Keselowski takes a trip back to his roots

You can take the boy out of the Motor City, but you’ll never take the Motor City out of Brad Keselowski.

Keselowski is quickly becoming the most successful NASCAR racer to call Detroit home — and he hasn’t forgotten his Wolverine roots. Keselowski embraces his blue-collar work ethic and the resolve inherent to most Detroiters.

What sets him apart is Keselowski’s ability to discern racing from race cars. Michiganders’ love affairs with their cars ultimately prove detrimental on the racetrack. That’s why Keselowski feels he’s the “lone soldier” from Detroit in the Sprint Cup Series.

“They think of cars differently than I do,” Keselowski said. “A racer from Detroit thinks, ‘All right, I’m going to build this Late Model. I’m going to map out this front suspension. It’s going to have the best front suspension that’s ever been on a race car. I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,’ and the focus is always on the car. It’s not on the driver.

“For them, becoming a driver, becoming a star, it doesn’t mean anything to them. They just want to make that car better and enjoy that because that’s what the culture is in this area.

“Growing up in NASCAR, I don’t know if I put an emphasis on being a star, but I had more of an appreciation for the actual pure driving end of it. To them, the driver is just someone that fills the seat. The car is the star. “

But like the Motor City, Keselowski is tough. He’s determined. And those traits have allowed Keselowski to chase his NASCAR dreams beyond the cinderblock shop in Auburn Hills that once housed K Automotive, his family’s racing team.

In the mid-1960s, patriarch John Keselowski began the racing tradition that his sons Bob and Ron and grandsons Brad and Brian carry on today. The modest family race shop, not far from Chrysler Headquarters, fueled the second and third generations of the Keselowski racers. Dodge was woven through Bob Keselowski’s career in ARCA and the Truck series before coming full circle as the manufacturer for Penske Racing, where Brad currently drives the No. 2 Miller Lite Charger.

Going home

Keselowski pulls into the gravel lot outside the former K Automotive race shop. He remembers the parties his dad threw for the fans before the season began, cleaning race cars, which he “hated,” and endless trips to the convenience store around the corner for coffee and snacks which, as a kid during Michigan winters, felt “like the longest walk ever."

Now, looking at the gas station through the trees, it doesn’t seem that far at all.

Keselowski touches the corner of the building on the spot where he plowed headfirst into the wall while driving his go-kart. With brother Brian riding shotgun, the weight upset the balance of the kart and the youngster lost control.

“I don’t know how we didn’t get killed there,” Keselowski said.

Fast forward

Keselowski tempted fate nearly two decades later during a testing accident on Aug. 3 at Road Atlanta, where his brakes failed and shot the 27-year-old driver into the wall again — this time at over 100 miles per hour.

Keselowski was airlifted from the track and was later diagnosed with an avulsion fracture of the left ankle.

Keselowski was cleared to compete that weekend at Pocono Raceway. He refused to relinquish any seat time. He participated in each of the practices, qualified the car and miraculously won his third career Sprint Cup race four days after the accident.

While Keselowski stunned pundits with his Pocono victory, finishing second at Watkins Glen, a track that requires constant motion particularly for a left-foot braker, last Monday was equally impressive.

As the youngest of five children, Keselowski evolved into a survivor.

“My dad taught me from an early age is when you get into a race car, everyone weighs the same,” Keselowski said. “You’re all equally as tough as you are in your mind. So what that means when you get in there, it’s all about heart, it’s all about mind, it’s all about skill. No matter what you do, no matter what size you are, you’ve got the same fight or more if you got it in your mind and you’ve got it in your heart“.

Learning to fight

For Keselowski, who was a wiry kid growing up, learning to defend himself was almost as important as learning to race. With each new track came additional speed, but the talent level rose as well.

Keselowski barely had his learner’s permit when he was racing factory stocks and taking on one of the locals at Auto City Speedway in Flint, Mich.

“This guy had to be 50 years old racing factory stocks. He built this nice factory stock — factory stocks aren’t supposed to be nice, they’re supposed to be beaten up cars to go racing and rubbing — a little bit of passing, a little bit of rubbing here. But he built this really nice car and debuted about halfway through the season. I’d been running well, had won a couple of races.

“This guy shows up and he thought he was the king … . He got in my heat race. I was just a little faster than he was and gave him a little bumper action. Well this guy happened to be about 300 pounds, and not like 300 pounds out of shape, 300 pounds like you were going to lose the fight if this guy goes to fight you. And I was about a buck-twenty, 5-10 and 16 years old.

“And this guy was mad. I put a scratch on his car and he chased me down while we were driving in the car, down pit road, bumping and pushing me around and finally put it in park when I got to my pit stall. I thought, ‘Oh (crap). I’m going to get my (butt) beat right here.’”

Keselowski’s uncle turned enforcer and cooler heads prevailed. But the youngster realized early on that there wasn’t always going to be someone to fight his battles for him. Ultimately, that would become his responsibility. But his greater lesson was not to be intimidated by the competition.

“The biggest thing I learned from that was how to be in the car and how to react as if nothing else matters. Not to worry about the repercussions afterwards,” Keselowski said. “To just race. Just do it. Don’t worry about getting beat up afterward or any of that crap. You’re all the same in the race car.

“Obviously, when you’re done don’t get out of the car too early or put the window net down. I learned that lesson, too. I did get punched once but that wasn’t too bad.”

School days

Keselowski notes the changes as he traverses the farmland where subdivisions have popped up.

Keselowski passes the old roller rink where he played hockey until he took a puck to the throat and his mom Kay suggested something safer such as racing.

The ride by Rochester High School evokes typical adolescent angst. Following his win at Kansas Speedway in June, Keselowski received an email from his ninth-grade geometry teacher, the only one to flunk him throughout his educational career. He regrettably recalls telling her he would “never use her math” because ultimately he did.

“I knew what I wanted to do way before I got into high school or even while I was in middle school,” Keselowski said. “I was committed to going down the path — whatever it took — and I wasn’t going to let anything else get in my way. “

Although Keselowski is now a voracious reader, classical education was uncomfortable for the racer as a child. But time and success have healed much of the pain.

“School was tough for me because as a young kid I grew up in race shops,” Keselowski said. “I didn’t spend a lot of time around other kids. I actually spent very little time around other kids. And so, to fit in, I always felt like I was being forced to be more of an adult than I was ready to be. Because of that, I never got caught up in your high school or juvenile social system where you have the preppy kids or the jocks. I never got caught up in that because I knew what I wanted to do. I really didn’t care about those social circles.

“Of course it did make some of the social situations hell and probably segregated me from some of those parts of my life that would make things a little easier on me now — and then. But I really held no value in that. Whether I was the most popular kid in school didn’t really mean anything to me. I just wanted to be myself, do what I wanted to do and exercise my own passions.”

Keselowski says he “feels lucky to have been born in a town like Rochester Hills” where his mother still lives in the house he grew up in. Crittenton Hospital, where he was born, is a couple of blocks from his high school. Madonna — yes, that Madonna — lived in the other direction. And his high school crush? On the other side just a few blocks from school.

Home cookin’

A trip to Rochester Hills wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Lipuma’s Coney Island.

Keselowski orders a taco and some chili cheese fries. He carries his tray to a picnic table alongside the Clinton River — the same tributary that runs by the old K Automotive in Auburn Hills.

With a little comfort food, it’s easier to describe the frustrations he felt his first season at Penske Racing. Despite winning the 2010 Nationwide title, his first top-10 finish in Cup with the team didn’t come until the 32nd race of the year. At the end of the season, Penske Racing pared down to two teams and Paul Wolfe, Keselowski’s NNS crew chief, was promoted to Cup.

After winning a fuel-mileage race at Kansas, his second career Cup win, Keselowski defended his honor. He also predicted in June that the team would get to the point where they would “win races with pure speed."

“We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there,” Keselowski said. “We’re on that pathway. I feel like this year has started out very similar to 2008 when I ran Nationwide. I don’t think the proper judgment will be placed on my career for the next three years — for good or bad.

“I really don’t think I’ll know where I’m at for another three years. I think the way the system is right now you can’t with the lack of testing and experience discrepancies. As good as Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are right now, it took them six years to win a championship — and they had testing. What does that tell you?

“I don’t think the judge of my career will be tomorrow or next week or next month. It will be in the next three years as it will be for any new driver that comes into the sport.”

Keselowski’s advice to prospective racers is simple, "give up and go golfing." Keselowski adds “talent is not enough,” it takes luck, timing and persistence to persevere at stock cars highest level.

And there’s a certain responsibility that comes with being a Penske racer — something Keselowski understands quite well given Roger Penske’s legendary status, particularly in Michigan. Keselowski says he’s still learning as a Penske employee “what it means to be an elite member of the sport and what you have to do is above and beyond the normal responsibilities of an average man in the sport."

Keeping it in perspective

Keselowski has jumped from 21st to 14th in the Cup standings in the last two races. With four races remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Keselowski appears to be a lock for a wild-card berth.

To escape from the pressures of racing, Keselowski turns to reading.

“That’s where I go,” Keselowski said. “Because when I’m studying I can take my mind away from racing.”

Following a particularly bad outing at Pocono in June, Keselowski climbed in his hot tub to relax. He noticed a gathering of lightning bugs in the distance which sparked a childhood memory. Keselowski’s first recollection of lightning bugs was in Iowa, during one of his father’s sponsorship appearances .

“I was 7 or 8 years old,” Keselowski said. “There was a kid whose dad ran dragsters and he got to run a junior dragster. He had it there at this deal to show it off as a display.

“I was so damn envious. Like ‘God, I would do anything just to race, anything just to sit in a race car.’ Like the mere thought of just sitting in a race car, if I could this once, I could die. That’s how I felt at that age.”

Seeing those lightning bugs reminded Keselowski how desperately he yearned to be a racer and how fortunate he is to be competing at the Sprint Cup level today.

“Even just to be in it and to have competitive cars, even if I didn’t get the finish that I wanted that day or in days past,” Keselowski said. “To know that I was getting paid to drive a race car, even if I wasn’t getting paid, there were people that were willing to work on my stuff to provide an opportunity for me to get in and potentially tear it up. It’s just an amazing feeling.

“There’s not a lot of people that can say that. On any given weekend, there’s only 43 of us.”