The first thing First Coast News noted to Frank Kelleher as we sat down for our one-on-one interview:
Frank is a racing guy. Has been since birth.
His predecessor at Daytona International Speedway (and a friend of both Kelleher and this reporter) Chip Wilie played tennis in college.
"I grew up in a racing family. We sold racing fuel and racing tires," the Scranton, Pennsylvania, native explained. Kelleher Tires is still a mainstay in Scranton to this day.
"I remember being a young kid -- seven, eight years old -- and sitting on a wooden bleacher at a dirt track in the Poconos and watching my uncle race. And then my cousin started racing when he was a teenager. And then I was in the pits and part of the pit crew. It was just the life that I knew and that I loved and just felt a lot of pride in it."
Not just pride in the grease marks and scratches: watching his father, grandfather and uncles interact with customers set Kelleher up for the job he now has today, as only the ninth president in Daytona International Speedway's storied history.
"I remember one specific afternoon. I don't know what I did, but I did something wrong. And I just remember my uncle taking me out front of the building and pointing at the front where it says 'Kelleher Tires,' and he just said, 'hey, you know. If you don't treat people the right way, they're going to go throughout this whole Valley and say, 'Kelleher took advantage of us.''
"There's just something about that small, blue collar town [value] of just work hard and do the right thing and treat people the right way, regardless of who they are. And I really haven't changed a whole lot since then -- of how I approached day to day of colleagues or guests that come through the gates."
Kelleher was able to parlay his passion for racing and studies at Marywood University into an internship his junior year at the former International Speedway Corporation (ISC) in Daytona and worked in the sales and marketing department. Before he had graduated, NASCAR had offered him a full-time job as a marketing coordinator. He'd spend the next 18 years climbing NASCAR's corporate ranks, splitting his time between Daytona Beach and Charlotte.
But it was at The World Center of Racing that Kelleher truly became hooked on the sport. It's why he isn't entirely sure what his emotions will be when the flag drops for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 on August 28, his first, major race as track president.
"I remember my first Daytona 500: my internship was over, but I had driven through a snowstorm through Pennsylvania to get here. I think I was the only vehicle that had snow tires on their car in Volusia County that race. And I remember being on the backstretch and watching the cars roll off of turn to for the first time. And it's just like -- the hair stands up on your arm and it is borderline emotional. Like, 'oh my gosh!' Like, 'I'm here. This is the Daytona 500.'
"So I'll be candid: I don't really know what [emotions will be] flowing through me (at the Coke Zero Sugar 400). But probably the reality of, 'Wow. I am the president.' It's not just me, it is a team. But being the person kind of steering the ship, I'm sure it's gonna be a real special moment that I'll never forget."
Not too shabby for a kid from Scranton, Pennsylvania.
"They're stoked. I mean, they are just beyond proud and ecstatic," Kelleher smiled. Much of his family still resides in Scranton. "I know that the whole community looks at me just with a lot of pride. And they know me as that garage kid from 430 West Market Street who was there to change your tires. And with that I take responsibility. I want to continue to earn it for them."
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The 2021 Coke Zero Sugar 400 airs Saturday night at 7 p.m. on NBC 12. Tickets and more information can be found at Daytona International Speedway's website.