LOS ANGELES -- Brad Keselowski's most famous moment in Southern California involves a shower of sparks, and not the kind a driver sees overhead after reaching Victory Lane. The reigning Sprint Cup champion was still an up-and-coming Nationwide Series driver when he crashed spectacularly at Auto Club Speedway in 2007, skidding along the wall in a four-wheeled fireball that the track would later use in promotional clips.
The accident cracked Keselowski's helmet, sprained his ankle, and prompted a helicopter ride to an area hospital. But it had even more far-reaching effects -- after that incident Keselowski started slipping a cell phone into his uniform pocket, a practice he continued until being fined by NASCAR for using Twitter under a red flag at Phoenix last year.
"I didn't have my wallet, didn't have my phone, didn't have anything," Keselowski remembered Thursday during a promotional stop in downtown L.A. "Next thing I knew, I was at Loma Linda Hospital. Go through all the procedures, they check you out, and they're like, 'You're good.' I'm like, 'OK, now what?' I didn't have any clothes because I was wearing a firesuit. Didn't have a wallet, didn't have a phone. They were like, 'All right, good luck.' I felt like Jason Bourne. I don't know who I am, where I'm at, and I don't have any money or clothes. After that, I kept my phone on me until I got fined last year."
And yet, Keselowski doesn't need a mobile device to show his worth as one of NASCAR's greatest communicators, which he did Thursday in the entertainment capital of the world. When it came time to find a driver to stand outside L.A.'s iconic Union Station and talk up both Sunday's race in Fontana as well as a rail program designed to ease the commute, Auto Club Speedway president Gillian Zucker had a clear choice: the champion who wowed everyone with a passionate and extemporaneous speech at the awards ceremony last year.
"He's fantastic, for so many reasons," Zucker said. "He's extremely well-spoken, ands he's very authentic. The things that he says, they're real. And that's why he's so funny. He's candid, he's inquisitive, and there are so many things about him that make him perfect for interaction with the community, and I think that's why he's so beloved by so many fans."
Such admiration was certainly the case that day, when Los Angeles City Councilman Jos� Huizar declared "Auto Club Speedway Day in L.A.," complete with a proclamation delivered via the track's show car to the plaza at Union Station. For the city, it's an effort to promote public transportation via a MetroLink system that stops at the race track. For the speedway, which sits 40 miles east of downtown, it's another way to reinforce the bonds between the facility and the spires of downtown L.A.
"There are times when people say, 'Where is that?'" Zucker said, referring to the location of her race track. "So for us, it makes it very easy for people to understand we're that close to downtown L.A."
It certainly helped that Keselowski, game as always, was there to reinforce the message. "A wise man once told me, 'Racing's fun, traffic ain't'," he told a small crowd of fans and local media gathered outside the station. In more ways than one, he's come a long way from that young, relatively unproven Nationwide driver who put up a fight when emergency workers tried to strap him to a backboard following that 2007 crash in his No. 88 Navy car with a Seabees paint scheme.
"When I got out of the car, I got out a little slowly because I sprained my ankle," he said. "They wanted to put me on a backboard, and I got out on my own. They were ready to cut the roof off, and I'm like, 'Just give me a second.' Literally, I wrecked and came to a stop and they were there pulling on belts. I'm like 'Whoa, whoa, I can do this a lot faster by myself.'"
Then, Keselowski was yet to win a race at NASCAR's national level, a breakthrough that wouldn't come until the following season at Nashville. Back then, he was only just beginning to find secure footing in his racing career and with interviewers as his profile increased by virtue of his association with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team. What if this less-experienced 2007 Brad had been asked to stand in front of a train station and address a cluster of fans, media members and public transportation officials?
Sitting in the back of an SUV bound for appearances at ESPN's L.A. studios, Keselowski laughs at the notion. "It would have been a lot different," he said. "Maybe I'm just experienced or getting old, or maybe I just feel like I have a lot less to lose. At that time in the sport, I was in a position where I felt like every moment was going to make or break my career. Now I'm a little older and a little wiser and more established, and I don't feel that way."
That much is evident by the way the 29-year-old Keselowski handles promotional responsibilities, which are becoming as second nature to him as driving the race car. At Union Station, he was consistently on-message without even seeming it, disarming everyone with humor. Zucker asked him if the new Generation-6 car could go six-wide on a track that bills itself as the home of five-wide racing. "If there are five cars in front of me," Keselowski responded, "there will be six-wide racing."
It was the same at ESPN, where Keselowski consistently won over an even savvier crowd. Preparing to appear on the network's "SportsNation" program, Keselowski sat in a room researching topics while the flurry of pre-production went on around him. Football star Simeon Rice walked by. Comedian Rob Schneider needed a green room. Actor Gerard Butler's security man was downstairs. And there was Keselowski, as unassuming as ever, fingers working overtime on his iPhone as he searched for information on a recent NFL rule change.
"I want to be right," he told a producer. "I don't like to not have my facts right." His determination made one thing clear: the guy doesn't go into a situation unprepared. The reason he can give a spectacular speech without a teleprompter at the awards ceremony? The reason he can hit exactly the right notes at an event promoting commercial rail use? The reason he can win over a boisterous "SportsNation" crowd, all why doing his best to flirt with co-host Charissa Thompson at the same time?
Preparation. By the time he appears on the program, Keselowski is ready for topics ranging from the Miami Heat's winning streak to concussions in the NFL to the relationship between golfer Tiger Woods and Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn. He's informed and funny, and before long the crowd is chanting his name in a chorus of "Brad! Brad! Brad!"
Later, in a taped one-on-one interview with anchor Stan Verrett that will air on "SportsCenter," it's more of the same, even though the topics are much more familiar: his championship celebration last year in Homestead, his strong start to the season, the Gen-6 car and his use of Twitter. "Nailed it," a producer tells him afterward. An assistant tells him everyone at ESPN was blown away by how witty he was.
Keselowski offers a mild correction. "I was prepared," he said. "Witty makes it seem like I was winging it. Preparation makes you seem witty."
And with that, it's back in the SUV -- this time for a trip over to the area's FOX television affiliate. Although Keselowski seems to enjoy it all, there's clearly a greater purpose, and it goes back to the message of leadership he preached in his champion's speech in Las Vegas last year. He once flew over greater Los Angeles in a helicopter, bound for the hospital. Now Brad Keselowski glides through it, at the vanguard of his sport.
"I don't have any qualms about being a person who helps lead the sport forward. Not at all," he said. "I don't think it's just a role for me, it's a role for everyone in the this sport. We should all work to push it forward. It's in our own interest to do it. And it's part of our legacy once we're no longer a part of it."
Brad Keselowski sits in the audience for "American Idol" on FOX, Wednesday night in Los Angeles
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