Brad Keselowski doesn't do vanilla
As it pertains to professing his personal convictions and core beliefs, Brad Keselowski doesn't concern himself with outside opinions or the prospect of adverse reactions. He doesn't much care what folks think of him. He says what he means, and he very rarely regrets it.
Keselowski's bravado is honest, born from thankless all-nighters in dark, dirty garages -- turning wrenches with his father, Bob -- and cultivated on Michigan short tracks in the weekly scrap-and-claw to plow his way to the Big Time. The Keselowskis were always underdogs. It is innate in them. So The Big Time didn't cool the ire; it merely served to stoke the coals.
"It's that drive and that attitude that's gotten me to where I'm at, and I think it would be disrespectful to myself, and to the sport, to change that approach," Keselowski said. "And especially to the fans I've earned, because I've gotten somewhere with it.
"The other side of it is, what wakes me up in the morning, what drives me to do this, what drives me to get up and deal with the crap, is knowing that racing, in its fullest form -- comes down to a combination of talent and work ethic and your own self-drive to refuse to lose. That's what will make you in this sport. Knowing that makes me give 100 percent, when very few other things do."
Keselowski defines "crap" as politics, or "the decision-making of who is what, and what is important and what is not."
The most recent example of Keselowski's philosophy on the subject came Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His No. 22 Dodge was in position to win the Nationwide Series Sam's Town 300, but a blown right front tire on the final lap handed the victory to Mark Martin. After the race, Keselowski took to Twitter to voice his frustration with the ABC/ESPN broadcast team for -- in his opinion -- opting to skip over him for a postrace interview in favor of Danica Patrick, who finished fourth.
He wrote: "Before broadcast ends I'll go ahead and say tv skipped me for Danica. Imagine that "
Discussing the matter days later, Keselowski softened his tone. But he did not back off from the basis of his opinion.
"Obviously, I thought more about it, and naturally I was frustrated by the outcome of the event," he said. "I'm sure that played a role in how vocal I was. But it did not play a role in whether I was right or wrong.
"I probably didn't do the best job in my tone of explaining it, due to the emotions I had after the day, but what frustrates me is how much TV -- and any media, in general -- can decide what the storylines are in our sport. Whether they're accurate or not, or whether they really are what the fans want to see or hear."
He then noted that part of what spurred his decision to lash out was NASCAR's push to market greater importance on winning.
"We go through all this crap every winter, sitting down in meetings and trying to understand, well our fans want this, our fans want that. And the big message we get this year -- emphasis on winning, emphasis on winning," he continued. "We want to see guys go all-out to win. And even though the race didn't play out in my favor Saturday, we put an all-out emphasis on winning. That's what the fans want to see.
"And to be neglected after that [race], especially with a dramatic finish, for a different storyline [when] the fans have made clear they wanted to see an emphasis on winning, based on a platform of a network -- ABC and ESPN has always had 'the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat' -- would abandon the storyline of our fans, and the brand of our sport, for something else. I think that's wrong. Not just for myself, but for the fans in general. And we send a bad message to the sport."
Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president of motorsports (and in full disclosure, my boss), responded to Keselowski's opinion:
"We considered Brad one of the top stories of the Las Vegas race and wanted to interview him postrace. Under the circumstances of the moment, we made our best effort to locate him. We have no bias against Brad or any other driver or team. In fact, if Brad were to look back over the course of his NASCAR career, I believe he'd find that ESPN has covered him very thoroughly."
Keselowski's willingness to speak his mind is a rarity in today's NASCAR, not because other drivers aren't opinionated but because, as Tony Stewart once said to me perfectly, the three days spent cleaning up the mess aren't worth the three minutes of satisfaction.
That's how I do things. That's how you have credibility. Without being able to admit your flaws and the weaknesses of yourself or anything, nobody's ever going to believe you.” -- Brad Keselowski
The auto racing industry is driven by the corporate dollar and, therefore, its poster boys are subject to massive scrutiny by their respective financial backers.
Keselowski's sponsor, Miller Lite, loves his edgy attitude.
"What drew us to Brad was his uncompromising desire to win every time he gets behind the wheel of a race car, combined with an engaging off-track personality that already is making him very popular with our employees, distributors, retailers and consumers," said Jackie Woodward, MillerCoors vice president of marketing services.
NASCAR pays close attention, too. In the past, it has reprimanded drivers, Stewart included, for making disparaging comments. It fined Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman in 2010 for speaking ill of the sport. Keselowski has ongoing dialogue with the sport's officials to ensure he doesn't go too far.
"They make sure I know that I'm right on the edge of what they feel is appropriate -- which, by the way, I think, is the way it should be," Keselowski said. "Their big thing is, if you don't like what happens you don't have to bad-mouth the sport. It's like walking out of a restaurant and saying this is the worst food I've ever had, I'm never coming back. It just sends a bad message, and I agree 100 percent with them.
"But I have this belief -- and I explained this to NASCAR -- that when I walk out of the restaurant, I'll tell somebody, 'Hey, man, I like the steak. I like the chicken. I'm going to come back here two or three times a week and eat. But the salmon was terrible. I'm never eating that again.' And it's because I'll get up and say that the salmon was terrible that what I say about the chicken and the steak being good has credibility.
"That's how I do things. That's how you have credibility. Without being able to admit your flaws and the weaknesses of yourself or anything, nobody's ever going to believe you. Life is not roses. There might be a couple of blooms on one side, but you'll have weeds on the other end. It's just part of the deal. To deny that there are any weeds sacrifices your credibility."
That approach, he said, is the reason his fans are his fans. Every day, he said, fans implore him not to change.
"I think fans like it when somebody will not sacrifice their own beliefs, when they'll be vocal when it's easy to be quiet, because they know that's how that person really feels," Keselowski said. "It's easy to be vanilla. Vanilla is easy."
He said team owner Roger Penske appreciates his passion, even if it's harder to deal with. Keselowski admittedly has regrets, and knows there are things he should have handled differently. But at the same time, he feels those mistakes came from the same place that fuels his drive to succeed.
"If I was to turn my back against the things I did that, in hindsight, were a mistake, I'd have to turn my back on the same core, same mottos that made me successful," he said. "And for that, I can't knowingly say I regret anything I've done."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.