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For NASCAR’s Keselowski, leadership stems from life lessons

POSTED: May 27, 2011 9:53 a.m.

For Brad Keselowski, learning to lead on the race track was easy: step on the gas and turn the wheel. Learning to lead off the track?
That’s been the most important skill for the 2010 Nationwide Series champion to master.
“One of the hardest things for me to learn was how to be a leader,” Keselowski said. “That’s something I think I entered in a very timid fashion because I didn’t have a real feel for it. As a driver, it’s important to be a leader.
“You’re the spokesman for your team, and that was hard for me to really pick up on. So that was one of the first things I learned when I got a competitive ride.”
One of the major difficulties for the native of Rochester Hills, Mich., was transferring the skills he honed by being the central figure in his family-owned team to finding himself as just one piece of a larger operation once he advanced to the Nationwide Series late in 2006.
“The biggest lesson I learned was how to work with your team,” Keselowski said. “I came from a different (background) than probably a lot of other drivers have. I never really had a team around me. I had volunteers. I had scenarios like that where I didn’t have a consistent crew.”
There are two ways to lead, and Keselowski admits he’s better at non-verbal communication than he is at giving pep talks.
“I’m much better leading by example than I am leading by words,” Keselowski said. “I can’t sit down and give a Braveheart speech or a Joe Gibbs speech. That’s just who I am.”
And yet, Keselowski understands how to get through to younger drivers such as Parker Kligerman because he’s been down the same road. After Kligerman crashed Keselowski’s truck at Dover — spoiling what could have been a top-five finish — Keselowski had a heart-to-heart talk with his protege.
“This was maybe his fourth or fifth incident of the year and we’re what, six, seven races into the Truck season,” Keselowski said. “I have some help from Penske (Racing), but it’s limited. (So I said,) ‘What you need to understand is you’re part of building a team. And in order to build a team, we have to come back and bring home trucks every week.’
“I don’t have 30 of them. This isn’t Cup or Nationwide. We have to make them better every week. We have to work on them. We have to have that time, and with that, we’ll build resources and get better.”
Driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Nationwide team, Keselowski won six races during a two-year period. Then last year, he scored six more victories and an amazing 29 top-10 finishes in 35 starts for Roger Penske, meshing with crew chief Paul Wolfe, a pairing that has continued in Cup this season.
Looking back, Keselowski sees where 2010 was a confirmation of a lot of life lessons.
“You’re always trying to keep your eyes open, trying to understand things,” he said. “And sometimes you look around and you have hunches about things but you’re not really sure. For me, it was just re-learning the importance of chemistry and what that means and the results that can come when you have good chemistry.”
Given the chance to go back in time and make any changes to his career, Keselowski would prefer to remain in the present, with an eye on the future.
“I’ve said a couple of times to myself, ‘If I could do it all over again, could I do it better?’ And the answer is no,” Keselowski said. “I’m glad as hell I don’t have to do it all over again. Because there are several things that come up. What it takes to succeed at that time is so much different than what it takes to succeed right now. And yes, I learned and I know what I did right to make it to here.”
At age 27 and in his sixth full Nationwide Series season, Keselowski knows change is inevitable.
“I will imagine it will continue down the path it has this year,” he said. “I think it will go through a heavy rotation of drivers. I think you’ll look at the series five years from now and see less than a dozen of the same drivers in this series.”
For Keselowski, being more consistent behind the wheel and providing more leadership when he’s not on the track are the two things he’s working most to achieve in the near-term.
“As far as being in the race car, physically driving it, I think there’s a constant balance of knowing your limits that some people have more defined than I do,” Keselowski said. “Not to say that I’m bad at it, but I could be better.
“I need to continue to build on being a leader and understand what that means. That’s something that will come easier as you have success. At every level, you have to have success before you can become a leader. But when you have some success, you have to capitalize on it and use that to strengthen your leadership status. And that’s not something I’ve done very well.”
When it comes to running in Nationwide, Brad Keselowski is more than appreciative of the lessons learned.
“I was fortunate to use it as a stepping stone to get to the Cup level,” Keselowski said. “At the same time, I’ve been able to make somewhat of a career out of it and win a championship. That’s pretty much all you can ask for.”

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