by darren reese
BRISTOL - What is the future of NASCAR? That's anybody's guess.
Not even defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski is quite sure. But wherever the sport is headed, he wants to help it get there.
Keselowski was in Bristol Tuesday to raise awareness for his Checkered Flag Foundation, which provides support to military and first-responder families in need.
He spent the day - which was also his 29th birthday - having lunch and skeet shooting with a group of National Guard members at the Kettlefoot Gun and Rod Club in Bristol.
Later in the afternoon, he was honored by Bristol mayors Joel Staton (Bristol, Tenn.) and Jim Steele (Bristol, Va.) with a proclamation naming Feb. 12 as Brad Keselowski day in the city.
Keselowski took time to meet with local media members, and spoke about his desire to be a good ambassador of the sport during his reign as champion.
"You look at the sports world, and one of the things that NASCAR is struggling with is attracting a younger fan base," he said. "There's a lot of reasons for that, not just one."
"I think it's a little bit naive for me or anyone else to think that my success as one of those younger drivers is one of the end all, be all solutions to attracting those fans. There's more to it than that. But if I'm able to play some small role in that, then I'm more than happy to do so, because this is obviously for the better of the sport."
Keselowski certainly has the personality to carry the sport to the Generation Y demographic of the 21st century.
Last year, he made national waves by tweeting from the track when the Daytona was red flagged for two hours due to a wreck. He gained over 100,000 followers on Twitter immediately following.
Keselowski is now well over 300,000 followers on Twitter and tweets on a regular bases, speaking to his ability to embrace social media into the sport.
Keselowski knows that social media isn't a big part to the solution to fix what ails NASCAR, but he believes things such as that are instances of how times are changing and how the sport must adapt in order to keep its appeal.
"At the end of the day, social media doesn't sell a ton of tickets," Keselowski said. "But it does drive ratings. And it does a better job of conveying your message to your hardcore, passionate fans."
"We live in a time frame right now where everybody is, you know, so on demand. We want instant access to everything. I don't think social media in itself is the cure to everything that ails the sport, but it is certainly a building block that is a step in the right direction."
A decade ago, NASCAR had went through a boom. It had expanded past its souther roots with tracks in places like Chicago and Las Vegas. Ratings went higher, television money and advertising money exploded, and soon the sport was being talked about in the same breath as the three major sports - football, baseball and basketball.
Over the past five years, though, ticket sales have declined and sponsorship and advertising dollars have become harder to come buy.
The floundering economy has had a large impact on that. But Keselowski believes that the main thing that plagues NASCAR is the fact that there isn't a shared vision.
"We are not unified in our interests," he said. "We all have to get on the same age and share our common drives to be the best we can be and put aside our differences. I think there's a little bit of progress on that, but we have to continue to push."
"That's my job as champion."
Keselowski also took time Tuesday to highlight the upcoming Food City 500 race at Bristol, which is only 32 days away.
He is the defending winner of the spring race at the track, and also won the Bristol fall race in 2011.
"Bristol is a track that I circle on the calendar," Keselowski said. "I like what it stands for, and (I) put a little extra emphasis on it."
"It stands for some core things that I believe in - in your face, high intensity track. You make on mistake and you're done. I love the challenge. I like the challenge it represents physically. I like the challenge that it represents mentally. I like the way it represents the sport.
Keselowski received a birthday cake and gifts at the track Tuesday, in addition to the special proclamation.
"Well, I sure didn't expect anything like this," he said. "You guys really got me. I thought you might do something to surprise me but not having a day named in my honor. That's really so cool.
"I love this place. I love racing here and I love the people around here. It's always been a great place for me and I always look forward to coming here. And I can't wait to get back here in 30 days."
The Food City 500 is scheduled for March 17.