The Frontstretch: Beyond The Cockpit: Brian Keselowski Makes The Best Of His Budget by Phil Allaway -- Wednesday August 14, 2013

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No one ever said that racing is cheap. In the Sprint Cup Series, a budget of $20 million per car is required to be competitive. In Nationwide, a full season sponsorship costs roughly $6 million. However, very few teams can snag that kind of backing. A season in the Camping World Truck Series costs less than that, but not by much. A competitive season in the K&N Pro Series, NASCAR’s quaternary level, costs upward of $3 million. Six-figure budgets for even local weekly racing is commonplace these days. You wonder just how any normal person can do anything more than just grassroots stuff.

Brian Keselowski, the 31-year old older brother of defending Sprint Cup Champion Brad Keselowski, is trying to race on a limited basis in the Sprint Cup Series with the smallest of budgets for his No. 52 Toyota. It shows at times. Keselowski’s No. 52 was at the bottom of the speed charts all weekend at Watkins Glen. However, the team knew that was possible, or even likely when they entered the race. After qualifying on Saturday, Keselowski sat down with our own Phil Allaway to talk about the struggles of his small operation and how difficult it is to improve.

Phil Allaway, You’re part-time in the Sprint Cup Series, only getting the chance to run a couple of races each year. Can you talk about the struggles that come with getting backing for your limited competition?

Brian Keselowski wears many different hats when it comes to his race team. Photo courtesy John Harrelson, Getty Images.

Brian Keselowski, No. 52 Star Coach Race Tours Toyota: Well, everybody’s struggling for sponsorship. We’re looking to do whatever we can to get people who want to get in on the ground level of a Sprint Cup Series team. That’s where we’re at right now. We’re realistic about who we are and what we’re doing. We’re just trying to show up and get better every time we come out, and we want people to get involved in it and know what it’s like to be involved in Sprint Cup. [Sure], it’s not near the level it would be with Hendrick [Motorsports], or somebody like that, but to still come here and be a part of it. It’s a lot about just being part of the weekend, and what it’s like to be part of the circus that is the Sprint Cup Series.

Allaway: This weekend, you have Star Coach Race Tours onboard. How did that deal come about for you?

Keselowski: It’s through a couple of different partners. Kelly Owen, who works a little bit with Jimmy Means in the Nationwide Series, he talked to [Star Coach] about working out a deal, kinda a business-to-business type of thing. I think they’re helping each other out. Kelly owns a vending company that is on the car, My 3 Sons Vending, and they all just work together.

Allaway: Business-to-business relationships is one of the primary methods you can get backing for your team?

Keselowski: Yes, it’s one of the ways. There’s a million different ways. We even offer $30 for a fan name to be on the car. We offer from that all the way to whatever you want to spend, thousands of dollars on the car. So, we have everything. There’s no true blue way in getting a sponsor, but if things work out for everybody, that’s how it ends up happening.

We knew we were coming to Watkins Glen. One of the reasons why we came here was that we knew it was going to be a short field, and we knew that. We would have a chance to learn and race, and try to figure out our way around the race track. We would also offer our race car on the race track for somebody to get in on it and be a part of this series. That’s what we’re looking to do too, but we’re realistic on who are. We know that we have to come here and learn. Going home every week on the trailer after qualifying isn’t a realistic way of doing things. Right now, we’re doing the things that we need to do in order to come to race.

Allaway: In qualifying, you had a little spin and contact with the Armco barrier. What happened out there?

Keselowski: We’ve been struggling with the front end of the car, trying to keep it planted. Mostly, it’s kind of a balance thing. Through the throttle traces from the computer, it showed that I got through the [Inner Loop] a lot better than what we had been on that lap. I tried something a little different by not entering the corner as I had been. We got through the [Inner Loop] a lot quicker and we were gaining time. But, when I got to Turn 9, the car wouldn’t turn. It wouldn’t turn, I got way up in the marbles and it took off on me. When I got up there, I did everything I could to save it. Actually, I thought I did a pretty good job. It swung back around and ever so slightly touched the wall. It mostly just scraped the fender and flat-spotted the tires. Unfortunately, we lost a set of tires that we didn’t need to lose either. The [car’s] no worse for wear, so we’re ok.

Allaway: How much road course experience do you have, Brian?

Keselowski: Well, I’ve raced here once in a Nationwide car (2010), and I tried to make a race with Curtis Key back in 2011. I’ve also started and parked my car at a couple of other ones. As far as Watkins Glen is concerned, I’ve been here twice. This is my third time. I’ve never had any road course experience otherwise. No teaching on road courses, never tested at a road course, never done anything other than just show up to road course and say “Ok, let’s go.”

It’s been quite the experience. The fact that I haven’t raced here in three years probably doesn’t help a lot. With the way that our race team operates, we can’t afford to go test, or go to schools or anything like that. So, the only way that I get experience is by coming here and learning. The only way you’re going to learn is by pushing it to the edge a little bit and sometimes, a little over it. As long as you don’t hurt [the car] any more than I have so far, all is well.

I’ve got a lot of learning to do. I knew that when we got here. If I don’t get a chance to get out on the track, that’s my time to learn. This is my test session. If I don’t learn now, I’m never going to get that chance.

Allaway: With your race team, is it mainly just you and volunteer help? Any full-time employees in addition to yourself?

Keselowski: I have no full-time employees. I’m not even myself. I’m working for the Richard Petty Driving Experience full-time now. We kinda just pick and choose which races we’re going to. My dad helps me a lot on the cars. We hire some people part-time for a couple of weeks and just go with that. That’s what we’ve got at the race track too. We’ve got about five or six at the track that we’ve hired just for the week.

Allaway: Local people from up here [in New York]?

Keselowski: No, more like guys that have just been around NASCAR for a while and have been part of it. They’ve helped us out at a couple of different races, so that’s what we have up here this week. They’re all good guys, experienced guys. They might be working for a Truck team, a Nationwide team, or somebody who can get out of the job they’re doing for the weekend to and come help us. It’s ok. It would be a little easier on us if we had some more full-time employees, but it’s not easier if you can’t pay them. We want to make sure to do the things that we can, within the budget that we have.

Allaway: The car you’re running [this week], is this the same one that ran at Loudon and other races?

Keselowski: Yes, this is the same Toyota that I own, along with Kelly Owen and Archie St. Hilaire. We all came together at Daytona when we put this car together. It isn’t necessarily just a Daytona car; it was more of a downforce car, which we thought would actually help at Daytona. Unfortunately, we never got the motor to run right. Since then, we’ve switched engine manufacturers and we’ve done a lot better.

We’ve really improved our program. We started getting better at Richmond, we started running with the pack and guys we knew we should run with. Also, we’re trying to be smart with who we should run with and who we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t go out and outrun the Hendrick cars. There’s just no reason why we should. But, to be able to run with the people that are in our realm back here on this side of the garage, maybe we can run with them.

After Richmond, I thought we really started getting somewhere. We struggled a little bit at Charlotte, then we put Morgan [Shepherd] in for New Hampshire. Our biggest issue is that we never show up to the track consistently. If we showed up more, for the driver, the crew and the race car, we would get better. I always tell people that when we come to the track, it feels like we’re two years behind everybody. When we leave the track, we’re two months behind. So, we gain a lot of time. The problem is that it takes the whole track time during the weekend to really learn that much, and then we’re still behind when we leave. When we come back and it’s two months later, we’ve lost it all again. Everybody has gained so much more knowledge every weekend that they go race. The drivers are getting better, everyone is getting better. The more you run, the better you get. That’s why we gain so much during the weekend because I feel more comfortable in the car, we work on the car and get it better. We gain light years during the weekend.

Allaway: What do your plans look like for the remainder of 2013?

Keselowski: It’s kinda up in the air right now. Again, we’re looking at where the cars are going to be and how many people are going to show up to races. We gotta be smart about where we go. If we get sponsorship, we’ll show up to a race, I don’t care who’s there. But, if we can’t come up with enough sponsorship to race that race the way we want to go, then we can’t just afford to go lose a lot of money. I’ve done that before, and it’s not a good business plan. Unfortunately, you do have to pay the bills every day. If we can’t pay the bills, then we can’t race.

That’s where we’re at right now. We’re going to pick and choose our races for the rest of the year. We had four or five races earmarked, and then some things have happened where we haven’t had the chance to go to them. Like Pocono, where we ended up having to withdraw from that. We want to have sponsorship when we go and race the race. That’s our goal. However, we can’t get better if we can’t afford to buy the parts that we need. We’re trying to be smart about what we’re doing.

Allaway: Speaking of parts, do you have fresh sets of tires for the race?

Keselowski: We’ve got some tires from other teams. We’ve got some scuffs from qualifying runs from other teams. Unfortunately, I just went out on two sets of our tires and ruined them. They were brand-new tires that we bought. We bought three sets of tires when we got here and I just went out and ruined them for us. That didn’t help anything, but other than the ruined tires, the car has been kept in pretty good shape. We’re going to find as many tires as we can, but we can’t just go out and buy 15 sets like a lot of these guys can. Just not in the cards for us right now.

Allaway: In addition to your recruited help, do you sometimes get help from other teams at the track?

Keselowski: Not really. I know that a lot of the guys from other teams help steer us in the right direction, but you’re kinda on your own little island when you come to these races. Sometimes, it would be a whole lot easier if other teams and manufacturers could help you out to get you a little better. It would help out a lot. But, with where we’re at right now, it’s just not realistic to get that kind of help.

Allaway: Describe a regular weekend at the track when you’re actually racing. In addition to your driving responsibilities, what kind of tasks do you usually perform?

Keselowski: Right from the get go, I’ll help the team unload the hauler, then try to help get the car through the tech line and stuff like that. I’m not like the typical Cup driver right now. I own part of the team, and I’m used to working on my race cars. I don’t just let other people do my work.

This weekend has been a little bit different. I’ve had a little bit more help so I’ve been trying to concentrate on the track and learning what I need to do to be better for me. So, I’ve been really working on that and letting the other guys work on the car and try to make that part better. Generally, I always try to help work on the car as much as I can, help get the car through tech and get it ready to go.

Allaway: With Richard Petty Driving Experience, what is your job there? Are you a driving instructor?

Keselowski: Yes, I’m the head driving instructor for the Eastern region. We take care of about 18 different tracks and 60 different instructors, so there’s a lot of people that it entails. It’s a good job to have if you’re not racing. I really want to race. It’s nothing against them, they have a great organization, but I want to race. Everybody wants to race, though.

At this point, I’m working for them full-time and racing when I can, and they offer me a lot of help. The hauler, this is from them. They’re on the car as a sponsor, allow me to use the hauler that they have for their ARCA cars when they race. It’s a really good place to work. I’m really happy with that part of the job, but I really want to race.

I do a lot of different things over there. I instruct, and I give rides and things like that. There are special programs, like I crew chief their ARCA car for them. We do all the fantasy camp stuff and driver coach for the Richard Petty Driver Search, which is on TV soon. I do a lot of special programs for them and try to help them out.

Allaway: Is it more of a supervisory role with the instructors?

Keselowski: I have to do evaluations and that kind of thing to make sure that they do the right thing, since it’s a customer-based business. That’s something I’m not used to because I’ve never been involved with customers. I’ve always been a racer.

Starting at the rear of the field on Sunday, Keselowski attempted to try to gain more and more experience, despite not quite being on the pace of the rest of the field. For the most part, it went ok. However, during the first round of green flag stops, Keselowski spun out in Turn 10 after contact with Ron Fellows. Afterwards, issues with the brakes set in and forced Keselowski out of the race early. He was credited with a 39th-place finish.

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