Frank Kelleher leans on family values as new president at Daytona International Speedway

·5 min read

Frank Kelleher has been involved in family business since he was a kid.

Back then, he learned the ropes and hung on every word of his father and two uncles at Kelleher Tire back home in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Along the way, Kelleher developed a passion for cars and a personal code well suited to serve the France family, the founders and owners of NASCAR.

Kelleher spent nearly 19 years operating in the sport’s corporate side before recently segueing to the role of track president Daytona International Speedway, along with Homestead-Miami Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.

The 41-year-old brings to his new assignment the same all-hands-on-deck, jack-of-all-trades attitude he developed at Kelleher Tire.

“I was a young 6-, 7-, 8-years old in a very adult situation of being in a family business, blue-collar, living day to day, week to week,” Kelleher recalled this week. “Was around a lot of adult and business conversations from the time that I was little.”

Founded in 1927 by his grandfather Jerry, the tire shop survived the Great Depression and now has been in the same location since 1947 at 430 W. Market Street in Scranton.

Kelleher Tire’s staying power furnished lessons across generations that Kelleher, the ninth president in DIS’s 62-year history, has embraced during his rise up NASCAR management ranks.

“If you’re going to put your name on it, treat it with pride, and when you’re dealing with people treat them the way you want to be treated,” Kelleher said. “I think it’s those fundamentals that have helped me throughout my career.”

The most instructive, enduring fundamental has been the value of hard work.

Kelleher would go from school to the shop, where he cleaned bathrooms, swept bays and eventually learned to change tires and oil, drive the tow truck and even plow snow during Scranton’s long, bitter winters.

“I grew up a garage kid,” he said.

In time, a teenaged Kelleher moved out front behind the counter, where he worked closely with customers and managed 10 to 15 mechanics.

On weekends, a young Kelleher traveled to the dirt tracks in the Pocono mountains and carved out a spot on the wooden bleachers to watch his uncle, Tom, race cars. As Frank grew up, the family began to sneak him onto pit road to help out.

By age 16, Kelleher was racing himself, competing behind the wheel of go-karts around Pennsylvania. Blessed with composure, quick reflexes and a daredevil streak he maintains even now, Kelleher began racing national events in 2000 and would go on to win two 2001 World Karting Association national championships on road courses.

“I wanted to be a racer,” he said.

Kelleher also was a realist.

Go-kart teammate Bill Darcy also worked for International Speedway Corporation, owners of a number of NASCAR tracks. He helped Kelleher secure an internship at Daytona International Speedway during the summer of 2002.

Offered a job in 2003 a month before he graduated from Scranton’s Marywood University with a marketing degree, Kelleher turned to a new calling.

“I thought if I can’t make it behind the wheel, this sure beats changing tires and plowing snow,” he said.

Kelleher soon found himself on the road 150 days a year, sprinting through airports and making pitches in board rooms to lure corporate sponsorships to NASCAR.

Early in Kelleher’s career, the sport was an easy sell as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson drove record ratings and packed the grandstands.

The fallout of the economic recession in the late 2000′s, the retirement of the sport’s top stars and the emergence of other entertainment options have proved a challenge for NASCAR.

Kelleher is confident in the sport’s direction, especially given its success navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports Business Journal named NASCAR 2020′s sports league of year for its ability to safely return to competition before any other league and finish its season with fans in the stands.

“You don’t get that honor doing things the wrong way,” Kelleher said.

NASCAR also reportedly lost $150 million in ticket revenue, the kind of financial bloodletting experienced by all professional leagues and college athletic programs coast to coast.

Kelleher instead looks to the future.

The Next Gen car will debut in 2022 and have more of a stock feel to correlate better mass-production counterparts and allow new manufacturers to become involved for a much lower price tag. Kelleher is encouraged by new sponsorships with Ruoff Mortgage and Door Dash, along with extensions with longtime partners Coca-Cola and Anheuser-Busch.

Kelleher also emphasized NASCAR’s focus on broadening its appeal to other demographics, embrace of technology like iRacing and focus on fan amenities as tracks modernize.

“I’m proud of all the things the sports has done,” Kelleher said. “It’s just getting warmed up.”

Kelleher is himself warming up to a new high-profile role after nearly two decades of operating behind the scenes.

A longtime resident of the Daytona Beach area, Kelleher said the move comes at a perfect time as he and his wife, Lauren, raise their children, Frankie, 7, and Tess, 5.

Kelleher aims to set the kind of example for his children his father, Frank, and uncles Tom and Leo did for him ― and still do.

“It’s crazy to think my dad and his two brothers still get up every day and put their boots on and go to work at that same building since they were born,” Kelleher said.

Kelleher still speaks to father, now 65, on most Sundays. This Sunday, the two men will have plenty to discuss following Kelleher‘s first race as president of the most iconic track in NASCAR.

What’s understood without having to be said is Kelleher’s opportunity is rooted in those lessons learned back home at the family tire shop.

“The No. 1 thing my father has instilled in me is you need to be your own man in life,” Kelleher said. “You need to be able to stand on your own two feet. He has lived by that through and through.

“That’s something I try to carry the torch on, as well.”

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