For most of Mark Kelso’s involvement in professional sports, the biggest event came at the end of the season.
During seven years as an NFL free safety, that was the Super Bowl, in which Kelso played four consecutive times with the Buffalo Bills from 1990 to 1993.
However, in his four years as manager of a NASCAR race team, Kelso has gotten used to the biggest event — the Daytona 500 — happening at the start of the schedule. Sunday marks the 61st running of “The Great American Race.”
“Some people would argue it's NASCAR’s biggest race,” Kelso said. “Certainly, there’s a lot of prestige and pageantry around the Daytona 500, much like the Super Bowl.”
He’ll be at the heart of it all, watching from a pit box along pit road. Kelso and his fellow representatives from JTG Daugherty Racing will be focused on its two entries: the No. 37 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, driven by Chris Buescher, and the No. 47 Chevy, driven by Ryan Preece.
Kelso and his wife, Robin, remain based in Western New York. They have two sons, each of whom is pursuing a medical degree, and a daughter, who is practicing law. Kelso, 55, is best known as the analyst on Bills' radio broadcasts, partnering with play-by-play man John Murphy since 2006. He was the development director at Saint Mary’s High School in Lancaster, and served as defensive coordinator of its varsity football team from 2003 to 2010. He also taught fifth grade at Main Street Elementary School in East Aurora.
JTG is co-owned by Kelso’s longtime friend and former roommate at William & Mary College, Tad Geschickter, and Geschickter’s wife, Jodi. Kelso was a standout football player at William & Mary, while Geschickter was on the baseball team. They were also members of the same fraternity, and remained close after graduation. Geschickter spent many years working for Procter & Gamble in marketing.
Through product-placement experiences that connected him with auto racing, he developed a passion for the sport and eventually started a NASCAR Busch Grand National Series team in 1995 with five-time NBA All-Star Brad Daugherty.
Kelso, who had 30 career interceptions for 327 yards and two touchdowns, frequently commutes to the team’s headquarters in Harrisburg, N.C., and to Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races involving its two cars, but is able to do a fair amount of work from WNY. “Video conferencing and all the things that technology has afforded businessmen in this day and age give you an opportunity to be in constant contact with people,” he said.
Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, Kelso wasn’t a fan of auto racing. A couple of small tracks were nearby, but the intensity is nothing like what he has regularly witnessed up-close since 2015. “People are riding around trying to stay out of trouble and make sure they don’t contact the guy in front of them,” he said. “But they're driving over 200 miles an hour and they’re six inches or a foot from the bumper of the car in front and behind, and one wrong turn or one ill-advised foot on the brake can cause a lot of problems.”
In the latest edition of “One-on-One Coverage,” The Buffalo News spent time on the phone with Kelso, who was speaking from JTG headquarters before heading to Daytona.
Buffalo News: How did the friendship between you and Tad develop?
Mark Kelso: The baseball team’s game field was also our practice field for football. So they'd be out there in fall ball and we’d be out there practicing and we just developed a friendship. Their batting cage was underneath the football stadium stands and I would throw batting practice to him constantly and we got to be friends. We ended up in the same fraternity and that's when our friendship really grew. We’d room together subsequently for a couple years after that, and we stayed there in the summer.
The irony of the whole thing is that I majored in business and ended up in education, with teaching for all those years after I got done playing football. Tad majored in education and kinesiology, and he ended up in business. He's a high-level thinker. He’s got this strategic approach to everything and he sees the big picture. To use a baseball analogy, he's at third base a lot of times with marketing programs that he wants to run and he's got to realize that the rest of the team is just rounding first and he's got to kind of back it up to between first and second base so everybody gets on board with what he's thinking. He just sees the whole thing unfold at one time as opposed to somebody who's more linear and is going to go through it step by step and page by page.
There's no question that he's the linchpin of the whole operation. He and Jodi work as a team and do a terrific job in a really tough market. I mean, NASCAR, like all sports, there's a little bit of attrition in regard to viewership. But there are still millions and millions of fans that are interested in it, and Tad and Jodi tend to focus on that and utilize that to help their client partners.
BN: At what point did you have the conversation about joining the racing team?
MK: That conversation probably started way back at the beginning of Tad and Jodi’s foray into the business. He was still working at Procter & Gamble, and then running the racing team on the side and utilizing some of his connections in the way that he sold product. He said to me, “Come on down here and help me run the race team.” I came down and looked at it and I didn't feel like it was the right fit from a community perspective. We had been in Buffalo for nine, 10 years and the kids were in school already, and that's where we wanted to plant some roots. That’s when I decided to really pursue my master's degree in education and raise the family in Western New York, and have zero regrets about that.
Racing is a business that consumes you through a large part of the year. You’re racing 36 weekends and if you're on the road with those race teams and you're going every weekend, it's difficult on a family. But Tad and I have always been really close and talk all the time and we’d get together at certain points throughout the season. I’d go to a couple races a year and see the operation and sometimes we’d travel together and vacation together as families and always maintained that close bond.
When my kids graduated from school and I was still in education for a little while, he called and said, “Hey, why don't you come down and help me a little bit?” I’d come down occasionally and do some leadership activities and things that kind of helped the team gel a little bit better and create some synergy and try to make sure that he had all the right pieces in place to have a really healthy competition level. And then, eventually, it just got to the point where he said, “Hey, I need a little more help so why don’t you come down here for a while and let's see if we can make this thing work?”
BN: How many people are on a race team?
MK: Well, teams vary. The Gibbs teams probably have 500 or 600 people and we have about 110. If you kind of equate it to a football team, I look at it like you have a shop crew that puts the car together. That’s kind of like the offensive unit, which determines the strategy that the team might have on a particular weekend. You have all your engineers that are pouring information into those guys and sometimes young ladies as well; we've got a couple females on the on the racing side.
We’ve got a tire specialist and then we've got a lot of people on the marketing side. And then we have the road crew that works in the shop during the week. They're the ones responsible for the car when it gets to the racetrack and they're kind of like the defensive unit, because they’re going to react to all kinds of different game-day conditions that arise, whether it's weather conditions or track conditions. Whatever component or adjustment that needs to be made, they're going to make those adjustments. Then you have the pit crew, which is like the special teams crew. They don't have a ton of visibility and don't have a ton of responsibility, but their responsibility is critical to the success of the operation on game day. And if they make a mistake, it's going to really inhibit your opportunity on race day.
And then you’ve got guys that are the coaching staffs: crew chiefs and competition directors that really run the operation from the racing side. Those are the guys that are working around the clock and trying to make sure that they put the best car on the track and that you have the right synergy with the driver and you're building things the way the driver likes them so that it's in their sweet spot and they can drive to the best of their capability and you get the best chance to win.
BN: What are your duties?
MK: My role’s kind of kind of multifaceted. When I first came down here, it was us saying, “OK, let's make sure that we have everybody pulling in the same direction and working together.” We needed to make sure that they had things working in the race shop with the same efficiency that they work up in the marketing department, with Tad as kind of the lead person. Then we added some people that have some attention to detail to complement his skill set as well.
Now that we're running all kinds of different marketing programs, my responsibility has moved over to that area with a lot of the different marketing programs that we’re running. Tad’s brainchild is, “Let’s take this program and utilize it in other areas besides the NASCAR space.” We've got all kinds of different marketing programs that are outside the race team. We're running programs in sustainability and in minor league baseball. We're running some cause programs with Feeding America. The race team’s probably the easiest because there's a lot of people that been here and been with Ted for 15 years and can sell the race team pretty easily.
BN: How much of what you learned during your career with the Bills do you apply to this job?
MK: I think you call on your educational and your academic background, but you call on a lot of your just personal experience. And I had the opportunity to play for Marv Levy and we’ve used a lot of his principles. There's a lot of those leadership principles from Marv and Bill Polian that I like to use on how to make sure you get people to do the things that you want to do and not being forced into doing those things, but understanding that that's a component that's going to help the team and then ultimately it's the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
You want to have great parts and you want to have people that are extremely capable, but you want to have a mindset that helps them understand that they have their contribution to a total model and a total team situation. And if they do their job and everybody else does their job alongside them, then you have a chance to be competitive. It's not guaranteed, but at least you put yourself in position to have an opportunity to be successful. Happy workers are productive workers, in my mind, so if you can keep them happy in most respects, then you have an opportunity to get as much as you possibly can out of them.
BN: How do you juggle all that with your broadcast work?
MK: There's not a lot of free time in the fall, I’ll say that. But it's a lot easier now with the film work on your iPad, so you can carry it with you to wherever you go. I spend a lot of time studying. There's no sense to do anything unless you're going to be, as they say in racing, full-throttle. With the broadcast, you have to be so prepared because you're not sure what's going to happen. You typically use just a small percentage of the information that you gather, but if you don't have all that information at your disposal, then you can’t react to different situations or comment on different situations that might happen throughout the course of the game.
Sometimes I’ve got to make sure that I limit the information that I deliver, because sometimes I think too much and then it gets confusing because you got so much in your mind you've got to be careful that you simplify things. Sometimes I think I simplify them really well and sometimes I'll get done with a comment and Murph will start talking and I'll say to myself, “Don’t say so much, because that was too much information.”