Author: Kevin Heaney (Pocono Raceway -Sr. Director, Marketing Communications)
My 15-year career in motorsports has been a blessed one and influence by some of the sports greatest ambassadors. Three of those men are Winston Kelley, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer. As these individuals gear up for life’s next adventure, away from the weekly grind of the NASCAR schedule, I bid them a fond farewell and express my thanks for all they did to help shape my career…
Turn 1: The Gentleman – Winston Kelley
Generous, humble, respectful, wise and unselfish. This is Winston Kelley and if it had not been for him, I would not be working in motorsports today.
Winston Kelley was enjoying a cocktail inside a NYC steakhouse during NASCAR Champions Week in December 2004. Winston overhead a conversation between the bartender, my dad, and two members of the Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) marketing team. The subject matter of their conversation was me, and whether the HMS internship I had been offered was still a go. I was unsure because HMS was still reeling from a truly tragic event. My father told me to give them time before reaching out.
HMS’s President, John Hendrick, interviewed and hired me on the spot at Pocono Raceway in August. Sadly, John; his daughters and nephew; HMS GM, Jeff Turner; HMS Chief Engine Builder, Randy Dorton; DuPont Executive, Joe Jackson; and pilots Scott Lanthram, Richard Tracy, and Elizabeth Morrison passed away in a plane crash on October 24.
During the conversation at the steakhouse the HMS folks told my dad Rick Hendrick, the owner of the team, wanted to make good on John’s promise to me and to say the internship was still mine. Elated with this incredible news, my father asked the HMS team if they knew of any short-term housing suggestions in Charlotte. This is when Winston Kelley politely interrupted.
Winston, without knowing my name and having never met me before, offered the top floor of his townhouse for the entire duration of my summer internship. He told me dad, “Someone once helped me get a start in this business and I would be honored to do the same for your son.” When my father asked the cost for the room rental, Winston said, “Free.”
Winston and I met for the first time about a month before I moved into his townhouse. While that internship kick-started my motorsports career, it was the times spent with Winston that really shaped my future. We had many meals together and he often secretly picked up the bill before I even was aware of it. (Our favorite spot was the Moosehead Grill where we’d indulge in wings, onion-rings, ranch and beer. 🙂 Winston also shared career advice with me, life lesson he picked up along the way and an incredible wealth of NASCAR history. While he jokingly gives grief me when reaching out now, Winston always answers my call. The lifelong friendship we established is one of the most treasured bonds I have made in my professional career.
Winston – Congrats on your incredible 34-year Motor Racing Network career. Radio broadcasts will not be same without you. Enjoy your off weekends next year, but be sure to include a stop to visit in Pocono. You are the best, my friend!
Turn 2: True Champion – Jimmie Johnson
A seven-time NASCAR Champion, the first driver to win five of them in a row and quite possibly one of the greatest ambassadors to the sport of NASCAR. This is Jimmie Johnson and if it had not been for him, I would not be working in motorsports today.
My Hendrick Motorsports internship began in May 2005. Originally, the job description focused on public relations. Upon my arrival, however, I was tasked with managing the Lowe’s showcar. The Lowe’s program consisted of eight showcars, traveling the country for grand openings, charity events and sponsor obligations. As I took on this summer job I was witnessing Jimmie’s star power and how it was influencing a brand’s relevancy in the world.
In addition to the showcar program, I was often assisted with various HMS sponsorship events and driver appearances. My very first week at HMS, while working one of these events I met Jimmie for the first time. I was directed to escort Jimmie from his car, give him talking points/notes about the sponsor and see if he needed anything before things got underway. Before I could even say hello, Jimmie said, “Hey there. I’m Jimmie. This is my wife Channy. You’re the new summer intern, right? It’s nice to meet you.” We chatted on the short walk to the stage. He was more interested in learning about me and my career goals than reviewing the talking points. He even stopped before getting too close to the stage so we can finish our conversation. I was not star struck at the celebrity in front of me, I was blown away at the humbling experience of his time and how he focused his energy to learn more about a college student.
As our respective career’s carried on our paths would cross often, especially so once I landed at Pocono Raceway. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to interview him during a media availability, at a fan appearance on race weekend and as our very first guest on “The Pocono Raceway Podcast.” While there were no interview sessions in 2020, I did have the chance to spend two minutes with Jimmie before his last career Pocono start. As we stood at the start/finish line, which adorned the words ‘Jimmie’ as a salute to all he did for our venue and industry, I shared much of what I wrote above. I also shared my appreciation for playing such a large, behind-the-scenes role in my career. This time, while it was certainly not my intention, he was blown away by me. He recounted our past encounters, recalled our initial meeting and marveled at how our careers have intertwined. As only Jimmie Johnson can do, our conversation ended with JJ showing his appreciation for reliving the stories from our past and by thanking ME for all I did for his career. Touché, Jimmie…touché!
Jimmie – Thank you for all you have done for the sport I call home and for always remaining humble. Your accomplishments on the track are only outweighed by all you do off the track. I will be forever grateful to you for so many reasons. Best of luck, champ!
Turn 3: The Life of the Party – Clint Bowyer
Charismatic, hilarious, competitive, and the guy you want to have a beer with someday. This is Clint Bowyer and if it had not been for him, I would not be working in motorsports today.
My motorsports career, prior to my current role at Pocono Raceway (2011-present) has included the internship at HMS (2005), a summer ticketing job at Pocono (2006), two full seasons at a public relations and hospitality firm representing DuPont Motorsports (2006-2008) and two years with Richard Childress Racing (2009-2010.) While I had a few opportunities to sit in the background during several of Jeff Gordon’s victories, I was still missing MY first win. A win where I played a more direct role with marketing and media relations of a car, sponsor and driver. That day finally came while working at Richard Childress Racing as the media relations representative for the No. 29 Holiday Inn/Holiday Inn Express Chevrolet. The track Daytona International Speedway. The date…July 3, 2009. The track…Daytona International Speedway. The driver…Clint Bowyer.
Bowyer was behind the wheel and he qualified on the pole. He led the first 11 laps, fell back a bit and settled comfortably in the lead pack for the beginning stages of the race. The car was really strong and Bowyer was just biding his time, calculating moves and doing his best to avoid any wreck along the way. With 35 laps to go, Bowyer back to first and led the race all the way to the checkered flag. The race included some drama with an overtime stint, but Bowyer remained at the point as the checkered flag waved. Holy s***, we won at Daytona!
I tried to focus my efforts on my post-race tasks, so my first Victory Lane is a bit blurry. Once Clint arrived to Victory Lane, we had about 60 seconds before ESPN would ask him to get out the car, drinks would be thrown through the air in celebration and Bowyer would be interviewed live on TV. He made sure to listen to me while I rattled off the sponsor list, handed him the Coke and signaled for him to get out of the car. Both of us were laser focused to every sponsor who made this win possible before getting to the celebration part. But for me, I remained focused on lining up the next set of sponsor hats, coordinating the next interview and who would be taking the trophy once we completed photos in Victory Lane. Once done, we were off to the media center.
While on the golf cart ride to the media center, things started to become less hazy. I didn’t get a Victory Lane hat for myself. While was completely soaked in a combination of beer, champagne and cola, I realized I didn’t soak in the win. I guess my facial expressions went from the elation of the win to the ‘what the heck just happened’ look. Bowyer quickly recognized this and said, “What the hell is wrong with you, bud!?!? We just won! AT DAYTONA!”
I explained no hat, no beer and it is all a blur. Once we arrived to the media center, everyone inside was waiting on Clint. But, Clint made them wait a few minutes more. He wanted this moment to sink in for everyone around him, and mainly me. He handed me a cold beer and said, “Cheers.” We took a few sips and he turned toward the media center door. He then turned back to me, pulled out a black Sharpie and signed my shirt. “Hah! There’s your Victory Lane souvenir, ‘Bubba!’” That became our celebratory routine after a victory. Clint won, we shared an ice cold brew and then he signed my shirt. While I have about three hundred more stories about Clint, my favorites involve three stained Victory Lane souvenirs.
Clint – Thank you. You showed me how to balance working hard to accomplish goals while having fun while doing it and to treat everyone the same. Best of luck moving to the TV booth next season. And the next beer is on me, ‘Bubba.’