BRISTOL, Va — At a media luncheon on Tuesday to promote next month’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Brad Keselowski sat with a group of soldiers from the Tennessee Army National Guard.
Those times of fellowship and the relationships which Keselowski has built with military personnel and veterans through his Checkered Flag Foundation keep things in perspective for the reigning NASCAR champion.
“I drive a car in circles,” said Keselowski, also the defending Food City 500 champion. “I feel a little selfish in a sense because I feel I get more out of those events than some of those guys do. They are special events which put into perspective what we do and how trivial it can be sometimes compared to what else is going on in the world and the sacrifices that are made abroad. Seeing some of those guys and being able to help them out and showing them a good time that maybe they haven’t seen in a while is a privilege.”
The past two years, Bristol Motor Speedway has provided Keselowski the venue to take local soldiers and veterans on rides around the famed half-mile track.
For the soldiers, it’s often the thrill of a lifetime to ride around with the driver who has won two of the last three Sprint Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway.
For Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Ford, it allows him to step out of the community of racers in the Sprint Cup Series, and to greater understand who he calls the real American heroes.
Sitting around the table with members of the 278th Company out of Mount Carmel and the 253rd Military Police out of Bristol, the down-to-earth Keselowski could be seen genuinely having a good time, laughing and swapping stories.
“The ability to gain perspective on where you’re at is so important,” Keselowski said. “As a race car driver, you live in a bubble, especially when you’re at the elite level with the Sprint Cup Series. It helps you get out of that bubble. When you get outside that bubble, it’s like being a firefighter. When you’re stuck inside, you’re just working so hard to put all the fires out. When you get outside the fire, you realize you were spraying the wrong area and if you were spraying over here, the fire would have gone out on its own.
“It’s why I get so much out of the foundation. I almost feel guilty that I get more out of it than anyone else. But, I enjoy the cause and what it stands for. To be able to give back is so important.”
However, Keselowski isn’t always in the giving mood at Bristol.
At the high-banked short track, it’s often the driver with an aggressive attitude who comes out on top. Looking back at the history of the track and guys with take-no-prisoners attitudes like Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace rank among Bristol’s all-time best, each with nine wins.
It’s one reason why Keselowski, who celebrated his 29th birthday on Tuesday, gets so pumped up about racing there.
“To me, I circle it on the calendar because I like what it stands for,” Keselowski said. “I put a little extra emphasis on it. Bristol stands for a lot of the core things which I believe in. Bristol is the in your face, high intensity track. You make one mistake and you’re done. I love that about it. I love the challenge that it represents mentally and physically. I like how it represents the sport. Because of that, I have a lot of respect for this track. That respect manifests itself in the preparation we have coming here.”
Still young in his Sprint Cup career, Keselowski has nine wins in 125 starts. Five of those wins came last season when he rallied past five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to capture the 2012 championship.
Although he said it’s given him a few more reasons to smile, Keselowski is far from being satisfied. He doesn’t want his career defined as a two-time Bristol winner or even a Sprint Cup champion.
The goal is to rise among the sport’s all-time greats, although he knows a lot of work has to be done to get there.
“You look at the Hall of Fame ceremony and I got to help induct Rusty Wallace,” Keselowski said. “You look at how many races Rusty won here. If you want to do something really special in the sport, you want to win more than two races here and one championship,” he said. “We certainly have that goal and willing to work towards it.”