This week we’re continuing our two-part interview with Jesse Keen, a race car team owner who had so much to say we just couldn’t limit him to one post. Keen owns Keen Motorsports, LLC and is a co-owner of the family business, Keen Transport, Inc., which operates trucking facilities in seven states. Keen, who is company VP, works out of Keen Transport headquarters in Carlisle, PA.
This year, for the first time in a while, Keen’s team will stick close to home, only racing within a 200 mile radius of Keen’s home base in Central Pa. To do that, he’s got a new driver: Brian Leppo of New Oxford, Penn.
I didn’t pick a driver. I picked a crew chief and driver that I thought would work well together. I can give them the best equipment in the world, but if the crew chief and the driver can’t work well together, we’re not going to win.
Brian and Steve Suchy, the crew chief, have both put in their dues, coming up through the ranks. Steve has been on the World of Outlaws circuit and Brian races with them a lot . But they chose to have fulltime jobs and race in Central Pa.
Sounds like you got yourself a nice, mature driver.
Yes, Brian is very good with the fans, good with the sponsors. He’s an easy-going guy and can talk to all kinds of people. But when it’s time to race, his mind’s on the racing, his focus is on winning.
This year I’m going to have a lot more fun, because I don’t have to worry about a fulltime racer who has to make money off my Sprint Car. Brian’s from a racing family. His wife is Stevie Smith’s sister. He’s racing because he loves racing. The money we win will be icing on the cake.
And so do you.
I’ve golfed, done rodeo, I’ve had high-end show horses, motorcycles, yachts. I’ve done it all. I always come back to racing.
The thrill, the adrenaline and the people. Racers for the most part are working, salt-of-the-earth people. Plus, the one thing about race cars: if you start to lose interest, with a race car you can park it in the garage or sell it. You can’t do either with a horses. The horse needs to eat, it has to go to the vet and be shod. And then you can’t sell it, because everybody gets attached to the horse.
But you can sell a Sprint car.
Well, if you still have it in your possession when the season ends. People will write on these racing forums and say, “Why are there so many great big haulers for teams that have only one car, and that one don’t go that fast?” Listen – if you want to be involved in racing, the safest way is to own a rig. There’s a title that goes with a truck and trailer. When the deal falls apart, you can pick up your truck and trailer and go home.
There’s no title on those engines, frames, rears, etcetera. So say you’ve are buying those parts and now you’re three years into the deal and things are not going really well. You’re going to break up the team, and suddenly the driver saying, “Well, they’re my engines now. You gave them to me.” Sounds like a Judge Judy case and I don’t need that.
You purchased it all, though.
I have been a sponsor with parts and a sponsor with just money. Today I choose to be a active owner and own everything myself.
Sounds like owning a team can be not just expensive, but more than a little bit of hassle. Why do it?
Ego. (laughs). Probably ego, and control. You can afford to, you are in a position in life where you don’t have to have a bunch of other sponsors. The sponsors I have on this car, I choose to have them. They are inactive sponsors, happy to pay and have their names on the car. They have no control over the car.
On your Web site you have a long list of “sponsors.” What does that mean, exactly?
There are three types of sponsors – active, inactive and product. Inactive sponsors for us are Peterbilt and Hunter Truck Sales. They get their names on the car. They supply money. The product sponsors – they may give you a good price on their stuff, or they may give you some product and you pay for some product. They may just provide excellent service to you. They may give you stuff. One example of that for us is Baps, our paint sponsor, which supplies us with paint at no charge. Free parts are not any good unless they perform. I only deal with sponsors that have good products.
This really is a business about connections. You’ve got to know people or you end up shouldering the cost of that car all by yourself.
There’s nothing worse than being a salesman and cold-calling. Because when you are a salesman and doing cold calls, you get rejected. And I don’t like rejections. (laughs). Most sponsors, most large sponsors, anyway, come from somebody knowing somebody.
Which leads to the obvious question … how much does a 410 Sprint Car team cost?
To race a top Sprint Car team in Central Pa., you should figure on spending $150,000 to $200,000 a year. If you have good money sponsors, that will offset some of that expense. Also, having a winning car can make a big difference. Last year, for instance, we won the Eldora Kings Royal and made $50,000 in one night.
Can you as an owner make money at it?
You ever hear the one, “You know how to make a million dollars in racing? Start with two million dollars.” (laughs) Some years you make a profit, some years not.