When former NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski praised the sport’s “new hires and a new level of transparency” last week, it was about as close as Brett Jewkes has come to hearing his name mentioned in a news conference.
That’s exactly how NASCAR’s public relations chief likes it.
While media attention at Daytona this week focuses on the No. 3 car, Danica Patrick (thanks to Richard Petty) and the recent changes to the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, Jewkes will be behind the scenes ready to respond quickly and openly to any potential controversies or celebrations that arise.
“People don’t want to hear from a PR guy, especially on a competition matter. They want to hear from the officials. They want to hear from the guys that do it,” Jewkes said recently. “The more invisible the (communications) group can be, the better job we’re doing.”
By all accounts – from drivers to media members to NASCAR President Mike Helton – Jewkes has done a good job making drivers and officials more accessible since he was hired three years ago to lead the newly created Integrated Marketing Communications department as vice president and chief communications officer.
When he arrived in 2011, Jewkes said “there were people in the industry saying, ‘I’m never doing that Twitter thing.’ ”
A year later, Keselowski was tweeting from his No. 2 car during a stoppage at the Daytona 500 as jet fuel burned on the track, a move that gained him more than 100,000 followers in two hours and prompted NASCAR to later ban smartphones from cars during races.
A sport that traces its roots to dirt tracks and drivers who ran moonshine was slow to embrace the digital age.
Jewkes, who had worked with NASCAR since 1999 with the Taylor Communications firm, led a 2009 audit that looked at NASCAR’s public relations. Among the conclusions, the audit found NASCAR needed to be:
• Faster when circulating press releases or responding to news in the 24-hour news cycle;
• More effective in building drivers’ star power – “which used to happen by osmosis,” Jewkes said;
• More integrated with its PR approach (Jewkes: “There was a good competition communications team and not much else.”)
NASCAR decided it made sense to let the guy who ran the audit lead its new communications team. So Jewkes and his family moved from Chicago back to Charlotte, where Jewkes opened a Taylor branch office in 2004.
It was a tough transition for Jewkes, who nearly died after being diagnosed with diverticulitis, a digestive disorder marked by inflammation or infection in the colon. After complications with his first surgery, Jewkes went into septic shock and spent four weeks in a medically induced coma.
Doctors performed two additional surgeries when he was in the coma. All told, Jewkes had six procedures, including two at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota in 2012, and lost 40 pounds before getting back on his feet.
“I’m blessed. I should be dead,” Jewkes said. “The guy at the Mayo told me there’s no way I should have made it through that.”
“It wasn’t good,” Helton said of Jewkes’ condition. “And it got worse before it got better.”
Jewkes will turn 46 Thursday, and shares a birthday with team owner Roger Penske. He credits the support of Helton, the France family and NASCAR chief marketing officer Steve Phelps for helping him and his family, which had just relocated to Charlotte, when he was ill.
Jewkes met his wife, Melissa, at Brigham Young, where she was on a scholarship for ballroom dancing and he was an assistant in the sports information department, helping with Ty Detmer’s Heisman Trophy campaign in 1990.
Jewkes, who grew up in Logan, Utah, remains a big sports fan. He named his oldest son Stockton after former Utah Jazz point guard John Stockton, whom Jewkes met with his son at Stockton’s Hall of Fame induction in 2009.
Jewkes was at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach when Tiger Woods won by 15 strokes, and has attended Super Bowls and baseball All-Star games through his work with Taylor.
But Jewkes called the first time he stood in Turn 4 in Daytona and watched the 43 cars roar his most thrilling moment in sports.
“I believe our athletes do something that is absolutely mind-blowing,” he said. “I can roll in a 30-foot putt once in a while, and if I’m unguarded I can probably hit a 3-point shot two out of 10 (times). There’s no possible way I can go into a corner at 180 miles an hour with all those guys around me.”
Jewkes won’t have to drive into the corner at Daytona. He’ll watch Sunday’s action from race control at the track, where he’ll be at the ready to react to whatever transpires – good, bad or ugly.
Helton said Jewkes has helped NASCAR get more in sync and engaged with its drivers, sponsors and fans, as well as reporters who cover the sport.
“What Brett has developed inside NASCAR and reminds us routinely is that being more accessible and going ahead and putting the facts out sooner rather than later is part of our responsibility,” Helton said.
Jewkes said some of the old-school members of the NASCAR community were skeptical at first, but, as Keselowski alluded to last week, most have embraced the change.
“When you’re doing business one way forever, it’s always hard for some people to adjust. But a lot of that was broken down by us demonstrating we were there to help the industry,” Jewkes said. “And we brought in a lot of good people that had a lot of great expertise to share, especially on the digital and social side.
“We’re now built for the time. And built to be able to evolve.”