Keller has grown along with Dover International Speedway

George Keller is one of only two employees of Dover International Speedway who has been with the organization the entire 50 years. He serves now as track historian. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — It all started out innocently enough.

When George Keller was 6 years old he tagged along with his father to his hometown dirt racetrack in the mountains of Smethport, Pennsylvania.

“The track was a quarter-mile track on a Pennsylvania mountainside where the frontstretch was higher in elevation than the backstretch and the bleachers were tree stumps,” Mr. Keller said. “I’ve been hooked (on auto racing) ever since.”

His passion for the loud ear-splitting roar of the race cars, dizzying speeds, the smell of high-octane racing fuel and burning tires only intensified when his father drove him about 10 hours south on Labor Day weekend to Darlington, South Carolina, in 1956.

That was it for Mr. Keller. By the time the checkered flag waved on legendary NASCAR figure Curtis Turner at the end of the Southern 500 that afternoon, he had become a full-bore NASCAR addict. It got into his blood and it hasn’t gotten out since.

“It was the most awesome thing I’d ever seen,” said Mr. Keller. “I’ve never seen so many people. I’ve never been that hot in my life and I never thought you could drink RC Cola one right after another, but I’ve been hooked since.

“They started like 75 cars and Curtis Turner won it. There were probably 20 cars that (crashed) outside and over the banking when it ended because all they had was Armco (metal) guardrail and that went down like spaghetti. It was pretty darn exciting, though.”

Excitement increased when Mr. Keller was browsing through his National Speed Sport News just more than a decade later and saw some folks were preparing to open a unique high-banked, one-mile superspeedway in Dover, the capital city of Delaware, that would be home to both NASCAR races and horse racing.

It all clicked right then. He knew he had to become a part of this excitement that was building in the state located just below where he was living.

“I loved (NASCAR) but I was so sick of those 800-mile rides (to Darlington), so I thought it would be pretty neat to come and live where there was a NASCAR race track,” Mr. Keller said. “I did have a dream as a young guy to work at a NASCAR track someday, so I’m very fortunate to have been able to fulfill that dream.”

Making a big move

It all came together in 1969. He got a job as a history teacher at Dover High School and headed south to Dover and also got in on the ground floor of what was then called Dover Downs International Speedway.

A half century later, Mr. Keller looks back at the decision as the best he’s ever made.

Not only did he find dependable employment with the Capital School District where he could have an impact on students’ lives, he also hooked up with the race track where he has worked dozens and dozens of jobs over the past 50 years. He now serves as the track’s historian. He certainly has the credentials for that title.

When the engines came roaring to life on Monday, May 6, before the start of the Gander RV 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at what is now known as Dover International Speedway, it marked Mr. Keller’s 99th race at the track with the nickname the “Monster Mile.”

George Keller hopes to make it a perfect 100-for-100 attendance record when NASCAR returns to Dover on Oct. 6.

“I (was) just as excited for this one as I was the first one,” he said, noting that Dover Motorsports employee Nelson Cohee is the only other person besides him who has worked at the race track since it opened 50 years ago.

He hopes to make it a perfect 100-for-100 attendance record when NASCAR returns to Dover on Oct. 6.

Man of many hats

In between all 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.

“I’ve personally done everything out here … well, I don’t think I’ve ever sold tickets,” Mr. Keller said. “I was a pit reporter for a long time and worked the backstretch for our track communications and have been on pit road for a long time.”

One of his interesting jobs on NASCAR race days was delivering the champagne bottle to victory lane to hand to the race winner. He did it as secretively as possibly and made sure to get out before the cork was popped off and the champagne was sprayed.

It’s also somewhat of a secret that Mr. Keller was also very successful throughout the years in another aspect of his life — golf coach at Dover High. He guided the Senators to 14 first-place finishes in the state tournament, as well as five seconds and a fourth. He tends to give most of that credit to then Maple Dale golf instructor Rick McCall.

Now, when the brightly painted trucks that haul the NASCAR race cars from one venue to the next start to appear, Mr. Keller knows what time it is. NASCAR is coming to town.

Over the years he has seen a lot of miles run at Dover International Speedway and he has some insight into that whole “Monster” thing.

“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,’” he said.

“Hence, Miles the Monster.”

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

The Winston Cup cars are lined up on pit road and ready to roll before a race at then-Dover Downs International Speedway in 1973. Note the manual scoreboard that sat outside the first turn of the speedway back then.

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 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.

Dover’s seating capacity for October’s race will be around 85,000.

Always a fan first

One thing is for certain, Mr. Keller will be just as excited as ever once those NASCAR car haulers begin arriving in Dover on Thursday, Oct. 3.

He might work at the race track, but he is still a race fan.

His favorite race at Dover came on May 20, 1984, when Richard Petty, known simply as “The King,” drove to his 199th career victory in NASCAR’s Cup Series. Just six weeks or so later, he recorded his milestone 200th career win in the Firecracker 400 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

“I don’t know if it was the best race, but Richard Petty’s 199th win stands out to me,” said Mr. Keller. “We were hoping he’d win 200 here. That’s the one that stands out. In 2001, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Dover in the first national sports event held after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, was also very memorable. You could just feel the electricity that day.

“In a lot of ways when it comes to racing, (Dover International Speedway) means everything. It certainly has to me.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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