Keller offers up-close look at the ‘Monster’

DOVER — For nearly half a century, Dover International Speedway has cemented its reputation as the Monster Mile with its penchant for dizzying speeds, ear-splitting sounds and hard-hitting crashes.

George Keller, the resident historian at the high-banked, one-mile oval concrete race track, has taken in every race since the unique dual-purpose motorsports/horse racing facility was built in 1969.

But for Mr. Keller, it has always been about the horsepower — NASCAR style. The sights, sounds and even the smells addicted him quickly to the fluorescent-colored, high-octane sport, which today sees the running of the AAA 400 Drive for Autism.

Oh, and he has a little bit of insight into that whole Monster thing.

Dover International Speedway historian George Keller stands alongside the official pace car before a recent tour of the track. (Special to the Delaware State News/Maureen Iplenski)

“One of those Southern drivers after one of those 500-mile races, thoroughly exhausted, extremely dehydrated, crawled out of the race car at the end of the race and as he was keeling over from exhaustion was heard to have said, ‘That track is nothing but a monster.’

“Hence, Miles the Monster.”

The track’s mascot, Miles, sits atop the trophies of all of the NASCAR winners at Dover.

Mr. Keller has witnessed all 94 Cup Series races that have taken place at Dover International Speedway since 1969.

He watched as the track hosted its first NASCAR race on July 6, 1969 – The Mason-Dixon 300 – right off the heels of the Firecracker 400 in Daytona Beach, Florida, before a crowd of 10,333 fans.

Seven-time Cup Series champion Richard Petty won that first race at Dover in a Ford, collecting a winner’s purse of $23,605.

Mr. Keller was also at the last Cup race at Dover on Oct. 2, 2016, when Martin Truex Jr. pulled into victory lane in a Toyota.

In between all of those races at the Monster Mile — Dover has hosted two races a year since 1971, one in the spring and one in the fall — Mr. Keller has racked up some incredible memories, made some great friends and told some great stories.

Mr. Keller, a former Dover High School golf coach and the 2015 Kent County Tourism Person of the Year, leads group tours at Dover International Speedway, his home away from home, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, to share his passion with the sport for both race fans and people who just want to find out what racing’s all about.

“The tours consist of an inside look at the speedway, where we take you … places we just can’t get race weekend,” Mr. Keller said.

The tours are usually held at 2 p.m., weather permitting. The tours cost $7 per person and all ages are welcome to participate.

One recent tour started out slowly enough as, making his way through the massive parking lot, Mr. Keller pointed over to Dover Downs’ Hotel and Casino.

“It opened in 2002 with 232 rooms,” he said. “There was so much demand we jumped into a larger phase with 268 more rooms, so there’s 500 rooms in the hotel.”

This demand for rooms is, in part, due to the amount of space necessary to hold the thousands of people who travel to Dover during the race weekends.

Suddenly, the tour begins to pick up speed.

Mr. Keller provides guests with a behind-the-scenes look at things such as the Monster Bridge, which allows spectators to watch the racing action in a VIP seat that sits high and across the speedway near Turn 3.

“There’s nothing else like it in the world,” he said. “Right here in little Dover, Delaware, we have something that’s unique in the world of motorsports. Nowhere in the world will you find a seating bridge across the racetrack. We call it the Monster Bridge.

“It’s ferociously loud. It’s ferociously fast. You’ve got to see it in person.”

SAFER barriers align with the walls of the track’s corners at Dover International Speedway. George Keller leads group tours at Dover International Speedway every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m., weather permitting. (Special to the Delaware State News/Maureen Iplenski)

Holding 56 seats, the Monster Bridge is open primarily to corporate partners as a hospitality suite, but occasionally fans can win a seat on the bridge through contests held on the Dover International Speedway website.

During the tour, Mr. Keller also talks about advances in technology, such as the safety fences and safety barriers Dover has installed in recent years in the name of added protection for the drivers and fans.

“NASCAR said that we needed to have a new wheel fence here in Dover,” said Mr. Keller. “There’s about 170 miles of cable there in that fence, 17 strands, and it cost (the speedway) $3 million. It is the newest catch fence available in the sport.”

Safety, Mr. Keller noted, became a hot-button topic for NASCAR after the mega-popular seven-time champion driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Dover has also added to its SAFER barriers, responding to a crash during a practice session last May in which Danica Patrick hit an unprotected wall coming out of the fourth turn.

“It was quickly noted we didn’t have safe barrier there,” Mr. Keller said, which he added brought about the extension of SAFER barriers in order to keep a similar accident from occurring again.

While driving around the monstrous concrete soup bowl, one gets a sense in Mr. Keller’s voice that it saddens him when he sees workers tearing down grandstands due to NASCAR’s lagging popularity in recent years. He adds that all of the other tracks on the circuit have been forced to do the same thing.

Over time, Dover International Speedway eventually morphed from a modest facility that held around 25,000 race fans into a behemoth aluminum-tinged “Monster Mile” with seats that nearly circled the entire race track and hosted more than 135,000 fans by 2001.

Mr. Keller said Dover’s seating capacity for today’s race will be around 85,000.

He also talks about various camping and NASCAR suite-viewing options, some of which are very exclusive, and drives to the Monster Monument in Victory Plaza, home of the iconic Miles the Monster statue, the one that holds the race car of Aric Almirola high into the air in his right hand and is visible to drivers on Del. 1.

While Miles the Monster is a particularly popular spot for photos, the highlight of any tour is when Mr. Keller swings the track’s pace car through the gate by the start/finish line and onto the track’s nine-degree steep front straightaway.

He then mashes down on the accelerator as he enters the first turn and its neck-wrenching 24-degree banking in the corners.

This, Mr. Keller says, isn’t so bad. Just imagine going nearly 160 mph and having 39 cars scrambling for position all around you.

And then there’s the 12-second pit stop where he screeches to a halt in his pit stall – always the first one at the end of pit road he joked – and gets a quick drink while his imaginary pit crew changes four tires, fills the tank up with fuel and makes all the necessary adjustments before he speeds back onto the high banks.

Visitors are given up-close-and-personal views of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series garage areas.

Suddenly, the tour ends up at the most appropriate place it possibly could – Victory Lane.

It’s the hallowed ground where trophies are awarded, champagne is sprayed, interviews are given and high-fives are exchanged.

“This is where every driver wants to be at the end of a long race on Sunday,” Mr. Keller said.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney contributed to this story.

Maureen Iplenski is a senior broadcast media student at Polytech High School.

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