Aristotle referenced in a NASCAR story? You’re more likely to see the Phoenix Raceway pace car be a Rolls-Royce.
But the ancient philosopher just might have been on to something that helps us understand Brad Keselowski, the strong-willed yet seemingly calm champion of NASCAR’s top two series, no matter if he wins or wrecks. Which is what happened to him on the final lap of last month’s Daytona 500, clearing the way for Glendale’s Michael McDowell to finish first in The Great American Race.
Unable to reconcile Keselowski’s on-track on-the-gas style vs. off-track apparently neutral demeanor, some otherwise learned students of the stock car sport have taken to calling him an enigma.
In other words, Keselowski is Greek to them.
A wider perspective is required to better understand the 2010 NASCAR Xfinity Series and 2012 Cup Series champion.
Look past his fire-resistant uniform, festooned with corporate logos like the 37 candles on Keselowski’s birthday cake last month. (Discount Tire, with headquarter offices in Scottsdale, is a major sponsor.) Watch more than the way he speeds along in the No. 2 Wurth Ford Mustang in the March 14 Instacart 500 at the Avondale oval. Take in not only the racer, but the man, and the high-octane way he goes about being both.
It’s his ethos. That’s the correct word. Aristotle is said to have coined it, to refer to a person’s character or personality, especially passion for all he does.
“I’m a firm believer in the Wayne Gretzky story that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” Keselowski said. “And I’m not afraid to miss, either. Missing is part of life. I can live with a miss. I can’t live without trying.”
Keselowski Ethos Maxim 1: Be bold. Don’t be afraid of failure.
Consider this: Keselowski is the winningest driver in the 50-plus year history of American racing’s winningest team, owned by retail automotive and truck leasing entrepreneur Roger Penske. Keselowski’s 66 victories top Penske’s Hall of Fame driver roster, a list that includes Mark Donohue, Rusty Wallace, Bobby Allison, Rick Mears, Mario Andretti and the Unsers.
So it shouldn’t be a big surprise Keselowski says he’s still not over missing the 2020 Cup by 2.7 seconds to Chase Elliott last November at Phoenix Raceway.
“The wound is still there,” Keselowski admitted during a recent lengthy interview with The Arizona Republic.
“I’m not a very good loser. It’s something I’ve tried to work on and be better at. But not getting the job done is not fun for me.
“In some ways it’s good because it forces you to go back and get better. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, to use it as fuel to get better.”
Wallace, who won 37 times for Team Penske, likes that attitude.
“I totally get it why Brad says that,” said Wallace, the 1989 Cup titlist and two-time runner-up. “To be that close to something’s that such a big deal. You feel bad for the team and sponsors, but nobody feels worse than the driver. You can’t just walk away from your car and say, ‘Oh, well.'”
Penske recalls Keselowski had earlier passed Elliott but “at the end, we didn’t have the best pit stop … there was just no way he could catch the 9 (Elliott).
“Sure, he’s disappointed, because of the kind of work you have to do to get in that position with 10 or 15 laps to go and you have a competitive car and don’t deliver. He should feel bad because that will keep him even tougher to try to get back (again be eligible in the championship race, Nov. 7 at Phoenix Raceway.)”
That drive showed at Daytona in NASCAR’s biggest race, one Keselowski has yet to win. About one mile from the finish line he tried to pass teammate Joey Logano — who Keselowski had urged Penske to hire — for the lead. Logano blocked, they made contact, and both crashed. In a somewhat rare public display of emotion, Keselowski got out and threw his helmet at his car.
Ethos Maxim 2: Use disappointment as motivation.
What it takes
The Keselowskis of Michigan were determined and respected racers in Brad’s youth.
Dad Bob was the 1989 ARCA series champion. Uncle Ron did a bit of NASCAR racing in the 1970s then became his brother’s car owner. Brad’s brother, Brian, drove some, too.
“My dad was really big on working Saturdays, working late, working Sunday if we had to,” Keselowski said. “Whatever it takes to win. He pushed me very hard on that.
“My dad and uncle could build anything with their hands. I couldn’t work a welder or grinder like they could, so, I had to figure out other things.”
Like driving. Hard. And with a plan.
“Even at a young point in his driving career he had a very clear vision, impressive for his age, of what he wanted his racing career to be,” said attorney John Caponigro, CEO of Sports Management Network, which represents Keselowski. “All the way up through envisioning that he was going to win the Cup championship some day.”
By 2009 he was winning for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team in NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series. He won in just his fifth Cup Series start with Carl Edwards crashing spectacularly in front of him coming to the checkered flag at Talladega, Alabama.
His reputation was that of a man in a hurry. Which can be good and bad.
“I understand his urgency,” Earnhardt said at the time. “He wants a job. He wants to move out of that two-bedroom duplex and move into the $3 million houses like me and Denny (Hamlin, a sometimes rival) live in.”
Keselowski said: “I still feel that urgency. I don’t know if I felt it, necessarily, to have a mansion (laughs.) Roger said it best: ‘You get your quarterly report in motorsports every week.’ A couple of bad reports and you’re out of a job.”
Keselowski had contested a few Cup races for the powerhouse Rick Hendrick team and believed he was going to advance full-season in 2010 after, Hendrick thought, Mark Martin had retired. Martin didn’t, and Hendrick didn’t have an open seat.
“That was a tough time for me,” Keselowski said. “He communicated to me that he wanted me to drive the car full-time and I said, ‘Yes, let’s go.’ And then he came back and said, ‘I’ve changed my mind.'”
Caponigro says he asked Penske, who was watching several young Xfinity drivers, to “keep an eye” on Keselowski. Penske requested a meeting, which Keselowski delayed, just in case Hendrick reversed course.
“I recall many nights we’d talk and I’d say, ‘To have Roger interested in you is a great honor,'” Caponigro said. “Brad did not take that lightly. He would take a yellow pad and draw a line down the middle, putting ‘Team Penske’ on one side and ‘Hendrick Motorsports’ on the other and identifying, and scoring, the strengths and weaknesses of each.”
Keselowski wanted to compete full-time in both Cup and Xfinity. Discount Tire’s sponsorship allowed Penske to do so. In 2010 Keselowski won six races en route to the Nationwide Series (now Xfinity) championship, Penske’s first in NASCAR.
“I feel like I did everything that I was supposed to do, and it wasn’t enough,” said Keselowski, reflecting on his Hendrick near-miss. “It was probably a good life lesson for me that you have to accept that there are some things that you can’t control. You can influence them but you can’t control them. It pushed me and made me grow as a person.
“I’m not thankful for it but, of course, from time-to-time, I wonder what might have been. I suppose that’s true, too, on the other side.”
Ethos Maxim 3: Sometimes you have to start over. That’s life.
Keselowski was winning, having fun, and doing things his way.
Somehow he got Penske, the epitome of buttoned-down GQ business fashion, to wear blue jeans.
When he won five races and finally earned Penske an elusive Cup championship in 2012, Keselowski hoisted a large pilsner glass in victory lane, toasting the achievement with (sponsor) Miller Lite. More than once. (“I had a hell of a time.”)
During 2010 driver introductions in Bristol, Tennessee, he took the public address microphone and told the crowd: “Kyle Busch is an ass.”
Said Penske: “He’s a smart guy. He’s learned if he has something to say, he probably needs to say it privately. That’s been a very good step forward. He also understands how important it is that he represents his sponsors. The sponsors aren’t interested in having cowboys as drivers.”
Keselowski conceded that “I think I pushed the limits in a lot of ways. The closest I came to that is when I called Kyle Busch an ass. I was flirting with that line.”
Ethos Maxim 4: Learn your limits. Throttle-back, if necessary, to stay within them.
Keselowski owned a Camping World Truck Series team for a few years, but far greater ambitions awaited.
He closed the team and, in 2019, launched Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing, in a 70,000 square-foot North Carolina facility. One of his 50 employees has the title “chief scientist.”
Keselowski said he’s sole owner, which required multiple-millions of dollars to launch, and has cutting-edge technology for advanced hybrid manufacturing. Aerospace and defense industry companies are believed to be customers. Non-disclosure agreements keep him mum.
“I make it a point not to talk too much about my business,” he said. “Mostly because, for whatever reason, on the racing side when you win a race I think a lot of people say: ‘You drive for Penske and have a great car.’ When you lose a race, more often than not, the industry looks at the driver and goes, ‘Hmmm. He’s not winning as much as we think he should be winning.’ What is the easy thing to pin it on? It seems like whenever I talk too much about my business people say it’s a distraction.
“Funny, they never say when I win: ‘That business you’ve got probably helped you win more races.’ I do believe it’s been very good for me. It’s given me perspective I didn’t have.”
In a promotional video on KAM’s website, Keselowski says his company will “help lead the charge for the next industrial revolution.”
Sounds like something Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos might say.
“Those guys are geniuses,” Keselowski said. “I’m just a guy from Detroit. I’ve paid pretty close attention. There’s lessons to be learned from them that I would prefer to learn the easy way rather than the hard way. But, by no means, would I compare myself to them.”
Ethos Maxim 5: Plan ahead.
‘Ethos of gratitude’
Keselowski, with a wife and two young daughters, is in the last year of his contract. Garage area chatter constantly is about young — less expensive — drivers. But Penske, Keselowski and Caponigro all expect to finalize a new deal.
“Look, there’s always a discussion about compensation, but I would not negotiate with Brad based on saying, ‘There’s some guy around the corner that’s coming on and would be considerably less,'” Penske told The Republic. “I wouldn’t do that. He’s built more credit on his card with us than to say that.”
There’s only one flag that means more to Keselowski than the checkered flag. It’s the American flag, which he parades after every victory. (His foundation supports various military charities.)
“There is an ethos of gratitude,” he said, finally using the ‘e’ word. “I’m a religious man. I can’t say I’m the best but I’m trying to be. I’m grateful for everything I have in my life. In a lot of ways that’s what the American flag stands for to me.
“Somebody once said Dale Earnhardt was a ‘very complex but simple man.’ He was very relatable to the simple man, but he wasn’t a simple man. I’m not Dale Earnhardt and I’m not trying to say I am. I think there’s some commonalities. I try to lead the most simple life I can.
“I’m a race car driver. I’ve got a lot going on. I don’t expect that to be relatable to the average person you might poll on the street. That’s OK. I’m doing things my way. I’m enjoying every second of it. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Now you know the ethos of Brad Keselowski. Thanks, Aristotle.
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