DAYTONA BEACH, Florida – Frank Kelleher, the new president for NASCAR at Daytona International Speedway, grew up around racetracks – working at them, racing (and winning) at them and occasionally sneaking into them.
As a preteen who turned wrenches on his family’s race teams at dirt tracks around the Pocono, Kelleher was too young to enter the pits.
“So they’d pull the truck over on the side of the road, and I’d get in the trailer and just hang onto a radius rod on the wall,” Kelleher told NBC Sports with a laugh.
It was an inauspicious start in racing that already was expansive before he took the job four months ago to become the ninth man to run the World Center of Racing.
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The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native is a two-time national karting champion who put his driving career on hold to take a marketing job 18 years ago at International Speedway Corp. Kelleher rose through the ranks to help eventually broker the company’s merger with NASCAR, and he led a 47-person staff as a senior vice president and chief sales officer generating sponsor revenue for NASCAR and all of its tracks.
Though he had aspirations of becoming a track president, his recent promotion has been as emotional and unexpected as sitting in a backstretch suite watching the cars roll of Turn 2 at his first Daytona 500 in 2003.
“It was that surreal feeling of ‘I don’t belong here,’ ” Kelleher said. “I belong at the garage turning wrenches and at the dirt track. How the hell did I end up getting paid to be at Daytona?” It just didn’t compute with me, and I still carry that grit with me of I’ve got to wake up every day and earn it.”
During his early rise up NASCAR’s corporate ladder, he often avoided noting his grassroots beginnings.
“I just had that blue-collar chip on my shoulder of I’m going to have to work harder than everyone,” he said. “I wasn’t embarrassed of my roots or my history, but I was just young, immature and worried if I lead with this story of, ‘Hey, I’m managing your millions of dollars of business, and I grew up pumping gas and changing tires,’ I was worried it would get lost in translation, so I kind of tucked that down and really just focused on the clients’ business and on the industry and religiously read everything I could get my fingers on about sports to just grow with a new vocabulary.
“But then as I matured and got a little bit older and confident and started sharing here’s how I grew up and got involved in the sport, I started to see it actually carried a ton of value and weight to where I think now being the president of Daytona International Speedway, I feel like it’s the perfect storm to authentically be me and to own I grew up a blue-collar kid. I’ve towed cars off the side of the highway. I’ve plowed snow. I’ve changed tires. I’ve worked multiple jobs. I’ve been in the stands of the Indy 500. I’ve been to the hospital after getting ribs broken racing go-karts.
“I feel like whether I’m talking to a fan or Corporate America, authentically being me is a really good fit for this moment in time.”
Some nuggets about the rise of Kelleher, who also oversees Talladega Superspeedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway as the president of NASCAR Southeast Properties:
–Aside from racing, his first job was at Kelleher Tire in Scranton. The racing fuel and tire supplier was founded by his grandfather in 1927 and still owned by his father and uncles. “I remember one time when I messed up at work one day, my Uncle took me outside and we looked at the sign on the building. He said if you don’t treat people right, they will go through the whole valley and say Kelleher Tire took advantage of us. I learned from that and haven’t changed. Treat people right and do what you say you are going to do.”
–Kelleher began racing at 16 for Barry Greenzweig, “the godfather of go-kart racing in the Northeast,” out of a shop in the Poconos. Kelleher would make a daily hourlong commute “to be in the grease” by tearing down engines, mounting tires and scaling go-karts. He also fell in love with road course racing because of “the speed and sensation. You can outdrive someone by being better in certain corners.”
–Providing tips to fellow racer Bill Darcy helped him get his first internship at ISC (as Darcy was starting its partnership marketing department). “He said, ‘I know you want to drive, but there’s a lot of people who want to race. If you can’t make it, perhaps there’s still a job in sports for you.”
–After relocating in a “beat-up Suburban” from Scranton to Daytona Beach, Kelleher started his internship in an extended stay hotel before being offered a place to live by ISC salesman Gary Usina. “That opened the door to meet even more people in NASCAR and ISC,” said Kelleher, a graduated of Marywood University who now is on the school’s board of directors. “I was anointed by Gary that if I was hanging with him, it was all right. I started getting more projects and invited to more things. Our CMO was Paul Phipps, and he hadn’t said two words to me my whole internship. I was so intimidated by him. He took the crew to lunch and stood up and gave a speech about me. Whenever I wanted a job, he’d have one for me.”
–After returning from a ski trip to Utah with his wife and two young children, Kelleher was caught off guard when he was told of the Daytona track president job by NASCAR chief revenue officer Daryl Wofle. He then had one-one-on meetings with Lesa France Kennedy, Jim France, Mike Helton and Steve Phelps.
“Good things come at you when you least expect it,” Kelleher said. “It’s not like you ever are going to be fully ready or the stars are going to align,” Kelleher said. “I’m just surrounded by so many great people from the France family, to Mike Helton to Chip (Wile, whom he succeeded at Daytona). There’s so many people on the operational side like Andrew Gurtis who embraced me like family. It’s exciting being around them every day talking about the World Center of Racing.
“There are a lot of strategic minds in this building thinking generation to generation and making sure that the business is going to thrive. There are many closed-door conversations about moving people around to cross-pollinate. I was aware of all that going on, I just was not aware of exactly what they felt my next move was.”
–Though Kelleher is out of competitive racing, he finished second of 45 drivers in 2012 on Daytona’s Rolex 24 road course that is used by the World Karting Association for a prestigious annual event in December.
“Forever one of my best memories,” he said.
Kelleher still races casually in a go-kart league with NASCAR employees and executives (including Ben Kennedy, Wile and Wolfe).