Why own a Sprint Car team? And if you do, which races do you run? With these questions burning up the tip of our tongue, The Winner’s Circle called up Jesse Keen, owner of Keen Motorsports, LLC. Of all people, Keen should know. He’s been in this business — off and on and off and on … — for nearly 40 years. He started with his first car in 1974, but by 1988 he’d sworn off racing – only to come back in the 90s with his son’s 410 Sprint Car. After eight years, his son quit and so did Jesse. Except Jesse returned again, in 2008, with a World of Outlaws team, and he’s owned a race car team every year since.
When he’s not at the racetrack, Keen serves as vice president of his family’s business, Keen Transport, and its five operating trucking subsidiaries. Keen Transport has facilities in seven states, including Pennsylvania, where Keen works out of the Carlisle headquarters. That is, until he retires at the end of March, leaving him more time to – what else? – enjoy racing.
Part I of II
You keep leaving the sport, and coming back to it. Just can’t stay away?
Racing’s kind of like a magnet. You get hooked on it, you try to pull away from it, but eventually it always pulls you back.
Like it did in ‘08?
Back in the ‘80s, my brother and I owned a team that Randy Wolfe drove for. In 2008 he called me up and said, “My son Lucas is driving a Sprint Car. We’d like to run on the next level, do the World of Outlaws tour. Are you interested?”
2008. Start of the recession. Heck of a year to return to racing.
(Laughs and laughs). Couldn’t have picked a worse year. It wasn’t the recession so much as the price of diesel fuel. It was $5 a gallon. And then, in 2008, thirty percent of the races got rained out. We went to California and back without racing. It rained us out in California!
Today, everybody’s a weather guru with all the technology we have. People make sure you’re going to race before they buy tickets. So if it looks like it’s going to rain, you don’t get as big a crowd as a sunny day, even if you do run the race.
So it wasn’t the greatest experience.
World of Outlaws is the best in 410 racing, the best return per dollar spent on a per night basis. The problem is that tonight, that’s in Mechanicsburg (Pa.), and tomorrow it’s in Canada. Then five days later it’s in Minnesota. It’s the traveling, yeah, but it’s not so much the miles as the expense of the team and the motels. You’re going to have to have at least a crew of three. People say, “Hire those young guys. They won’t charge you hardly nothing.” Then you know what? That’s what you’ve got. Hardly nothing. Nighttime comes, they want to party, then in the next day, it’s time to race and they’re still feeling bad from the night before. A professional crew costs good money and you need a high quality crew.
In World of Outlaws, you’d better have somebody who hands you half a million dollars, and then you might make some money.
You also own a business, and your family is here in Central Pa. How do you keep a life going at home and attend to your team on the road?
As an owner of a WOO team, you need to like Internet racing. You’re really going to watch your race car on the computer. Or you’re going to be on the phone with your crew chief as he’s telling you what’s going on. Most WOO 410 Sprint Car owners probably watch their car 25 percent of the year. That’s just not of interest to me. With that kind of investment, I want to see my car race.
After 2008, then, you raced closer to home?
In 2009, ’10 and ’11, we did a combo, raced in Pennsylvania, traveled to Ohio, Florida, Iowa, to the Nationals, then did some all-star racing. I had two drivers (first Daryn Pittman, then Tyler Walker), who were fulltime racers. The fulltime racers want to race every chance there is. That’s how they earn a living. To do that, you have to travel. We went to a lot of races that cost me money, so the driver could make money. That’s not what I’m doing this year.
You’re done with fulltime racers and traveling.
That’s not what I’m doing this year. That’s not to say I’m done with it. (Laughs)
There’s tons of guys out there looking for a ride. Owners like you must have your pick of a pretty big litter.
Yeah, you get lots of calls, especially as soon as they hear you are going to make a change. They’ll call even if they think you are not winning as much as you should. They want to put their names in the hat. The guys from Australia, they’ll call from down there saying they “want to put their names in the ringer.”
This year, 2012, your driver Brian Leppo has a fulltime job outside of racing, plus a wife and two children. That’s got to put the brakes on any racing wanderlust you still have.
This year, we’re going to race primarily in Pennsylvania – 70 races, and never venture more than 200 miles from home. I want to settle down and enjoy it a little more.
Next week: Jesse Keen talks more about Brian Leppo; explains what sponsors bring to a team; and reveals how much the whole darn thing costs, anyway.