News & Media

As DJ, Keselowski lets music tell his story

January 28, 2013, David Caraviello,

The 2012 Sprint Cup champion checked another item off his bucket list

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kid Rock is causing a problem.

Or, more specifically, one of his songs is. Brad Keselowski is at the studios of a local rock radio station where he’s been given an hour to play anything he wants, and the reigning champion of the Sprint Cup Series wants to open big -- with a boot-stomping Kid Rock anthem that he feels symbolizes his Michigan roots. The issue is, the song prominently features an expletive. In the title. And even though there’s a clean version, stations are supposed to play it only at night.

Keselowski, true to form, will hear nothing of it. He’s chosen a list of songs for his hour guest-hosting the afternoon drive-time shift at WEND 106.5-FM, and each one of the tunes is significant to him personally.

Including the one by Kid Rock.

“I was at this place in my life,” Keselowski lobbies, “and this song was a motivator to help me go out there and kick ass.”

Of course, who wouldn’t have expected the Penske Racing driver to arrive and instantly shake things up? Rock 'n' roll has been a part of Keselowski’s life as long as he can remember, and his passion for it ranks close behind driving the car. Early on when his dad was off racing, Keselowski stayed with his grandmother, and the cousin who cared for her exposed him to Led Zeppelin records. Later, during those long hours in the shop he and his brother Brian spent working on the race car, the radio was a constant companion.

Last year at Food Lion Speed Street, the festival in downtown Charlotte that coincides with Coca-Cola 600 weekend, Keselowski asked WEND afternoon DJ Chuck Thompson -- who on-air goes by the name DZL (pronounced “Diesel”) -- why the station didn’t play more Metallica. Thompson made Keselowski a deal: You win the Sprint Cup championship, you can come and play anything you want. Soon after the driver secured the title, publicist David Hovis was on the phone with the station making it happen.

So this past Friday there was Keselowski, arriving at a station festooned with Miller Lite promotional items, including several of the big beer glasses the driver made famous during his championship celebration at Homestead and buckets of longnecks on ice.

“I was nervous, and then some big news story broke today,” Keselowski says before going on-air. “Then I figured, no matter what I do, it’s probably not going to be that big a deal.”

Oh, there will be more than a few mentions of Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. during Keselowski’s stint behind the microphone, including a song dedication -- Collective Soul’s “Shine” -- sent out to “NASCAR’s newest power couple.” But to Keselowski, this is primarily an attempt to tell his own story through music. Struggle, triumph, motivation, overcoming obstacles, relocating to North Carolina -- they’ll all be encapsulated in the nine songs he plays over the one hour the station allows him to take control.

“They all have a little personal flavor and touch to them, and that’s what makes them special,” he says. “The thing about music that’s great is, it’s an awesome way to tell a story. It’s a way to tell a story without it being really boring. But it can tell a story about your life, it can tell a story about what you need to be motivated (for), it just offers so many perspectives, and that’s why I have such a love affair with it. Every one of these songs has some kind of meaning to me.”

But first, the basics. Keselowski and Thompson hold a brief production meeting to go over the driver’s playlist, where the DJ explains that some songs might be shuffled to prevent similar-sounding tunes from going back-to-back, and others might have to be cut because of time. The Kid Rock issue is discussed at length and then kicked upstairs. Fixtures like traffic and weather can’t be overlooked, given that Keselowski will be on-air during afternoon drive time, and on a day when Charlotte is being pelted by freezing rain.

"I can check this off my bucket list. The next thing I’m going to do is jump a Harley through a ring of fire."

-- Brad Keselowski

Once inside the studio, Thompson gives Keselowski a primer on the sound board, instructing him on how to control volume levels and select songs preloaded into a computer. He’s extremely patient, befitting a 14-year industry vet who teaches radio each summer at Appalachian State. Thompson explains tricks like “hitting the post,” or speaking right up to -- but not over -- the moment a song begins to ramp up. Before long, Keselowski will be working all the knobs and dials as comfortably as the switches inside his race car, tossing out terms like “two-song set,” throwing it to traffic and weather, and hitting the post like a center in the NBA.

“Dude,” the driver says during an early break, “we’re going to own this.”

There are fist bumps all around. “You’re killing this thing,” Thompson tells him later. “You’re doing way better than I expected.”

Indeed, even WEND program director Jack Daniel sticks his head into the studio at one point to offer praise. “You ever retire,” he tells Keselowski, “you’ve found something else you can do.”

But first, there’s Kid Rock. After spending the first hour as a co-host, Keselowski moves behind the board at 5 p.m. His scheduled opener has been in limbo all afternoon, given that within the industry tunes with such explicit lyrics are considered “safe harbor” songs, and stations aren’t supposed to play them during drive time. Before Keselowski goes on the air, though, Daniel enters the studio and says an exception has been made in this case. An edited version of Kid Rock will rock on after all, pleasing the guest host to no end.

“I had to open with Kid Rock, being from Detroit, Rock City,” says Keselowski, whose hometown of Rochester Hills, Mich., is a Detroit suburb. “That song just kind of personifies me.”

Many of the choices on his playlist come from a deeply personal place -- like Moby’s “Porcelain,” a somber, introspective cut that Keselowski said he listened to often after his parents went bankrupt trying to keep the family’s racing team afloat. At the time, Keselowski was even thinking about joining the military.

“That song was like my driving force to keep going,” he says. It’s dedicated to a listener named Caleb, whom a caller says is going through a difficult time.

Conversely, there’s Linkin Park’s “One Step Closer,” an angry screamer that Keselowski refers to as “my hater song."

"I thought about that in the Chase last year when everyone said, ‘Jimmie Johnson is going to wax your ass,’” he said. Keselowski and Johnson battled down to the wire last season, with the Penske driver besting the five-time champion in the final event of the year.

The hour rolls on, with Keselowski spinning up Godsmack, Staind, Beck and Alice in Chains. He’s received plenty of requests over Twitter for Cake’s race-car themed “Going the Distance,” but that one seems too predictable. “I’m not a cliché guy,” he says. “I’m trying to be original.” Which he certainly proves by choosing a little-known band named Red Light King that he was first exposed to while living with Dale Earnhardt Jr., back when there were plenty of parties in the basement bar known as Club E.

“The first time I heard this was in Dale Jr.’s basement,” Keselowski says. “So let’s listen to some Dale Jr. bar music.”

It all goes by in a flash and suddenly Keselowski is playing his final selection, Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade,” a relentless charger that can make anyone want to get in a car and drive 200 mph. Keselowski goes out strong, not just hitting the post, but slamming it right as Tom Morello’s opening guitar riff shifts into high gear. Except for a few minor hiccups, it’s been a flawless hour. Thompson beams like a proud father as he and Keselowski once again trade fist bumps.

Afterward, the NASCAR champion signs some autographs, trades some handshakes, poses for a few photographs. There’s some informal talk about him coming back one day, particularly if he wins another title. Keselowski seems to enjoy every moment of the experience, right up until the time he climbs into his icicle-covered car for the drive home. Inside the vehicle, the radio will surely be playing, just as it was during all those days back at the race shop while he was growing up.

“This is just a dream come true,” Keselowski says in the final moments of his on-air shift. “I can check this off my bucket list. The next thing I’m going to do is jump a Harley through a ring of fire.”