Stock-car driver Brad Keselowski has climbed to his sport’s challenging peaks, cranking out top-place finishes and wins for Team Penske. He has won races in each of NASCAR’s three national series and, last July, he came out on top in the Coke Zero 400—his first victory at Daytona International Speedway, as well as the Penske team’s 100th cup win. Now in his sixth season with that team, he has also launched his own truck-racing team, Brad Keselowski Racing.
Keselowski, who began his NASCAR career in 2004 at age 20, was born into a racing family. His father Bob raced trucks in the Camping World Truck Series and his uncle Ron drove in NASCAR Cup Series races in the 1970s. From an early age, Keselowski came to understand a fundamental truth of car racing: besides driving at the track, you may have to spend a lot of time on the road getting from one event to another.
These days, however, more and more racers avoid that grind by employing business aviation, and Keselowski is no exception. Five years ago, he bought a Bombardier Learjet 45 that he bases in Statesville, North Carolina, near where he now lives with his girlfriend and baby daughter. The aircraft gets a thorough workout flying Keselowski, his family, and his colleagues all over the U.S. during the 36-weekend racing season each year.
When we met with him recently at his hangar at Statesville Regional Airport, we began by talking about the days before he started flying privately—and about how those days affected the way he flies now.
You traveled a lot by car to your father’s races and to your own before you started flying privately.
That was an interesting experience. You start to realize how much valuable time you lose on the road, personally and professionally.
I understand your introduction to aviation was not such a great experience.
I was nine in 1993, a dark year in motorsports. For whatever reason, a lot of people were dying that year. Specific to aviation, there were two terrible incidents. The first was Alan Kulwicki, who had won the [NASCAR Winston Cup] championship the year before. He was flying from an event for his sponsor at the time, and his plane crashed, killing him and the executive team that was with him.
That rocked me a little bit because here’s a self-made man who had done everything right. He just had the poor fortune of getting on a corporate airplane where the pilots made errors that caused it to crash.
The second incident happened a few months later. Another very successful driver, Davey Allison, was flying his helicopter to a racetrack, and he crashed and perished.
How did those tragedies affect you?
They had a profound effect on how I viewed aviation. One lesson that I took was that I should own my own plane and have direct contact with my pilots. It’s important to have knowledge about what I’m flying, maintenance schedules, the people.
I also decided to not be a pilot myself. I am focused on being the best race-car driver I can be, and I didn’t want to distract from that. And focusing on being the best race-car driver I can be means I can’t be the best pilot.
When did you first fly privately?
I had just gotten my first job here in North Carolina, and I got an invite from Dale [Earnhardt] Jr., who I was driving for at the time, to fly with him to a race.
Did you contrast it with the airlines?
The first thing I noticed was you don’t lose two hours in security and checking in. We got right on the airplane and left. The second was the level of privacy, which because we were going directly to the racetrack later that day, helped us to stay focused. You have a chance to really get your mind prepared for the day. And once we landed, literally a mile from the track, our travel time was dramatically reduced.
What’s a typical trip for you during the racing season?
Most of our flights are right at two hours or slightly under. We’ll travel to a racetrack, depending on the schedule of events, on Thursday midday or first thing Friday morning. Then we’ll return immediately after the race. Usually we’ll have a midweek event that’s out of town about once or twice a month, so for example, we’ll fly to a sponsor’s headquarters on a Tuesday and return that day. Or we’ll travel to a media event.
What led you to buy the Learjet 45?
I was leasing a Lear 31A, which was a great airplane. I really liked it. But I wanted to own. The right opportunity came up with this airplane, specific to pricing, hours, et cetera. And we looked at it and I liked it immediately. There’s nothing about it that’s extraordinary; it’s just very well rounded and it has great performance in every category.
How many hours per year do you fly?
Somewhere between 200 to 300.
I understand you added Gogo Business Aviation’s air-to-ground system.
I wanted the ability to use Wi-Fi on the airplane, because I felt I wasn’t getting enough work done while I was traveling. I do a lot of reading. I love to study. It can be business or personal growth. And I do most of my reading in digital format. Of course there’s a lot of communications, too—email and text messaging. Occasional social-media bursts.
What do you read for personal growth?
Science is great because a lot of the time it has practical application to what I do. Health is important to what I am and what I do. I have to be in great shape. That’s why we have our own chef.
Is a regular exercise routine important for racing?
It’s one of the key reasons why aviation is so important to me. You’re never going to get the same quality of workouts on the road as you are at home.
Having private aviation also gives me more time to spend with my family at home, which is significant in work-to-life balance. There’s always more work to do than there is time, and you have to find a balance. You have to have the ability to be your own person, to be with your family, to convert more time into practical use, and that’s what aviation does for us.
Shortly after your daughter was born, she needed to go to the Mayo Clinic for emergency surgery. Was that another way that private aviation helped your family?
It’s one of those hidden perks. I never thought that I would use it for emergency transportation to a hospital, but it was one of those days where you were glad to have it.
When did you decide to become a race-car driver?
I don’t ever remember not wanting to be one.
How do you prevent cars bumping during a race from turning into a crash?
It’s really where driver skill comes in—being able to take minor contact and still avoid a major incident.
You’ve had some serious accidents. Do you have fear about that, similar to how you felt about flying?
No, it’s something I overcame. It doesn’t bother me anymore.
And NASCAR has done a lot to reduce the risk?
Absolutely. I’m OK with an accident when I’m in control.
But when you’re flying, you’re not in control.
To some extent. I’m in control of the airplane I’m flying in. I’m in control of who the pilots are.
So you feel more comfortable in your own airplane compared with flying on the airlines?
Flying commercial, I’d feel a lot less comfortable. I don’t know the airplane. I don’t know the pilots. I read a lot of NTSB reports. I’ve always been fascinated by the chain of events that it takes to cause an accident, and I think that there’s a lot of lessons learned from those events that can be applied to motorsports.
Another advantage of having an airplane is family travel, I assume. Especially traveling with a one-year-old, private aviation is much different from commercial aviation. When she gets fussy, you’re not looking over your shoulder and feeling guilty. And you can travel with the dog, and some of the best quality time with my family is on the airplane. It’s one of the few forums where you can avoid all the other distractions.
Tell me about your truck-racing team.
It is a lot of work. I’m a big believer in paying things back and paying things forward. And I was provided some incredible opportunities in my career very early on, so the truck team is my response to that. It’s not a great business venture; it is an important personal venture for me.
In terms of supporting the people that work there?
It’s helping people grow, helping support other people’s lives, giving back to the sport that I love and have been so fortunate to be part of. Of course I love the competition aspect. That drives a lot of what we do.
What about racing stock cars do most people not know?
There’s a lot of technology that you don’t see. There’s an incredible demand on your time to do it at the highest level. And that demand comes in training, in generating the revenue through sponsorship, and the search for that. Driving the race car is the most rewarding thing I do. It is also one of the smallest things I do [in terms of hours spent].
Is this a career you’d like your children to enter?
I’d like them to have that opportunity. But I would never force it. I was fortunate to follow my family, my dad, but he never forced it on me, and I respect that.
Is driving a race car still fun for you?
When you’re running good, there’s nothing better. When you’re running bad, it’s a long day in the office.
How fast do you go?
That depends on the weekend. We were in Michigan two weeks ago, probably our fastest track, and we topped out at about 218 [mph].
Things happen pretty darn quickly at that speed.
Yes, they do.
But it’s relative; you’re all going around the same speed.
Hopefully, I’m going a little faster.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
NAME: Brad Keselowski
BORN: Feb. 12, 1984 in Rochester Hills, Michigan
PROFESSION: Stock-car racing driver for Team Penske; owner, Brad Keselowski Racing
TRANSPORTATION: Bombardier Learjet 45
PERSONAL: Lives in North Carolina with girlfriend Paige White and daughter Scarlett.