A few years ago, I sat in a local eatery with a young race car driver, and over burgers and fries listened as he gushed about his plans to be a NASCAR champion someday.
His name was Brad Keselowski.
I didn’t want to pop the enthusiastic youngster’s bubble, but I’d heard it all before.
Brad was one of thousands of youngsters around the country who every year plunge into racing’s lower levels with dreams of becoming the sport’s next superstar, the hottest thing on four wheels.
Keselowski, a native of upstate Michigan, was in town to help promote one of the second-tier races at Nashville Superspeedway in Gladeville, and the public relations person took us to lunch.
As I sat with Keselowski and listened to his dream story, I was impressed. But, I’m easily swayed by youthful enthusiasm. I’d been impressed by other talented youngsters, such as Nashville’s Casey Atwood, whose star shown briefly, then flickered and fizzled.
It wasn’t their fault. Landing a NASCAR Cup Series ride is one of the toughest challenges in professional sports. There are only 43 jobs available. And even after getting into the series, parlaying a ride into a championship requires a near miracle.
On Nov. 18, the miracle happened.
Brad Keselowski, whose mom and dad raised him to be a race car driver the same way thoroughbred owners train a colt to gallop, basked in the glow of the 2012 NASCAR championship.
The first people he thanked after pulling off the upset of five-time champ Jimmie Johnson were his parents.
Bob Keselowski is an old-school racer who used to wobble into tracks on a wing and prayer, and often the wing was somebody’s left-over.
His mother, Kay Keselowski, traveled with the team, charting laps, rustling up meals, and handling other odd jobs on race day. Once, leading up to an ARCA race at historic old Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Kay served me a bologna sandwich out of the back of the team’s hauler.
I told him about meeting his parents years ago and how his crusty pop muttered something about “sportswriters already being full of bologna…”
Brad Keselowski laughed and said, “Yep, that sounds like my dad.”
At age 28, Keselowski is wise beyond his years.
He paid his dues. He is grounded, focused and mature. He is intelligent and well-spoken, and he burns with ambition. It’s easy to see what veteran team owner Roger Penske saw in this kid when he signed him.
Penske believed Brad Keselowski was capable of delivering Penske Racing its first championship in 40 years. Although his teams have ranked among the elite in motorsports, 15 Indy 500 victories, Penske had never managed to hoist the big trophy.
Nothing against Johnson, nor defending and twice-champion Tony Stewart, but NASCAR needed a fresh face up front.
Now it has it, and a stirring storyline to go with it: A new-age driver battled his way up through the ranks with the help of his retro-racing parents and gave a legendary, 75-year-old team owner his first championship. It’s hard to improve on that script.
When Brad Keselowski joined Penske in Victory Circle at Homestead-Miami Speedway, he looked like a kid who got up Christmas morning and found a new bike under the tree.
And all around the country, thousands of aspiring young racers watched and renewed their vow that someday that would be them up there.