Get to know Winston Kelley in this week’s Motor Racing Network announcer spotlight. Winston is a pit reporter for MRN and is the executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Q: What are your emotions heading into your final full-time season with the Motor Racing Network?
Kelley: By far and away the best part of both jobs I have are the relationships throughout the NASCAR Industry. The people are what make this industry so very special. The fact I’ll still go to 10 – 12 races a year and get to see these folks will make the transition a lot easier. I will miss the regular interactions on pit road with the drivers, crew chiefs, crew members, PR reps, fellow media members and others. I’ll miss following, analyzing and trying to anticipate the strategic decisions the crew chiefs make and the exuberance and emotions of almost every victory lane. I plan to heed the advice I received years ago to step back and enjoy the moments you’re blessed with. I plan to thoroughly enjoy this last year on the air regularly and also look forward to the opportunity to occasionally fill in on MRN in the future if asked. I have been truly blessed to be with MRN these last 34 years. I can never adequately put into words the incredible honor and privilege it has been to be a part of the MRN team. Becoming a part of the NASCAR industry in general, and a member of a NASCAR broadcast team was a dream of mine from childhood. I never dreamed so big as to consider I would work for the most storied, recognizable and talented broadcast team in NASCAR, much less for 34 years. I will always be so thankful for this opportunity and plan to cherish and soak in each moment with this team throughout the 2020 season.
I would add, the decision to step back from being a regular part of the MRN team was one of the two most difficult professional decisions I’ve made in my 40 year work career, along with the decision to leave Duke Power. I have thought about this for a long time. People who know me know that if I am anything, I am thoughtful and deliberate, sometimes to a fault. I am very much at peace that this is the right decision at the right time and that I need to focus my professional attention fully on the NASCAR Hall of Fame. While the Hall of Fame is doing quite well and we have an exceptional staff, I just feel there are times a leaders’ presence makes a huge difference. Jim France is a great example of that, although his humility wouldn’t care for me to say that. There is a saying I believe in – "lead by example, not by explanation." Jim does that as did his brother, Bill Jr., and so many other leaders I admire like Richard Petty, Roger Penske, Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress and Mike Helton to name a few. They are all present with their organizations and teams and I feel the need to do the same at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which includes some weekends when I have been at the track in the past, along with being there throughout the week.
Q: How did you become interested in broadcasting?
Kelley: My dad was involved in NASCAR. He was the first public relations director at Charlotte Motor Speedway and he did a lot of public address work while he was there. When he went into business for himself, he worked for the former Universal Racing Network. So if your dad hunts or fishes, or whatever, you tend to hunt and fish. In my case, my dad broadcast races. He went to races in and around Concord, N.C., where we grew up. We got to go to Atlanta, Rockingham, Bristol, Martinsville and places like that. I grew up around the sport and thought I’d like to do that when I got out of college. Back then, you couldn’t make a living broadcasting. MRN didn’t have full schedules and TV coverage wasn’t like it is now. I was interested in becoming involved in NASCAR.
Q: How did you get involved with the Motor Racing Network?
Kelley: When I wanted to get involved in NASCAR, I worked for the Universal Racing Network starting in 1981. That led to public address announcing at North Wilkesboro, Bristol and some other tracks. In late 1986 or early 1987, I called John McMullen – MRN’s general manager at the time – and said I would like to get involved with Motor Racing Network in whatever capacity because MRN was the place to be if you wanted to be involved in radio broadcasting. URN was not in existence anymore. The very first weekend I went to the races with MRN was at Rockingham in 1987 as a gopher. I helped set up equipment, run information, be a spotter on pit road, tear down equipment and did that for the next couple of years until I had a chance to actually be on the air.
Q: What do you remember about your first broadcast with MRN?
Kelley: John (McMullen) told me in the middle part of 1988 that he was going to let me be a part of the broadcast team on the doubleheader race for the Xfinity (then Busch) Series and Modified race at Martinsville Speedway the end of October. I was going to as many of the races that I could drive to and find a place to stay. Sometimes, John would get me a room. So I was at Martinsville for the Cup race in the middle of September. On Saturday, MRN did a couple of auditions for Turn guys. I was on pit road as part of that process, just to get acclimated. It was a Busch race we weren’t actually broadcasting live, so I could actually go through the motions. If the Turn guys were doing something in the audition they needed to do better or differently, they could stop the broadcast. If I did something I needed to do differently – I actually did interviews with drivers and stuff like that, so they could give us feedback. The intent was six weeks later, I would be on the air. Well, on Sunday morning, I was making my notes to help run information for Mike Joy and Jim Phillips when John came up to me a couple hours before the race and asked, "Do you think you’re ready to do this?" I said, "Absolutely! That’s why I’ve been here for almost the past two years." Mike Joy was fogged in and wasn’t able to fly out Saturday night. So I worked my first race and didn’t have time to get nervous because it happened so quickly. I covered the back straightaway and the very first interview I did was Brett Bodine. I remember in the production meeting they said Brett always runs well here, let’s let the new guy talk to Brett because if some of the guys don’t know you, they may not warm up to you and give you as good an answer; and Brett is nice to everybody. Brett and I laugh about that to this day. Ricky Rudd was in the very first pit stall on the back straightaway. Larry McReynolds was his crew chief and I spent a lot of time there because he was running the best back there, but I could go on and tell you everything about that whole weekend.
Q: Most memorable interview so far in Victory Lane?
Kelley: That’s like asking a grandparent who their favorite grandchild is. The things I enjoy the most are a first win or a special or an incredibly excited Victory Lane – or someone who hasn’t won in a while. Ones like Bubba Wallace’s first win or his win at Martinsville in 2015 with a Wendell Scott paint with the Scott family there … Dale Earnhardt Jr. being so excited to win a grandfather clock at Martinsville or his Nationwide (now Xfinity Series) at Daytona in 2010 in the Wrangler paint scheme honoring his Dad’s Induction into the Hall of Fame. Others like Terry Labonte winning the then last Southern 500 in 2003 after having not won in a long while or Marcos Ambrose winning at Watkins Glen and Jeff Gordon’s win at Martinsville for him to run for a championship in his final season in 2015. Several of the championship interviews like Tony Stewart’s in 2011, Martin Truex Jr’s in 2017, Roger Penske after his first Cup Series championship in 2012 and Jimmie Johnson’s seventh championship in 2016. These all come to mind. While I could go on, I think you can see the pattern. Wins that are special to the driver and team.
Q: What are some of your early memories of NASCAR and who were some of the drivers you followed prior to your broadcasting career?
Kelley: It would start with the very first race I went to in 1964. Our parents took us out of school for a week. My dad was working at Charlotte, but he also was doing the PA at Daytona. Speedweeks was similar back then – there were qualifying races, etc. We had our schoolwork we did at the hotel during the day and got to go to the races. That was the first Daytona 500 Richard Petty won. My dad was doing the interview in the press box afterwards, so I had the opportunity to meet Richard and I was impressed that he took the time to acknowledge me. I don’t remember everything about the week, but I remember that bright blue car he drove. My mother likes to tell the story that I told Richard in the press box that I was pulling for Fireball Roberts until he went out, and then I started pulling for Richard. Whether or not that’s true, mom sticks to that story. My next race I went to was in May of that year, when Fireball had his accident. I remember the big black plume of smoke that came up at the other side of the racetrack.
Q: Take me back to when you were selected to be the Executive Director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte. How special was that and what does it mean to you that you play a part in telling the story of NASCAR?
Kelley: I left a company in Duke Energy and Duke Power that I loved. I had been there 27 years. I never had a job I disliked. I had four different careers in four different areas. I had been a vice president in two different areas, worked with incredible people and wasn’t seeking something like that. I took a pretty good pay cut. I make a good living, don’t get me wrong … but in a public entity like I’m working in now versus a private enterprise, somewhere I had been 27 years. But as I’m talking to them about it, I thought, "This is an opportunity to be a small part of telling the history of a sport and an industry I had grown up in and around." Very few little boys or little girls grow up and work with their childhood heroes. My Childhood heroes are Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, David Pearson, Bobby Allison … and then, when I came along, it was with Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, Rusty Wallace, who have now become Hall of Famers. So to be able to help showcase the history of this sport and showcase my childhood heroes, and to be personal friends with them, is just something that is incredibly special, and in a city and a region I grew up in. I tell folks all the time that if the Hall of Fame had gone to another area, I don’t think I would have had the same passion. Where it is and what it is was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s great to get to know these folks. The other part that has exceeded any expectations is the guests that come in there – how much fun they have and how much they enjoy it, how much they love the sport of NASCAR. I enjoy watching them as they get to meet their heroes and see the history. It’s a tremendous experience and one I’m blessed to have.
Q: What are some of your hobbies outside of motorsports?
Kelley: To start with I’m an admitted workaholic, whether it is Duke Power, the NASCAR Hall of Fame or MRN. I got into NASCAR and into broadcasting as my hobby. This was my golf game for years and just grew into somewhat of a second career that I have thoroughly enjoyed. It has taken the majority of my weekends for years. That evolved to the NHOF so motorsports has been my vocation and avocation for years. I also enjoy going to the mountains, mostly Blowing Rock in North Carolina to relax and also enjoy riding my motorcycle. Terry Labonte did a charity motorcycle ride in Texas for about 15 years that I went on 8 – 10. I’ve done Kyle Petty’s Charity ride 8 or 9 times going across country at least six different times. Lately, one thing I enjoy as much as anything is spending time with my girlfriend Elaine, her family and especially the grandchildren – Annabelle and Trevor. Annabelle is old enough to have figured out she’s got me wrapped around her finger and I doubt it will take Trevor long to figure that out. A friend once told me that the only thing in life that is not overrated is being a grandparent. I wholeheartedly concur. Being their G-Dub (for Granddaddy Winston) is so very special.