While NASCAR has been receiving the headlines in auto racing after the wild and miraculous circumstances of the Daytona 500, it’s important to note that the racing season is getting under way in all forms of America’s greatest sport. In some ways, it never even stopped. “Indoor racing” has resurged in popularity in recent years during the colder months. Out of the elements smaller race cars compete on temporary arena tracks for a small fortune in prize money, featuring drivers of all levels of stardom. The most famous indoor race, the Chili Bowl held each January in Tulsa, OK, features nationally recognized talent from NASCAR and other nationally touring race series. Racing’s biggest celebrities slinging “midget” sprint cars on a dirt track to the enjoyment of thousands of rowdy fans is a marquee event on most people’s calendar. The northeast has been developing an indoor track series as well for the last several years, and for the last three has been featuring a dirt race of its own. The East Coast Indoor Dirt Nationals held at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton, NJ features 600cc engined “Micro Sprints” on an efficiently built clay track on the concrete floor of the arena. The talent participating ranges from full time professionals, multi-generational local heroes, and the best of racers that drive these small sprint cars on a regular basis. Over the weekend, 81 drivers competed for 24 starting positions in the 2020 Dirt Nationals Feature race, but no driver had a more unique experience than South Jersey’s Jon Keller.
After a series of mishaps on Friday’s qualifying night (including three “unassisted” spins), the South Jersey micro sprint “regular” Jon Keller was relegated to one of the last positions for Saturday’s main event series. Oh and to add insult to injury, he also flipped his car during practice that afternoon. If you’re one of our non-race fan readers, allow me to explain his situation (please skip to the next paragraph if you’re a race fan, as this will only bug you). All 81 drivers after Friday’s qualifying were broken into groups that make up the main event race series, with the lowest qualifying drivers racing first in an event that is assigned a letter from the alphabet, with the low group having the highest assigned letter. For this event, the lowest cars were in what’s called the “E” feature. They raced first on Saturday and the highest finishers from the E were put into the back of the “D” feature, still alive with a hope of moving on, and the lower finishing cars are eliminated from the competition…and so on with a “C” followed by “B” until 24 cars fill the “A” Main Event Feature roster. Someone in Keller’s situation would need to finish in the top few spots in 4 consecutive short feature races, starting from almost dead last each time just to make it to the main event.
To put it simply: Jon Keller had the longest odds of even making the A Main, let alone what might happen if he somehow made it there. While far more expensive looking cars with young talent and incomprehensible corporately generated nicknames were crashing out either through serendipitous error or mechanical misfortune, Keller’s unassuming black number K9 stayed alive. Making key passes and driving remarkably safe for such a tight race track, the K9 was making each lap count. The E main became the D, became the C, became the B and Keller’s skillful performance was turning heads in the Trenton grandstands. With his 4th consecutive miraculous race avoiding trouble and staying fast, Keller made the A-Main field to the cheers of the crowd. After an impromptu interview with on track announcer Steve Post (where Keller dropped an awesome F-bomb to the crowd’s approval), the K9 was “mission accomplished” in the eyes of nearly every person in attendance. “The working class driver makes the big show the hard way and takes home a few well earned dollars” was the tertiary snippet anecdote no-doubt being earmarked for the following week’s racing press coverage. Starting 24th in the field, and the northeast’s most famous dirt racers aligned ahead, we could rest easy with our feel good story and dismiss Keller just as quickly as he arrived…but he wasn’t done yet.
The 50 lap A-Main was a back and forth battle between regionally recognized superstars, clicking off 9 second laps and bringing the crowd to a fever pitch on multiple occasions. After a large pile-up involving a half dozen of the favorites, Keller drove around the carnage to move up closer to the front with most of the event’s best talent now behind him. A weekend where it seemed a hard luck driver had nothing going right had suddenly the makings of the charmed racer livin’ right and taking advantage. As the laps wound down, and last year’s race winner cruising with a big lead, most fans were again settling on their feel good story getting just a little sweeter…but dammit, Keller still wasn’t done.
On a restart with two laps to go, Keller made a bold move on the outside and bounded ahead of Erik Rudolph as the crowd cheered feverishly and pumped their fists halfway between a state of joy and one of bewilderment. For what started the day with a flipped race car and the longest of odds, beginning from practically dead last out of 81 drivers, Jon Keller went out after 4 grueling last chance races, took to the 50 lap feature…and won the whole fucking thing.
I try my best to avoid hyperbole when thinking about something I love so dearly like auto racing…but this was the greatest accomplishment I’ve ever seen live on a race track. There has to be more to Keller’s story, or at the very least, I want to know how this accomplishment sits in his mind now that it’s happened. After reaching out, Jon Keller was good enough to share some time for an interview, as we discussed some present and future issues for his place in the motor racing world.
Q: Saturday’s win may go down as one of the more impressive wins in northeast dirt racing history. Has the significance of not only the win but the journey it took to get there fully sunk in?
Keller: Not at all. It’s absolutely unreal to me. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that my team and I would be the ones to accomplish something like that. But I do believe hard work prevails. You get out what you put in and I can tell you my team undoubtedly went all in!
Q: The indoor race season by design produces an “all-star” talent pool from many forms of racing. As a regular micro sprint driver, does this give your team any advantage?
Keller: To some degree I do believe we have a slight advantage over the guys hopping into the 600’s for the one and only time they get in them. But that only lasts so long. Talent is talent and there’s an abundance of that at races like this. The good guys will figure it out quickly regardless of their seat time in a 600 sprint.
Q: In one of your on track interviews Saturday you mentioned “feeling like you belong with the big boys” referring to the stout competition the indoor race brings. Do you feel like you belong now?
Keller: Eh, I’m not sure I’ll ever feel like I belong there. And I think that’s a good way to think about it. It’s what drives me to work so hard. I’ve never wanted to be a big fish in a little pond but I’d rather be the big fish in a big pond. I wanna beat the big boys or exhaust myself trying. We hold our own but in my eyes I have a lot more to accomplish before I’ll be satisfied. This was surely a win I’ll likely never top, but there is still much more work to be done before I’m comfortable with where I’m at in my racing career.
Q: After Friday’s qualifying troubles what sort of game plan did your team have to get back in the fight? Do you feel the current qualifying structure (heats and qualifying races leading to letter mains) produces the best possible cars for the feature race?
Keller: After Friday night and my sole poor performance, rebounding was mostly a mental struggle rather then a repair or equipment issue. Being mentally defeated is often times more difficult to recover from then flipping down the back stretch (yes, I did that too!) But there’s no worse feeling then the feeling that you had let your team down. You see, we all work on the car and prepare the toolboxes, but it’s my job to take care of the car and perform once it hits the track. I simply did not do that Friday evening and I made the job much more difficult for not only myself, but my team. But they never left my side and rallied me to keep pushing on. A true testament to the backbone of our operation.
As far as the format, don’t really have much comment on it. It is what it is. We all understand it going in. Each race has its own quarks and quite honestly it’s nice when they aren’t all the same. Mixing in different qualifying structures throughout the season just promotes race teams to adapt and overcome to ensure you have a well thought out game plan going into the show. Obviously spinning three times in a heat race in which passing and finishing points are so crucial and then being forced to park it on the infield is not exactly the ideal game plan heading into not only this race but any race!
Q: Before taking into account the big win, how have you and your team felt about the first few indoor dirt races in Trenton?
Keller: Although we’ve generally struggled at all three of them, they are undoubtedly an awesome event that if you want to accomplish something big, you have to be in attendance.
Q: How do you and your team feel about the cost of racing micro sprints (indoor/outdoor) compared to other forms of racing in the northeast?
Keller: We don’t have much experience outside the 600 sprints. We save a lot on the things we can handle within our own shop. We build our own front axles, diagnose and repair our own engines, and we ensure we don’t stick to one vendor for parts when we don’t have to. We support a few local small businesses that give us great prices on parts we can get locally. Racing is expensive. Everyone knows that. But the more you know, the more cost conscious you can be.
Q: Do you have any long term or milestone goals to achieve in your time as a racecar driver? Is there a white whale you’re chasing?
Keller: There’s surely a white whale I’m chasing. I just haven’t quite identified it yet. My wife will tell you that. But at this point I am just out to win as often as I can with my friends and family. Another championship with my Cobbs Mill team would be a great accomplishment considering how much they’ve put into our operation.
Q: What plans do you have for the 2020 season? Any desire to shake things up?
Keller: We’ll be racing most weekends, likely at Spirit Auto Center (Bridgeport) Speedway. We are pushing to have a winged and wingless 600 sprint ready to go for whatever we’d like to do each weekend. We’re hoping to hit some Midwest races as well. Nothing is off the table.
Q: What size team do you have behind the scenes? What makes this team a winning operation both in the regular season and now for these special events?
Keller: We basically have one big team that often times splits up during the season. My family team, Keller Motorsports, has supported my current team, Cobbs Mill Performance & Fabrication and visa versa any time it’s needed. My brother races with my parents representing the Keller Motorsports team with help from Kristy Hicks, David Nelson, and Juan Dejesus. The Cobbs Mill team is mainly myself, Dave and David Cobb as well as David Zubec. But both teams count on one another for support during the course of the season. What one team can’t do it’s likely the other can. Makes for a great dynamic.
Q: What sponsors or people would you like to recognize to have made this all possible?
Keller: I can’t thank Dave and David Cobb, my brother Richie and his girlfriend Kristy Hicks, my cousin David Zubec, Kyle Spence, Andrew Young, Randy West, Jack Conover, Andrew Joslin, Gil Hinson, my wife and parents enough for the support.
Dave Orange Engines
Newlin Bar Service
I’m sure I forgot someone. There’s so many people that made this possible. I can’t remember everyone. But I’m so appreciative of all the support.