lot of fun, and they're always encouraged with beverages," he joked.
Keselowski doesn’t see it as a big deal – he was celebrating, so of course he had a few beers.
The former president of the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Humpy Wheeler, says that’s a mentality that a lot of NASCAR fans will raise a glass to.
"They like it - that's what they are," Wheeler says. "That's the kind of people they are. The guy that drives a truck – he gets through work; he goes and has a few beers. He's a dockworker; he's just going to go have a few beers, that's what he does."
But not as many of those blue-collar fans have been coming to the racetrack the past few years. Attendance last fall at one of the premier tracks, Talladega, was down more than 40 percent compared to five years ago.
Wheeler says the rough economy is partly to blame. He also notes that some of the best NASCAR drivers of the past few years, like Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, haven't been the most exciting characters.
"They may not be bland, but they've been (made corporate) to the point where they don't say very colorful things," Wheeler says.
That's never a problem with Keselowski.
The president of the Texas Motor Speedway, Eddie Gossage, says he's the kind of champ who can help fill the stands. Sure, beer antics are part of that. But he says Keselowski is also one of the keys to the future because of how he uses social media.
"I follow Brad Keselowski on Twitter because he teaches me how to tweet just by following him," Gossage says.
Keselowski is candid, funny and takes fans behind the scenes on his Twitter account, which has about 360,000 followers. That doesn't mean he has the biggest fan base. But Gossage says Keselowski is creating a new blueprint for expanding that base.
"I think Brad Keselwoski is a great champion, a young guy that does things in a young way, and he's teaching all of us," Gossage says.
The head of Daytona International Speedway, Joie Chitwood, says one example stands out, although he hopes it's not the kind of thing other drivers can replicate.
A massive fire broke out at one of the races last season when a driver collided with a jet-dryer truck. Keselowski was nearby and had a smart phone in his car.
"And the fact that he was tweeting when the jet dryer was on fire is one of those 'ah hah' moments," Chitwood says. "Obviously it paid off well for him in terms of a following."
Keselowski gained about 160,000 followers in just a few days after tweeting photos of the fire. (NASCAR later decided its drivers can't have smart phones in their race cars.)
Keselowski says he'll keep tweeting off the track and being himself.
"You have to do things on your own," he says. "You have to reach out and go out on that limb. For me, perhaps being vocal is one part that. But you know what, if it makes the sport better for us all, I think it's worth it."
Keselowski says that what he does on the racetrack is most important, and that he's not happy with just one championship.
Humpy Wheeler, the former president of Charlotte's speedway, says that's another part of what makes Keselowski so popular – he's competitive and drives with old-school grit.
"He's tough, and he's not afraid to get in there and dig and bang fenders when he has to, and that's the type of driver that appeals to the people that go into the grandstand or the people that are watching on TV," Wheeler says.
Here's how Keselowski puts it:
"I think we're getting back to the core of what NASCAR stands for, and it's good for everybody," he says.
Old school driving – and celebrating – on the racetrack, in interviews, and now, in 140 characters or fewer.