Brad Keselowski has followed up his Sprint Cup title-winning season with four top-five finishes to start the season. But what impresses me about the 29-year-old driver, who also won the lower circuit Nationwide title in 2010, is his business savvy. He is one of the few athletes who provides something useful on Twitter and knows how to talk the business of NASCAR in simple terms, something that's needed as the sport tries to attract the more casual fans who seem to have stepped away in recent years.
I sat down with Keselowski to go inside his business, including his new Miller Lite ad.
Darren Rovell: You seem very comfortable behind the wheel this year. Has anything significantly changed?
Brad Keselowski: Well, I went from Dodge to Ford.
Rovell: What does that really mean though? You changed stickers on the car?
Keselowski: No. There's a big culture change. Our sport is about people, and when I changed manufacturers, we were greeted with a different approach from Ford. Dodge had us speaking to racing people when we needed something. Ford has a top-down approach. Whether things are going well or badly, it's not strange to get a call from the Ford CEO. In fact, (Ford president and CEO) Alan Mulally recently sat in on one of our meetings. It's not to say that Dodge's approach was bad. It has its strengths and weaknesses. With Ford, I won't know as much about the process of how something gets done like I did with Dodge, but I do know that it will get done because if I need something, I know the top-level people are going to do what it takes to build what I need. There's no politics involved.
Rovell: A big deal has been made about this Gen 6 car and the idea that it's closer to the car that a consumer would drive. But it still doesn't have air conditioning, a radio or a passenger seat. Is it really much closer?
Keselowski: Well, the main difference is it does have the fender flare around the rear tires, and so it is a step closer. What the car companies are hoping to do is to take the Gen 6 car that wins at the racetrack and make it cooler to buy for the consumer. As my team owner Roger Penske, who as you know has his own dealerships, knows, you have to get people into the showroom in order for them to consider your brand. Now if you go there and you want to check out the Ford Fusion, because that's what I drive, and you find out you like the Edge better; that's OK, too.
Rovell: You've really done an excellent job on Twitter. It's not all about followers, but the fact that you're about 10,000 followers behind Jimmie Johnson, coming up on 400,000 followers speaks volumes about how hard you've worked at it. We all know your big coming-out party was last year's Daytona 500 when you tweeted from your car, but leading up to that moment, what were your thoughts about social media?
Keselowski: I didn't tweet, but I followed some people in 2009 and 2010. But I wasn't following the right people because I, too, was wondering why I wanted to know what people were eating for breakfast. But I soon gave it a shot, followed the right people and got what it was all about.
Rovell: You actually follow very few people, 85 to be exact. I'm honored that I'm one of them. How do you evaluate whom you follow?
Keselowski: I look at the list from the bottom often and determine who hasn't been active or hasn't said something worthwhile, and I'll eliminate them and usually add someone else.
Rovell: As your following has increased, obviously your sponsors and prospective sponsors want to tap into your social media brand. What will you do and what won't you do?
Keselowski: I will only do something for financial gain if it generates revenues toward my fundraising goals. I recently did something with Waste Management because they were giving military veterans great salaries and I do a lot with veterans and they gave a donation to my foundation, so I tweeted about it. I'm adamant that you can't buy me. I'm not trying to make money off Twitter. I'm trying to be genuine. So yeah, I'll tweet about a commercial I'm in for Discount Tire (his Nationwide sponsor) or Miller Lite (his Sprint Cup sponsor), but I'm doing it because I'm in it. If I tweet about the new Ford Mustang, I'm not tweeting about it because Ford told me to. I'm tweeting about it because it's really badass.
Rovell: Would you tweet a 25 percent off coupon if Discount Tire asked you to?
Rovell: How about companies that have come to you and offered money to tweet about them?
Keselowski: I had a couple supplement companies come to my race team and ask if I would tweet out that I used their supplement with my workouts. And it was a significant amount of money, and I just had to tell them no. Team Penske supports me on this. They know that if I sell out my Twitter feed, we all lose.
Rovell: Has your tweeting led to more drivers thinking about engaging with social media?
Keselowski: I think I've provided some legitimacy, but social media is very dangerous, too. And there are some drivers, who I will not name because they will get mad at me, who make a good living off their brand, and the risk of being on social media is not worth the reward. When I started, I had almost all reward and very little risk.
Rovell: Let's take a look at your new ad for Miller Lite.
I like this ad for a couple reasons. First of all, it's a responsibility campaign, but it gets you to laugh, so you're likely to pay attention. Secondly, this is genuine in that although you are the reigning Sprint Cup champ, not a lot of waitresses in bars would recognize you by face.
Keselowski: Yeah, we definitely suffer from helmet disorder in our sport. But I'm thrilled to be part of something like this. Responsibility is a message we all have to deliver and I'm happy that Miller Lite is letting me be part of that campaign.