Brad Keselowski's 'lowest low' shaped his outlook on adversity, pressure

Jerry Markland

Chase pressure is nothing compared to the stress Brad Keselowski faced when his family race team went bankrupt – with him as the driver.

In the face of mounting pressure during NASCAR's Chase, Brad Keselowski has continued to play it cool.

He is questioned weekly about the stress level and how much he frets over the enormity of the task he faces: Beating five-time champion Jimmie Johnson for his first Sprint Cup Series crown.

Is he losing sleep over it? Does he think about it when he wakes up? Will he choke his chances away like others have in the past?

Keselowski laughs off those questions as if he's been through this all before.

He hasn't, but he's been through worse.

The calm, rational 28-year-old enters this weekend's Phoenix race trailing Johnson by just seven points. He remains a realistic championship contender despite expectations he would have faded by now.

Though he's been able to roll with the punches from a young age, Keselowski's life has been shaped by failures. Those painful setbacks, he said, are far tougher than the stress of any title fight, no matter how close it may be.

What he's been through on the way to the top has "created a level of mental strength that makes this seem like nothing to fight," he said.

Keselowski has endured plenty of hard times, but none worse than the failure of his family's race team in 2006. Then 22, Keselowski took it personally because he was the team's driver when it folded.

"Watching them have to sell all of their assets and not even be able to get to the racetrack, that is as low as it gets right there," he said. "To think I was a part of bankrupting my family to try to pursue your own dream is a moment where you feel so selfish and incredibly low as a human being that you just don't even know how you're ever going to recover from that."

Racing was the family business

K Automotive Motorsports was founded by John Keselowski – Brad's grandfather – in the late 1960s and was revived by sons Ron (Brad's uncle) and Bob (Brad's dad) in the mid-90s. The race team was the family business, and Ron and Bob both raced Late Models, ARCA and NASCAR.

The team operated out of a tiny race shop near Detroit and barely managed to break even – if that. Racing on a shoestring budget was hard enough, but even the payoffs for winning lower-tier series races weren't enough to make anyone comfortable.

In the shop, a box was filled with overdue bills and shutoff notices. The family's children – three daughters and their two much-younger brothers (Brad and older brother Brian, whom everyone referred to jointly as "the boys") ate reduced lunches and huddled around kerosene heaters in the winter because the thermostat was kept at a low level to save money.

Their mother, Kay, eventually decided to leave her job as a secretary and join her husband in order to try and make the team a more successful business. It worked.

K Automotive won eight races from 1999-2002 and finished in the top 10 of the Truck Series points for five straight years. But in 2003, Bob Keselowski suffered a major heart attack while working on the truck at the proving grounds outside Detroit.

Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was administered by a friend on the scene, which gave paramedics enough time to get him to the hospital. Keselowski clung to life for several days before pulling through. Although he recovered, his health left him unable to devote as much energy to the team.

At the end of that season, driver Terry Cook left K Automotive and took sponsor Power Stroke Diesel with him. Suddenly, the team's finances and stability had taken a tremendous hit.

Sponsorship became a struggle. The Keselowskis were racers, not marketers. Schmoozing sponsors at dinners didn't come naturally, and they had difficulty navigating the politics of recruiting potential new backers.

Ultimately, without a big-money sponsor, the decision was made to put 21-year-old Brad into the Truck as a full-time driver in 2005.

Without the finances or resources of the larger teams, the inexperienced Keselowski was thrown to the wolves. He scored just one top-10 finish in the 25-race season and finished 21st in points – not terrible considering the team's limited resources and conservative approach, but not enough to attract much attention.

At the same time, a web site which had agreed to sponsor the team reneged on the deal. Though there was no contract in place, K Automotive had been operating under the assumption the sponsorship would come through – and even put the company's name on its truck.

The Keselowskis' good faith (and perhaps naivete) came back to bite them. The web site essentially got exposure on the truck for free, then backed out and left K Automotive with nothing.

Four races into the 2006 season, the team ran out of money. Without sponsorship, there was no way to continue. Suddenly, an entire family was essentially put on the unemployment line all at once, and it happened to occur when Brad was the driver.

"I would imagine that was probably his lowest low," said Dawn Nicholas, one of Brad's older sisters. "I remember my mom even feeling like that, like, 'Life is over. What am I going to do?' Everything you knew and had was gone. Now what?"

Brad privately shouldered much of the blame, feeling as if he'd let his family down. Never mind the sponsor's broken promises or that he was driving for a short-handed team; he was the one in the seat at the time.

But his admission to reporters this week about feeling responsible surprised Nicholas, who is nine years older and said the idea Brad was to blame "couldn't be further from the truth."

"You can't take a rookie kid and put him in the truck and expect him to light the world on fire with equipment that's not that great and no money," she said. "It just doesn't work like that."

Nicholas paused.

"When you're younger, sometimes you take blame for things that aren't necessarily your fault," she added.

The next step

If anything, the demise of the family team served as a wake-up call for Brad. He began traveling weekly to races – Nicholas has no idea how he afforded it, since he didn't even have his own car – and talking to people in the garage.

Keselowski's interactions weren't just limited to begging team owners for a ride. He'd spot for other drivers and chat up NASCAR officials, just to make sure everyone knew who he was.

The approach paid off. He eventually got a break and caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who owned a Nationwide Series team. Once Keselowski got into JR Motorsports' No. 88 car, his career has been on an upward trajectory to the upper reaches of the Sprint Cup Series.

These days, fans see Keselowski as the brash, outspoken alternative to the clean-cut, corporate Johnson – but few know about his background before he burst into the national spotlight.

Nicholas has come across online postings from people who cite her brother as an example of a silver-spoon driver whose privileged upbringing paved the way for his career.

She can't help but laugh. In reality, Keselowski's path to major-league championship contention was a hardscrabble journey with more failings along the way than successes.

All of that has shaped Keselowski and how he deals with adversity – both now and in the future.

"If we're in position to win the championship, I'm going to show up at that racetrack mentally prepared," Keselowski said. "Because I've been through moments that were far more stressful than that and far more challenging for me personally. And it's because of those moments that I'm prepared for this opportunity now."

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