Race Weekend Central

Professor Of Speed: Smitten With The Mitten

As a Michigander (albeit a 1995 transplant from Pennsylvania by way of Ohio), I watched with great pride as Brad Keselowski won the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup championship at Homestead. His success – the first Cup title for a Michigan native – saved what has been a lackluster year for professional sports in our state.

Brad Keselowski’s NASCAR championship, as a Michigan native has brought great pride to a state in the midst of a “sports depression.”

The Detroit Lions are having yet another sluggish season. It’s become a holiday tradition to watch our NFL franchise suffer Thanksgiving losses (my students on Monday swapped stories about how watching the Lions tended to ruin otherwise pleasant family gatherings). It’s difficult to celebrate our nation’s abundance when victories are in such short supply.

The same can be said for the Detroit Tigers. Even if you weren’t a baseball fan, you couldn’t help but be sucker punched by the “reverse sweep” the team suffered during the postseason. To eliminate the New York Yankees in four games, only to be eliminated by the San Francisco Giants in another four games, caused folks to question (doubt?) the existence of momentum. That’s a precious commodity in the universe of sports, as Tigers fans discovered this fall.

Need another example? How about the insane shift in momentum for the Traverse City Beach Bums, our region’s Frontier League professional baseball team. After achieving the best record in the entire league, securing homefield advantage for the first round of the playoffs, the Beach Bums lost the next three games and were swept away like yesterday’s dreams.

So here comes basketball season, the sport that helps to ease the dark and cold of winter. Alas, here, too, comes the Detroit Pistons. At the time of my writing this sentence, our state’s famed NBA team sits with a record of 4-11 (an improvement on their miserable 0-7 start). As a native of the Keystone State, it was tough to watch the Pistons win their first game of the new season against Philadelphia, but was it that much of a surprise (one of the Lions’ few victories thus far came against the Eagles)?

How bad are things on the Motor City’s hardwoods? This month marks the eighth anniversary of the “Malice at the Palace”, the infamous brawl that erupted between the Pistons and the visiting Indiana Pacers. There’s nothing like an embarrassing legacy to grab newspaper headlines.

At least there’s basketball news that’s _worthy_ enough to make headlines. Consider the Detroit Red Wings, easily the Wolverine State’s most successful professional sports franchise; with the ongoing labor strife that’s currently consuming the NHL season, the Wings may have to hang up their skates until next year. That’s a long time to wait for another, oh-so-hoped-for national championship.

Not if you’re Brad Keselowski.

Keselowski’s championship Sprint Cup season as driver of Penske Racing’s No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge was a shot in the arm sorely needed by NASCAR Nation. Most people around the sport couldn’t figure out why Roger Penske had never snagged a top-tier NASCAR title after forty years of competition, despite a Hall of Fame list of accomplishments. Even all of “The Captain’s” wins in open-wheel racing, including the most Indy 500 trophies in the history of the famous race couldn’t get him a seat at stock car’s head table in Las Vegas.

Until this year.

Penske’s latest Sprint Cup success was the result of a young guy from Rochester Hills who grew up in a racing family that skimped, saved, struggled, and sacrificed to build cars and win trophies. I first heard of Brad Keselowski through the racing exploits of his father (Bob) and his uncle (Ron). The family’s reputation in ARCA competition was nothing short of legendary, and Brad’s impact on NASCAR is starting to follow a similar – if not somewhat unusual – path.

Brad Keselowski’s Tweeting, especially over the past year has been credited for causing a number of new fans in the 18-to-34 age bracket to pay attention to the sport.

For all of his Cup victories and consistent finishes this season, Brad Keselowski is probably even better known for his near-constant use of social media, most notably Twitter and its 140-character window to the world. His tweets while parked during the red flag in the Daytona 500 put the Michigan driver and his penchant for social networking on sports pages and web sites all across the country.

One can’t help but think that it was the attention Keselowski received for using Twitter at Daytona that led NASCAR to implement its social media initiative so quickly during the summer of 2012. Few race car drivers (or any professional athletes, for that matter) have capitalized so much on the popularity of Smartphone usage, especially as it pertains to younger consumers.

NASCAR needs to attract a more youthful audience, and having Brad Keselowski as a Twitter-using, beer-drinking, outspoken champion might just do the trick.

Brad Keselowski is not the first NASCAR champion from Michigan. That honor goes to Johnny Benson, Jr. (who first claimed the Nationwide Series title in 1995). Jack Sprague is currently the Michigander with the most NASCAR championships to his credit, having won Camping World Truck Series titles in 1997, 1999, and 2001. Brad Keselowski already has a Nationwide Series championship on his resume, too. His 2012 Sprint Cup championship makes him the second driver (Bobby Labonte is the other) to ever win both a Cup AND a Nationwide title. That’s no small feat for the 28-year old Michigander who snagged his first Cup championship after only 125 starts in the premier series.

Michigan has been home to many talented race car drivers over the last century. One of the first greats to hail from “the mitten” was Imlay City’s Bob Burman, a contemporary of racing pioneer Barney Oldfield during the sport’s infancy. It was Burman (from “the thumb” of the Michigan “mitten”) who shattered Oldfield’s world land speed record in 1911; Burman drove the very same 200-horsepower “Blitzen Benz” that Oldfield raced a year earlier and broke Barney’s existing record by more than ten miles per hour.

After Bob Burman died during an event in Corona, California in 1916, Oldfield set out to construct a “safer” race car with an enclosed cockpit and a protective, self-cleaning windscreen. Oldfield’s basic design for the “Golden Submarine” evolved into the race cars driven by Brad Keselowski and his NASCAR brethren in 2012 – thanks, in large part, to the lessons learned from Bob Burman’s fatal wreck.

And Burman was not the only Michigan native to lose his life in a race car. Both Ricky Knotts and Scott Brayton died in nationally-publicized racing accidents – Knotts was killed at Daytona during a Twin 125 qualifying race in 1980, while Brayton died during practice after winning the pole for the Indianapolis 500 in 1996.

Other Michigan drivers to race at Indy include Gordon Johncock, Howdy Holmes, and Bryan Herta, along with Scott Brayton’s father, Lee. The list of Michigan racers to compete at Daytona is even longer, including such names as John Anderson, Tim Fedewa, Tim Steele, Butch Miller, Phil Parsons, and Brad Keselowski’s older brother, Brian. When you think big-time drag racing, consider the influence of Connie, Doug, and Scott Kalitta.

To compile a complete list of Michigan race car drivers/families would amount to a task of Herculean effort; it’s enough to say that the Wolverine State has made an indelible mark on American motorsports.

So maybe it’s appropriate that Brad Keselowski is now the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. It’s not as though Michigan isn’t revered for other nationally-significant accomplishments. As I’ve written here before, Michigan is home of America’s best ice cream (“Cherries Moobilee” from Moomer’s in Traverse City). The state is also home to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, named “the most beautiful place in America”. Both titles were awarded by the loyal (and internet-connected) audience of ABC’s “Good Morning America”, so question their validity, if you must…

All I know, as a Michigan resident, is that Brad Keselowski’s 2012 Sprint Cup title is a much-needed gift to the success-starved sports fans of “the mitten”. We’re all-too-familiar with three things around this part of the country: hard winters and the crashing-and-burning of professional competition (and that was way before the jet-dryer incident at Daytona last February). Keselowski’s championship gives all of us sports-weary Michiganders proof that waiting until next year is worth the effort.

For those who are “smitten with the mitten”, Brad Keselowski’s NASCAR Sprint Cup title is the best thing since “Cherries Moobilee”. If only the folks at Dodge (located less than ten miles from Rochester Hills, by the way) felt the same way….

*Connect with Mark!*
“Contact Mark Howell”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/37270/

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