Friday 5: Brad Keselowski building a ‘culture of high expectations’ at RFK Racing
Brad Keselowski doesn’t shy from using the world fail as he discusses the culture he seeks to create as owner/driver of the rebranded Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing team.
There’s a purpose in using the word fail. Just as there is purpose in all that Keselowski does, even if it doesn’t seem apparent at first.
Ultimately, Keselowski’s goal is to do something that hasn’t been achieved in NASCAR in more than a decade: Turn a struggling organization into a winner.
While RFK Racing’s history features tales of success, it is winless in its last 163 Cup races — dating to July 2017. The organization last had a team finish in the top 10 in points in 2014.
“I’m not coming into the building trying to fire everybody,” Keselowski said. “That said, we are going to demand a higher level of performance.”
And a culture that matches.
“A culture of high expectations,” Keselowski calls it. “A culture that is not afraid to fail forward. Those are things that are really important to me. We’ve had some big discussions on it. A culture of accountability is super critical to me.
“Fail forward means not being afraid to fail but learning from it and getting better. I told the team in one my speeches, ‘I’m not afraid of failing. I’m afraid of not trying.’
“That doesn’t mean you can be reckless and fail in everything you do. It does give you permission to try things and learn from it. I think that’s really important for us.”
Keselowski, who once owned a Truck Series team, says running his company, Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing, has helped shape his ideas of running an operation.
“It served as a petri dish for me to basically try new things,” he said. “I could learn from some tough mistakes … and become, overall, a more rounded person. With that came also some understanding of some other technologies that I really was not in a good place with before.”
Keselowski talks often about understanding new technologies and how the inability to do so could have a played a factor in the failure of others to excel in the sport.
It’s not just that area that Keselowski is examining. He talks about the process of turning RFK Racing into a consistent winner. Few things have been overlooked by Keselowski.
“We are investing pretty heavily in upfitting and upgrading our facilities within the current footprint,” said Steve Newmark, president of RFK Racing. “A lot of that may seem trite and cosmetic with paint and new floors and all that, and others more structured like where we’re going to put the human performance center.
“But these are things that Brad came in and said ‘I know you guys have been doing this for a while, but I don’t think this is the optimal way to do this.’ … He’s struck that right balance between coming in and trying to listen and understand how or why we do things, but, at the same time, saying ‘Hey I feel passionate that we can do better in this area if we change this.’ That’s the spark.”
Kevin Kidd, technical director at RFK Racing, said that “there are no sacred cows in the building as far as what our process is and what it should be.”
What Keselowski is trying to do was last done by Tony Stewart. He joined Haas-CNC Racing to form Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009.
Haas-CNC Racing was winless in 284 Cup starts before Stewart arrived. He won four times in 2009 and the championship in 2011.
So, there’s a possible roadmap, but that doesn’t mean the same path can be taken, or the same results can occur in the same manner.
Other organizations that once were pillars of the sport, including what was known as Roush Fenway Racing, have fallen from the top tier. Roush’s two wins since 2014 equals Front Row Motorsports’ victory total in the same span.
It’s quite a change for Roush, which was was among the dominant teams from 2002-08, winning two championships and an average of nine races a season.
The organization’s steady decline saw Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards leave for Joe Gibbs Racing. Roush could not continue their success after they left.
Rising to the sport’s elites will be challenging. Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports and Team Penske combined to take 80% of the top-10 positions in points the past three seasons.
Stewart-Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing were the only other organizations to have drivers finish in the top 10 in points during those years.
So, how can a team that was among the sport’s pillars return after such a long time away from the top pedestal?
Steve Newmark, team president, says the Next Gen car will help balance the power in the sport since teams no longer build their own cars. All teams are learning the fundamentals — and nuances — of the car and what it will take to make it faster.
“Now, the best teams are going to be the best teams … but we think that Next Gen presents a fairly unique opportunity in the history of this sport to rise back on top,” he said.
Newmark also preaches patience in this journey.
“It’s not going to happen with a snap of a finger,” he said of becoming one the elite organizations again. “You have to have realistic expectations that it’s going to be gradual.”
Newmark also notes the organization expects to show improvement in 2022.
“If you talk to Brad, he’s going to tell you he’s going to win races next year and compete for the championship,” Newmark said.
“From my perspective, we just need to be climbing that ladder and becoming more competitive on a day-by-day basis.”
That also means playoffs.
“Our expectations are both teams in the playoffs next year,” Newmark said. “(Keselowski’s goals) will be higher than that, which I want. I want him to be pushing.”
“I challenged the team to expand into areas that are outside of their comfort zone,” he said. “I prefaced it by saying that I’m way outside my comfort zone. … I left a team that had won or been playoff eligible for the last 10 years for one that hasn’t won a race in three or four years.
“I’m outside my comfort zone. I left Roger Penske, whose got this golden legacy, to come here. I left that comfort zone because I believe what we can do here. I still believe it. I’m more confident than ever that we can do it.
“That said, I think I’m asking the entire company, every employee to push their limits as well and to get outside of their comfort zone. That’s what is going to be required to turn this thing around.”
2. Closer ties
The Next Gen era already is dramatically different for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and JTG Daugherty Racing.
While the organization downsized from two cars to one after this year, Stenhouse says the team’s relationship with Chevrolet has grown. That’s allowed Stenhouse to go to the simulator, something he hadn’t done since 2019 when he was with Roush Fenway Racing and Ford.
Stenhouse was in the Chevy simulator after the Next Gen test on the Charlotte Roval and before this week’s test on the Charlotte oval. He’s scheduled to be back in the simulator today to add changes that worked in the test to the simulation program.
“We’ll make sure those things keep correlating, so that we continue to make better adjustments and more calculated adjustments, especially if our practices are short practices,” Stenhouse said.
NASCAR is expected to have practice sessions at most Cup events in 2022, but many of those sessions will be brief.
“You’re not going to have a lot of time to make adjustments,” Stenhouse said of those practices. “It’s going to be really important to use the simulator correctly and make sure we unload the way we need to be.”
That will be key for a driver who showed significant progress in restarts and passing ability throughout the playoffs. More sim time could help him improve upon his 22nd-place finish in the points this past season.
Stenhouse admits that he wasn’t always keen to go to the simulator in the past.
“Back when I would do the sim, I didn’t feel a huge correlation from what we were doing there to the racetrack,” he said. “I was anxious to kind of see (now). We did a post-Roval test, and I felt like some of the things we did at the Roval correlated on the simulator.”
Another key for him this offseason is that he’ll do all the testing for JTG Daugherty Racing as its only driver. He said that is key in learning the new car at different tracks.
“I think (at Charlotte), the brake packages are so big now that we have with our race cars that any little touch of the brake really kills your speed,” he said. “We don’t have enough horsepower right now with the drag package. It takes two or three laps to get that speed back. I feel like that’s one thing that is noticeable here at Charlotte.
“But at the road course, we can stop so much better than we ever have. Your braking points aren’t even close. I don’t know if when we go to Phoenix (in December to test), is carrying momentum into the corner, lifting early and not using brake going to be beneficial, or is it going to be beneficial driving really far into the corner, using the brake package to slow it down a lot quicker?
“Just trying to find where that speed is going to be. It’s one reason why I feel it’s a benefit that we’re a one-car team, and I get to do every single test we do. I’ll be able to hit all these racetracks and have a lot of laps, two days, on each track.”
3. Offseason weight program
The Next Gen car is impacting the sport in ways drivers could not have imagined.
Take Ross Chastain, for instance.
He works with Josh Wise, a former driver who focuses on performance training with 15 Chevy drivers throughout Cup, Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series.
Chastain, who weighs 150 pounds, says that Wise has set a goal for Chastain to gain 15 pounds in the offseason … because of the Next Gen car.
“We know these cars are hotter,” Chastain said. “We’re doing things to cool them down, but their plan for me is to put weight on to be ready to probably have to sweat it out in these races.”
Chastain noted the program is already underway.
“I’ve never taken protein powder and all this stuff,” he said. “I’m a water and beet juice guy. Watermelon juice.”
Chastain noted Thursday that he felt fine after a 35-lap run at the Next Gen test at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He cited the changes made to the car to allow more air to circulate inside it and reduce the extreme heat drivers have felt.
Another change for Chastain, who joins Trackhouse Racing, is that his beard his gone.
“Fresh start,” he said of the change.
While much has been made about Kurt Busch joining 23XI Racing to be a mentor to Bubba Wallace, that overlooks a key role Busch has.
“I was hired as a driver,” he said. “My duties are to drive the 45 car with the best knowledge and smarts and swagger that I can, and to be consistent and find things that a veteran is supposed to find within a new car.
“At the same time there are young engineers, young crew members that are eager to learn. All the knowledge that I have in certain areas I would love to transfer (to them).
“Then with Bubba, we know we want him to jump into the program with a mindset to win and to be there at another level next year. It’s already started to begin on that side of it.”
Busch admits it’s easier to count the number of people that he’s worked with before who are at 23XI Racing than count the ones he must learn.
“This new group, I can just feel the enthusiasm and the energy level,” he said.
One person Busch knows well is crew chief Billy Scott. They worked together in 2018 at Stewart-Haas Racing and won a race.
“I feel like our time at SHR was cut short a few years back,” Busch said. “So he was in my top three right away, and everybody at 23XI filtered through all the different candidates and we felt like Billy Scott would be the guy.”
5. Quick work
Justin Alexander, crew chief for Austin Dillon, detailed what the team did after Dillon wrecked early in Wednesday’s test session and had the car back on track that evening after going to Richard Childress Racing for repairs.
“The way this car is designed, with removable front and rear clips and body panels that bolt on and off, we were able to take the front clip off, pull the motor out. The motor was damaged, the front clip, obviously.
“Everything else was really intact. The rear bumper had a little bit of damage and the rear tail, so we had to replace the rear tail, the rear bumper, the left rear quarter panel and everything on the front — the hood, the fenders, the nose and then the front clip and engine.
“We had all of our guys back at the shop work on it and thrash on it for a few hours. … We did what this car was designed to do and that was to replace parts of the car that are damaged.”
#NASCAR … @austindillon3’s car being taken back to @RCRracing for repairs. Team will put a new front clip on and engine in and make other repairs. Team hopes to back later today (test goes until 8 pm ET) or be ready for Thursday’s session. pic.twitter.com/bFkn6Ms3Qn— Dustin Long (@dustinlong) November 17, 2021
Alexander said if this had happened during practice on a race weekend, he believes the team would have been able to have done all that work in the garage and have the car ready for the race the next day.
“Going though it (Wednesday), it certainly allowed us to see exactly what we needed, what we didn’t have, tools we didn’t have, things we could do differently. That way, when it does come time to do it at the racetrack in the future, we’ll certainly be more prepared for it. We’ll go back and study those things.”