Keegan Sobilo, 12, of New Baltimore, Michigan, carefully tucks his legs and arms into a fire suit, pulls on a helmet and climbs into a race car that can exceed 80 mph.
He has been doing this since age 8.
"I’d stand underneath the grandstand, and whenever somebody would get close to Keegan on the track, I’d have to walk away," said his mother, Hillary, 46, a kindergarten teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in Port Huron, Michigan. “At first, I was scared to death. I was like, 'Let's do bowling or swimming.' It’s still very scary. But he knows what he’s doing. Your heart goes out on that track every time he goes out there.”
The sixth grader always arrives at the track in his pajamas. The first time he wore his choo-choo train jammies to the track, Keegan went from last place to ninth place. He decided they brought luck. Since then, he has racked up a series of championships.
Now that his first corporate sponsorship is secured, Keegan is focused on NASCAR.
This year, he moves into a full-size race car – the kind professionals use.
“When I’m racing, I feel hot and tight in there, tight in the seat,” he said. “In the car, I don’t feel like I’m going that fast. When I go 90, it feels like you’re going 60. Sometimes when you’re going too fast, there’s not enough grip, and you’re sliding."
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Father and son
Passion for cars runs in the family.
Keegan's father is a design mechanic at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
"My father was an employee at Chrysler and had an opportunity to get me into the factory. After I finished my degree, I moved over to Auburn Hills, working in a research lab," said Roman Sobilo, 45.
"What I see in Keegan is passion, like how I feel about car restoration," he said. "But for him, everything has to align itself. I tell my son you have to be the perfect package. Winning races every weekend is not the (only) key. You have to have the right name, you have to look the correct way, speak the correct way, act the correct way. Then the rest of it is really luck, like the stock market. If you don't put yourself out there, you'll never hit it big."
While Keegan's classmates at school play basketball and volleyball, Keegan is at the Birch Run track – practicing, qualifying and racing until 10 p.m. or 2 a.m. While many children spend time playing video games, Keegan runs race simulation training with his joystick after school.
People ask whether Keegan pressures his parents to allow him to drive on regular roads.
"He has never mentioned anything about it," said Roman Sobilo (pronounced so-BEE-lo). "And what's weird is I asked him to move his mother's (Ford) Explorer two weeks ago on our property behind our garage, approximately 30 feet, and he was scared to do so. But he has no problem driving his full-size race car on the track."
Like on TV
Like the professional racers competing at Daytona International Speedway, Keegan wears a headset.
He listens carefully to his crew chief, Tim Phillips, 59, of Otsego, who has won multiple championships as a driver and crew chief.
“I work on his car three nights a week and deliver it to the track,” Phillips said. “Mom and Dad leave me alone, and I talk to Keegan on the radio as he’s going around. I’m in the pits when he’s racing. It’s just like on TV. If lap traffic is coming up, you need to be prepared. If you’re coming up on slower traffic, you need to have a plan."
Keegan may take corners at 65 or 80 mph, he said.
“Me and him will talk different strategy,” Phillips said. “He’s one of them little smart kids. He’s very intelligent, and he’s a good driver. He listens well. He wears those pajamas to the track every night and takes them off when he puts his race clothes on. He’s been doing that for the last four years. That’s his trademark. When he won the championship, he was shaking up little kid champagne.”
Phillips said the boy is tireless, staying up past 2 a.m. at Springport speedway in Calhoun County on the west side of the state.
“They made us race last,” Phillips said. “But he was ready to go.”
For four years, Keegan has raced minicars from May through October.
“You’ve got to know what you’re doing. These cars have quick steering, and they're fast,” said competitor Mike Todd, 69, of Galesburg, Michigan. “I think I was into it a year before Keegan. It was like, really, I’m going to be racing against a kid who doesn’t have a driver’s license? Come on, now. I had to put myself in check. It was like having a grandson. I showed him respect, and he showed me respect. The kid is cool. And he takes it very serious.”
Todd, a retired high school custodian, said he would never underestimate Keegan.
“I’d like to see him make it big. He’s got the willpower,” said Todd, a Marine who served in Vietnam and loves competing in the Great Lakes Super (GLS) Mini Cup Series that Keegan won.
“He spun me out a couple times. He was a sportsman all the way. We were both going into the corner, he tried to put his nose underneath,” Todd recalled. “And the front end of his car would wash out, hit the end of my car and spin me. It was nothing intentional. You’re going to get this car to go as fast as possible. Everything is momentum. There are centrifical clutches, so you have to build your speed up. We go into the corners full bore.”
Competitors meet on asphalt tracks in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. There may be nearly two dozen competitors or half a dozen. For Keegan, the 2020 season racing both half-size and full-size cars will require nearly 20 matchups that will consume all his weekends.
In full-size cars, he will race exclusively against drivers ages 10 to 15 who submit a resumé, prove their racing experience and go through the qualification process.
“This is nothing like street car racing. These cars are built from the ground up for racing. This is high-performance, like a Corvette on steroids,” said Glenn Luckett, managing partner of the Champion Racing Association, who is based in Salem, Indiana.
“This is like minor league to NASCAR,” he said. “It’s gotten a lot more difficult. By the time they’re 10 or 12, they’ve raced five or six years. It’s neat when you see a kid make it. A lot of talented kids don’t get the opportunity. It used to be just talent could get you where you needed to go. Now it’s a lot more about having the money to pay. And sponsorships aren’t what they used to be.”
Knowing he needs sponsors, Keegan scheduled a meeting Feb. 4 at Golling Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram of Roseville, Michigan, and spent 45 minutes stating his case.
"He came in and had a nice handshake," general manager Matt Godfrey said. "Then he gave me a book with a picture of him in his race car at a track."
The young racer explained that since seeing NASCAR at age 6, he has dreamed of racing. What stunned Godfrey, who said he has endured many presentations from people of all ages, is that Keegan included plans for brand awareness, a social media strategy, a media strategy, a public relations strategy and promotions.
Among Keegan's accomplishments: 2019 GLS Super Mini Cup champion; 2019 GLS Super Mini Cup Young Guns champion; 2018 GLS Super Mini Cup Young Guns champion; and 2018 GLS Super Mini Cup most improved driver.
Goals for this year, Keegan said, are to "maintain courteous professional behavior and appearance, represent my sponsors proudly."
Golling decided to sponsor Keegan "in one way or another," whether it's paying for tires, fuel, oil or filters, Godfrey said. "Golling is looking forward to being a sponsor in this 2020 upcoming season."
The young driver broke down all fees for sponsor review, including a spotter who tells the driver when to pass and when not to pass. If the dealership can't provide product directly, Godfrey said, it will write a check.
Keegan is the future of racing, Diane Flis-Schneider said after meeting him at an event in Rosemont, Illinois, in the fall of 2019.
"He has learned how to lose but still be a champion. What's important to him is understanding that losing is a part of life and how do you handle that gracefully? I mean, he has approached NASCAR drivers and said, 'I'm going to be you when I grow up,' " said Flis-Schneider, advancement director for America's Automotive Trust, a national organization that works to engage young people. "He's an older soul in a young man's body. If you believe in yourself and you're driven, people will support that passion."
This is a racer who dedicates his summers to being at the track. On some nights, he may not get to race until midnight because of a wreck from a previous group contaminating the track with oil, his father said. "He has fallen asleep in his car waiting in line to get out there and race."
Keegan is high honors at school. He is an orange belt in karate; it focuses his concentration.
"He is respectful and polite and adorable. He works hard, and he helps others," said Deb Siekmann, Keegan's fifth-grade teacher. "My husband is a NASCAR freak. I usually know the names of drivers, but my husband really loves it. I'm just fascinated by the idea of Keegan driving a car."
When she shared her disbelief with Keegan, he brought her an autographed picture. "I said, 'I'm going to hold onto this.' "
NASCAR cup series driver Erik Jones, 23, of Byron, Michigan, won the crash-filled Busch Clash, an annual exhibition the weekend before the Daytona 500. Jones shared his thoughts by email on Keegan and his dream:
- “Keep chasing it. It’s going to be a long road, of many ups and downs but it’ll all pay off once you reach your goal.”
- “It reminds me a lot of when I was that age. The devotion is necessary to make it to the top level."
- "The odds are very tough, there’s 40 guys in the whole world that get to race on Sundays. But most didn’t believe I would have made it to the top level either when I was 12.”
- "Racing is extremely taxing mentally, and will test your will greatly. You become a better and strong person through the successes and disappointments that racing will bring in life."
Hillary Sobilo thought she was done with car races.
"I swore when I moved out of my parents' house that I would never watch a race again. Now we watch on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday," she said, having had a father who relaxed with NASCAR after working as a Detroit Edison lineman.
Keegan's mom cooks up food in a crockpot and puts together healthy snacks to nibble trackside, though Keegan is often too nervous to eat. Days end with trips to McDonald's for Happy Meals after the family piles into their 2018 Ram 3500 with their Doberman, Apollo.
Later, Keegan will relax, watching "Home Improvement" or "America's Got Talent" or his favorite, "Ellen's Game of Games."
Each racetrack has different age limits and license requirements, and families are required to sign release forms when children under 16 get behind the wheel.
Keegan is one of a few drivers with grandparents in the crowd. Theresa Sobilo of Chesterfield comes to almost every race, and Don Robinson of Chesterfield comes when he can. Keegan misses his other grandmother, Carol Robinson, who died of lung cancer after cheering his first three years. She gave him an angel that says "drive carefully," which is zip-tied to the roll cage in his car.
And now, the new race season begins.
Hillary Sobilo has become the loudest cheering section.
"She's like 10 times one person," Keegan said, laughing so hard that he paused to take a deep breath and apologize. She yells, she jumps up and down. "Both my parents, I'm thankful they're putting their lives on hold to help me achieve my dreams."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan boy Keegan Sobilo could be future of NASCAR racing