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Challenged by pandemic, Brad Keselowski’s Checkered Flag Foundation keeps rolling

Brad Keselowski foundation pandemic

Photos by Brittany Butterworth Photography

Brittany Butterworth

Brad Keselowski and the Checkered Flag Foundation buttoned up a decade of doing goodwill unto others with an event last Saturday that fittingly was about transitions.

In collaboration with Suiting Warriors (a nonprofit organization that aids veterans with upscale professional attire) and lifestyle clothing brand Ike Behar, Keselowski’s charitable organization provided a half-dozen servicemembers with tailored suits to help prepare for entry into the private sector and civilian workforce that can be a jarring adjustment.

The new threads were a welcome gift for Evan Anderson, a 30-year-old Army Special Operations soldier who was part of the “SuitUp” held at Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing in Statesville, North Carolina.

“In the military, no matter what branch you serve, you wake up and put the same thing on every single day,” Anderson, who is completing a University of South Carolina degree to seek agency work in advertising and marketing, told NBC Sports in a phone interview. “All you need to do is show up in the right uniform the way they tell you to put it on, and you’re good. One of the things that I think gets severely left behind during our transition is how to dress for success and how to create a great first impression.

Photos by Brittany Butterworth Photography

Photos by Brittany Butterworth Photography

Brittany Butterworth

“A lot of us carry a stigma we may not be good enough to go into a civilian career even if we have leadership experience. We feel we might project a certain air, or an employer might look at us differently because we were in the military. When we’re able to figure out what we can do to present ourselves in the best possible way, it really does help with the confidence of our transition.”

Transition also has been a theme this year for the Checkered Flag Foundation, which Keselowski founded in 2010 with a goal of supporting veterans, first responders and their families.

While celebrating the CFF’s 10-year anniversary, the Team Penske driver said his foundation massively shifted its 2020 strategy on the fly after the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit, focusing on partnering with more organizations.

“No doubt, there were serious headwinds,” Keselowski said in a phone interview with NBC Sports. “We can certainly shudder in the face of them, or we can get creative and adapt. We tried really hard to get creative and adapt.

“We were supposed to have a big fundraiser and instead made it a very small one and made it all about the people we serve rather than try to raise funds. We were fortunate to have some funding in the kitty to carry us through the year. Obviously, that won’t last forever, but we used all those resources wisely in order to get us this far, so I’m proud of our team for being able to really tighten up and bear the storm, but do it in such a way that we didn’t slow down on the things we wanted to get done.

“Ten years have gone fast, I still remember announcing the foundation in March 2010, and I’ve still got a lot more I want to do. ”

Despite the pandemic, Checkered Flag Foundation still managed to assist on several major projects in 2020.

Among the highlights:

--The opening of Fisher House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which houses the family members of veterans while they are receiving medical center treatment (Keselowski, who hails from Rochester Hills, Michigan, has family members who have been treated at a nearby VA hospital).

--The training and presentation of a service canine (named “Khaos”) donated to a veteran through Black Paw Canine in a program called “Hero’s Homecoming.”

--The third year of Tribute 2 Veterans that puts veterans’ names on Keselowski’s Autotrader-sponsored No. 2 Ford at Atlanta Motor Speedway (the March 21, 2021 race is open for nominating veterans, military members or family military members through the program’s nomination site).

--Providing frontline workers at Atrium Health with meals and facemasks, which also were distributed at the Ann Arbor VA. Keselowski appreciated that because “it gave us the ability to help nurses and make sure veterans were honored in the last day of their lives.

“Unfortunately, a lot of veterans pass away by themselves without any support structure,” he said. “Their final days are not what I think any of us would like for them to be. We’re able to help that out a little bit and then also support the nurses as well. It’s traumatic for all parties involved.”

The goal often is maximizing efficacy and efficiency. Keselowski said it can be challenging for a charitable organization in choosing the worthiest opportunities, particularly during a pandemic that creates great need but also puts limits and restrictions on the methodology for helping.

“We get a lot of individual requests of, ‘Hey, so and so passed away and would like funds on their behalf for families,’” he said. “Those are certainly noble causes, but they are very hard for us to vet and ensure the success of the funding. Some partnerships go better that can really help keep us from being the arbiters of those in need.

Photos by Brittany Butterworth Photography

Photos by Brittany Butterworth Photography

Brittany Butterworth

“The last thing I want to do is be asking someone their story and telling them, ‘Look, I know you made a huge sacrifice, but really, it’s not enough to pass our threshold.’ I want us to be in a spot where we can partner with a group that knows what’s going on behind the scenes and also is doing a good job at making sure the right candidates are helped in a way that will be impactful for a long time.”

Those partnerships don’t always involve large organizations. Keselowski said CFF sponsored two veterans in rehab programs because they were recommended by a judge who found their recovery attempts to be sincere.

“We look for causes like that,” Keselowski said. “I’m just trying to be impactful. I think there’s a lot we can do, and it’s hard sometimes to really focus on what mission will make a difference. And we get a lot of individual requests, and the reality is, more times than not, those are not really a wise use of funds or time.

“We’re trying to be really thoughtful, really diligent with the things we support so they can be impactful in a long-lasting way. And this year as much as any other year, I feel we did a hell of a job with that. I’m really proud of it.”

Even with social distancing, there is no substitute for an in-person experience, though. That made last Saturday’s event more special for Keselowski, who wants “clear, tangible results and knowing someone is walking away in a better position before I met them and for them to feel the same way, no matter what it is we’re doing to help them.”

A meet and greet with the servicemembers, most of whom were involved with Special Operations, also was a chance to live vicariously for Keselowski, who often has said he would have enlisted if he wasn’t racing.

“Almost all of them are NASCAR fans, which is pretty cool,” he said. “I just love hearing their stories about ‘I trained in this battlefield.’ And then their mannerisms are so special. All of them are super classy but smart and articulate, which I don’t think a lot of the time our veterans get the credit they deserve for that.”

Photos by Brittany Butterworth Photography

Photos by Brittany Butterworth Photography

Brittany Butterworth

Nick Syer, who joined the Marine Corps out of high school in 2008, has been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, Qatar and Bahrain, helping teach skills in close-quarters battles, explosives and ballistic breaching with shotguns.

But the Rochester, New York, native also is a self-taught mechanic interested in a high-performance automotive career, which added another dimension to the SuitUp being held at Keselowski’s former race shop.

“As soon as we got there, I was poking around on all of Brad’s cars like a kid in a toy store,” Syer, 31, said with a laugh about touring a collection that includes a few of Keselowski’s NASCAR winners and a Ford GT.

But just as important was getting fitted for “the softest and most comfortable” suit he ever had worn.

“I’m not the most knowledgeable about it; the need for suits isn’t what I’ve been doing the last decade-plus,” he said. “But for individuals in the special operations community or just the military in general transitioning into the private or civilian sector, it’s important. A first impression with anyone is huge, especially during a job interview, so having a quality suit gives off that positive first impression and a little more presence. You just look professional

“I’m not one usually to take handouts or gifts, so I’m extremely grateful for the foundation. What they’re letting me leave here with is great.”

Anderson, who has been deployed three times to the Middle East, has explored starting a media company to help veteran business owners and had the chance to pick Keselowski’s brain about entrepreneurship.

“Transition is hectic because not only are we thinking about stuff like the state of the job market in the pandemic, we’re thinking about retirement and separation benefits and about dealing with the VA and where we’re going to move our family and health care,” said Anderson, who was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, but fell in love with Southern living after being stationed at Fort Bragg.

“This is just one less thing off a huge plate of stuff to have to deal with. I honestly do most of my learning from speaking to people and learning from their experience and lessons of things they wish they would have done differently.”

Keselowski said his best advice is “to learn Industry 4.0. It’s coming like a freight train, and it’s going to be digital. If you can learn Industry 4.0, you have a great chance of being successful in the near and long-term future.”

The opportunities could come directly from the event’s location – the 70,000-square-foot facility that houses Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing, the 3-D printing company that Keselowski opened two years ago. With business booming, Keselowski recently posted a Twitter thread inviting displaced NASCAR team members to apply at KAM – and about 40 did.

“We hired three after interviewing almost 20,” said Keselowski, who estimates 50 percent of the KAM payroll is comprised of former NASCAR industry members. “I tried to hire a dozen, but some work out better than others, and some people might get other opportunities, and that’s OK. We reviewed every person, and we certainly moved forward with hiring some, which was exciting.”

Between managing KAM’s exponential growth and enjoying a career renaissance in Cup last season (a runner-up points finish was his best since the 2012 championship), Keselowski relies heavily on day-to-day oversight of the Checkered Flag Foundation through his wife, Paige, and managing director Emily Gibson.

Keselowski said the work brings he and Paige closer together as “a way to show our gratitude, especially given the life we are so privileged to live.

“Whenever there’s an event coming up, she’s the one who’s scheduling it,” Keselowski said. “She’s the one making sure all the behind-the-scenes details are ready to go. She likes to work behind the scenes and coordinate and get things organized, and she does a hell of a job at it.

“Without having her doing those things, it would have been impossible to pull off the things we did this year. She’s not doing it alone, but Paige is a significant driving force to making the foundation a success.”

Keselowski said the organization’s biggest successes are measured in helping veterans “that are pretty incredible people in many ways,” especially around the holiday season when mental health can be a struggle for some. Keselowski said he has been distressed having read about rising suicide rates for veterans.

“It scares the bejesus out of you,” he said. “You can sit and kind of cry and complain about it or you can get up and go to work on it.

“I don’t think there’s anybody who can do everything, but we can all do a little bit of something, and I’m glad my foundation can do a little bit of something to help.”