While some drivers look at the Nationwide Series as a fun diversion from, or a stepping stone to the Cup series, Jason Keller has made his racing home in the series since 1991, where he has more starts than any other driver (461). Keller sat down with Frontstretch’s Amy Henderson last week to talk about his new team, his short-lived stint as a forklift operator, and yes, even those double-dippers from the Cup series.
Amy Henderson, Frontstretch: You’re with a relatively new team with Baker-Curb Motorsports, although they have been through different incarnations before. Tell me what it’s like to be with a new team and what the growing process is.
Jason Keller: The team as it is now came to be at the beginning of last year. Still, they’ve gone through a lot of changes and here I am again — some more changes. One of the great things is I was able to bring my crew chief from my past race team with me. That bridges the gap a lot — you don’t have to learn everything over. Some of the guys I’ve worked with before…
With all that said, while it is a new team in its current situation, there are some of the things that are familiar to me and the more you can [keep some familiarity], the better off you’ll be!
Henderson: Your team is an independent Nationwide Series team this year. Is that harder in this economy, or is it easier because you don’t have to answer to anyone else?
Keller: It’s harder from the standpoint that it limits our resources. It limits our ability to do some things, like testing and different things. The way it is, we felt like this was the best situation for us for a lot of reasons. I think in the end, it’s going to be the best situation for us. But short term, as far as getting our cars built and different things, it is pretty tough.
Henderson: You’ve been running the Nationwide Series since 1991, and obviously there have been a lot of changes in the series since then. Which changes do you think have had the biggest impact?
Keller: When I started racing the series, we didn’t even race west of the Mississippi. To go to Las Vegas for the first time was huge for us. I can remember thinking, “This is going to be unbelievable. We’re going to get on an airplane, and we’re going to fly out West, we’re going to race in Las Vegas!” Now, not only is the series from coast to coast and from border to border, but it’s also international. We raced Mexico for a few years, and now we race in Canada. It’s just so much more of a broad series than it used to be. It used to just be a Southeastern Series — and now it’s just huge. We hit so many major markets. That’s why you have companies like Kimberly-Clark, with Kleenex and all their brands [sponsoring a race car]. They see the importance of it. We’re not just a regional series — this is a national series now, and it just keeps getting bigger every year.
Henderson: You’ve chosen to make your career in the Nationwide Series. What made you decide to do that?
Keller: It’s the way everything has unfolded. I’ve never come out and said, “I’m a Nationwide Series driver only.” It seems like the opportunities that I was presented with were always the best for me in the Nationwide Series. I think after you do that for a little while — now I’m kind of labeled as a Nationwide Series driver. The Nationwide Series is a wonderful series, and it has wonderful notoriety.
I kind of laugh and say, “Well, Rick Hendrick has never called either.” Had some of those guys maybe have called and offered me some things, maybe my past would have been a little bit different. I look back… but I look forward, and I say that if I have to spend the end of my career, the next 10 or 12 years in the Nationwide Series, I’m OK with that, too.
Henderson: It seems as though there are more and more Cup teams and Cup drivers in the Nationwide Series. How do you feel about that — is it good, bad, or some of both?
Keller: I’ve always said that the series needs some of the Cup drivers. We need some Cup flavor in our series, just to help for the NASCAR fans, the generalized NASCAR fans, so that they can say, “Hey, I recognize that name Tony Stewart, I recognize Dale Earnhardt, Jr., let’s go and watch that race.” When I think we started having a problem was when we went from having six, eight, ten of those type of situations to it being like 20 or 22. Now it’s become half the field [that] are Cup drivers. Now, I think that gets to be a little unhealthy because it doesn’t allow the new, up-and-coming drivers the opportunities to race and to be part of the series. And when they started doing that, that’s when I think it became unhealthy. I have said all along we need some [Cup drivers] — I can remember racing early in my career against Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Mark Martin. I can remember one of my most memorable wins was beating Martin at Dover. I knew I beat the best on that given day. I think that the series needs some of those guys; but when it starts becoming half the field, I think it starts to become a little unhealthy.
Henderson: How would you describe yourself as a driver?
Keller: I’m a pretty thoughtful driver. I put a lot of thought into what I’m going to do, how I’m going to do it, what needs to happen. Probably, if I say a negative about myself, I’d say I need to be a little bit more of a by the seat-of-the-pants type driver than I am. I’m a pretty thoughtful driver.
Henderson: What is your most memorable race — that win at Dover? Or is there one that stands out even more?
Keller: I think the win at Dover has to rank up there pretty high, because as I said, I beat Martin when he was at his best at a place where he won several times. Looking back a little further than that, my first series win in 1995 — it was a family-owned team owned and operated. We had guys that were just off the short-track ranks around the South Carolina area. We didn’t go out and hire the most flamboyant crew chief or crew. It was just a lot of racers who my dad and I hand-picked. But we were able to go racing, and were able to win at a really big level — so that was probably one of the most important ones to me.
Henderson: Nobody who has watched the series for a long time can imagine you not driving a race car, but what would you be doing if you weren’t racing?
Keller: I don’t know. Actually, there was a little bit of a time about April 2006, when I had a situation where I found myself without a ride and I didn’t know what to do. I went and worked for my dad in his manufacturing plant and drove a forklift. I found out pretty quick that I wanted to get back behind the wheel of a race car!
Henderson: What’s fun for you away from the track?
Keller: My kids. I have a 10-year-old daughter and a 12-year-old son — anything that they’re in. My son is big into basketball and his sports, and my daughter is into cheering and tumbling. I am a sideline dad when I’m at home. Anything I can do — taking them to practices — I like to think of myself as a really involved dad. I’m very blessed with my family life.
Henderson: Let’s wrap up with a couple of questions just for fun. What the strangest request you’ve ever had from a fan?
Keller: I was asked to sign a dog one time!
Henderson: What’s your favorite new gadget or fun toy?
Keller: My wife bought me a big new grill that I have outside. I love grilling, and last summer she surprised me with a big grill.