Keselowski still riding Twitter high
AVONDALE, Ariz.—When the drivers pulled to a stop after a massive fireball engulfed a safety truck and delayed the Daytona 500, Brad Keselowski reached into the pocket of his fire suit and pulled out his phone.
Trying to kill time while fire and foam covered the track, Keselowski started tweeting from his car, providing updates from the track, posting pictures, even answering questions from fans.
By the time the night was over, Keselowski's Twitter followers had ballooned from 65,000 to 200,000.
With a few pecks of a tiny keyboard, Keselowski had become a Twitter sensation, a NASCAR innovator and the central figure in a debate over whether cellphones should be allowed in cars during races.
"I didn't put it (his phone) in the car thinking that we were going to have a red flag at Daytona for a guy hitting a jet dryer and causing an explosion," Keselowski said, drawing laughter. "I didn't have that much foresight. That was just kind of how the story all played out. You just can't plan moments like that -- they just happen."
How it came to happen goes back more than four years.
Racing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Fontana, Calif., Keselowski was involved in a serious accident and airlifted from the track. Strapped down in a helicopter, he had no clothes, no phone, no wallet, no family -- they were back in Michigan -- and no idea where he was.
"As far as I knew, I was like in an Army test lab," he said.
Keselowski can joke now, but it was a difficult experience. Not only was he helpless and lost, he couldn't tell his mother that he was all right until hours after the accident, when a public relations person with the team let him borrow her phone.
Since then, Keselowski has kept his phone in a pocket of his fire suit every race since. It came in handy when he was involved in another serious accident at Road Atlanta last year and was able to call him mom right away, as well look up his location on a map application.
"From that moment on, I decided I was going to keep my phone with me in the race car," Keselowski said.
Keselowski's latest use for his phone -- red-flag updates -- has stirred a debate as to whether phones should be allowed in the cars during races.
NASCAR rules prohibit teams from having recording devices in the car that are not for competition purposes, and two-way communication devices are supposed to be analog only. On Tuesday, NASCAR said it found nothing wrong with Keselowski's tweeting during the Daytona 500 and encouraged drivers to use social media, as long as they were being safe.
The question for some drivers is that now it's started, how long before someone takes it too far?
"Where does it end?" Denny Hamlin asked. "Do you text or Tweet during cautions and then you look up and run into the guy behind you? There's certain parameters we've got to all play in, but if I'm thinking about winning the race, I'm not thinking about social media when I'm under that green flag or yellow flag or any of those conditions."
Most of the drivers asked about it in Phoenix didn't seem to mind that Keselowski had his phone or was tweeting, and didn't even realize they were allowed to have phones in their cars. Many joked about the attention Keselowski's tweeting generated, and Kevin Harvick ranted about having one more thing for his team to have to pay attention to.
"I'm going to look for every app I can for mile-per-hour, GPS mapping, and anything I can find to put in my car," Harvick joked. "I'm looking for it because I'm looking to outlaw this rule as fast as I can because I don't want to have to keep up with it. I have found a mile-per-hour app, so that'll be good down pit road."
The big concern is whether using a phone could provide a competitive advantage.
Today's cellphones are much more than just a way to call or text, filled with apps that do everything from providing weather and traffic updates to social networking and internet searches. There aren't any apps that can really help NASCAR drivers -- at least that they've found yet -- but there is the potential for a team to find a way to get an edge through a smartphone.
"The social media aspect was great for the sport, great for Brad," Jeff Gordon said. "From that side of it, it's awesome that NASCAR is being that lenient. But I think the technology of phones these days is growing rapidly. There could be some things that NASCAR might need to pay attention to that might need to keep the phones out of the car."
Keselowski isn't buying it. The way he sees it, the drivers are going close to 200 mph and have enough to worry about that they won't try checking their phones as they roar around the track.
"You could make an argument that a smartphone is a mini-computer," Keselowski said. "But it's not like I had it plugged into anything. I don't know how you could use it to cheat, quite frankly. I'm sure there are some smart people that would try to think of one. But the ability to give access to the fans is more than worth any of those small ramifications."
While many of the drivers said they have no intention of bringing their phones along for the ride during races, much less tweet, Keselowski doesn't intend to slow his fingers down anytime soon.
He grew up in the age of social media and was a fan of the drivers he's racing against just a few years ago, so he understands the importance of connecting with his fans. Today's fans want to be as close to the drivers as they possibly can and social media offers them a great avenue to interact with their favorite -- sometimes even least favorite -- drivers.
"As a fan of the sport and obviously I'm in that demographic, the 18-49 (year-olds), I find myself asking the question of what would I want to see," the 28-year-old said. "And to that end, that's what I try to show, that's what I try to be as an athlete, entertainer, race car driver, whatever you want to call me. And to me, the things that I did on Twitter that night was something that I would want to see."
If there was one drawback for the affable Keselowski, it was that his 140-characters-or-less posts may have dimmed the spotlight on the night's official winner, Daytona 500 champion Matt Kenseth.
"I somewhat felt bad for Matt because he obviously won the biggest race of the year," Keselowski said. "I'm sure he got a lot of attention, but I didn't mean to take any away from him."
Even if it did, it's not like Keselowski's going to stop. He's got too many people following him now.