Most children who attend a stock car race have the dreams of one day strapping behind the wheel of a race car just like their heroes that they watch on the race track. But driving a race car isn’t for everybody. Some young racing enthusiasts look elsewhere and imagine themselves working the infield, the tower or somewhere where they can be in the center of all the action.
As a young kid watching racing at local tracks throughout Connecticut, Rich Keator had the dream of one day being able to look a field of drivers in the eye and waving the green flag. Today, the Bristol, Connecticut native is living out that dream and enjoying a unique career as one of the most visible and trusted racing officials at the state’s three short tracks.
Keator got into racing early as a kid, often traveling with his dad and making the one-hour drive up the highway to the now late Riverside Park Speedway (MA) during the 1990’s. It was there in Agawam, Massachusetts where he found his racing passion.
“I was one of those kids that grew up wanting to be a race official, I never really grew up wanting to be behind the wheel,” Keator told Speed51.com powered by JEGS. “I went to Riverside Park early on and I took an interest in the flagman, watching what they do and that’s where it started. Billy Dunn was the starter at the time. My dad and I had a relationship with him, he was actually my dad’s mailman when my dad was younger, so I knew Billy a little bit and always wanted to be on the starter’s stand. Over time it’s changed and I’ve had some great opportunities to be where I’m at now.”
When Riverside Park closed at the end of the 1999 season, Keator continued following racing at Connecticut’s three tracks, and before long he pursued an opportunity to work within the sport, and took his next step towards getting to the flag stand.
“My first job in racing was at Stafford Motor Speedway, this will actually be my 10th year at Stafford. I started out in the handicapper’s booth. I reached out to the Arute family at one point in January of 2007 and they said ‘come on in.’ I ended up in the handicapper’s booth and now I’m in race control, it’s pretty cool.”
After a year of hard work and experience, Keator reached out again, looking to continue building his career. That next step came down on the Connecticut shore, culminating on a very special night.
“My first experience on the starter’s stand was at the New London-Waterford Speedbowl in 2008. It was a good experience, it was cool,” he said. “It was special for me because my dad, who is no longer here, was in the stands and he always pushed me to chase my dreams. It was cool to have him there to watch me live my dream out.”
Since then Keator has become a familiar face all around Connecticut, adding Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park to his resume, as well as different touring divisions up and down the Northeast in a menagerie of rolls. Out of those, the most prestigious that Keator has joined up with is the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour, where he started out by taking some time to just lend a hand.
“I’ve been friends with some of the officials there, always been helpful whenever the Tour came in to Stafford and offered my help anytime they needed it,” he explained. “Eventually a spot on their roster opened up and I sent my resume in and this will be my third year with the Tour. It’s been exciting for sure.”
As for the key to success in achieving these positions and building his career, Keator feels it has been rock-hard dedication to the sport, fulfilling his duties and enjoying being around his fellow officials and everyone else at the track.
“I’ve been so dedicated. This year alone I’ve got 101 races on my racing schedule, which is a huge number for anybody to do, whether it’s going as a driver, fan or official. The Arute’s have always been good to me and I’ve worked with some great people over the years, guys like Jimmy Milo, Frank Sgambato, recently with Tom Fox, Scott Tapley and Eric Webster.”
Those 101 races come with a wide range of tracks, drivers, series, and jobs to be performed.
“Right now I’m the track services coordinator at Stafford Motor Speedway, the lead pit road official for Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, chief starter for the Wild Thing Karts that run at Stafford Monday nights, and with my role on the Modified Tour I’ve had to cut back at the Speedbowl. I’m still on the starter’s stand at the Bowl, but I’ve taken a step back and I’ll be the assistant starter there this year.”
Despite having to take a small step back from his dream role, Keator is still having a great time doing what he is doing, and that is why he continues to remain so dedicated to the sport.
“Racing is fun, it’s supposed to be fun at the end of the day. When you can spend it with the people that you can have fun with, that’s part of the reason why we do this. Ultimately, we have fun doing it, and to have people around you that are having fun doing it with makes it that much more fun.”
As for where he is looking in the future, Keator is having plenty of fun right where he is, and is very appreciative of what his home state holds. At the same time, he is still open to the possibilities that might present themselves down the road.
“I’m happy where I’m at right now. Someday if I make the move and work for NASCAR full-time somewhere, that’d be awesome, but I’m happy right now. I work at probably three of the best tracks in the country, the premier Modified touring series in the country, and grooming some great future stars with the Karts at Stafford on Mondays.”
Keator has had several aweing moments over the last 10 years, including the chance to travel to Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee with the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. While he feels there is no place quite like it, Keator had a moment just this past weekend at Stafford’s biggest race, the Spring Sizzler, which struck a chord with him and asserted that Connecticut is still a great place to be for short track racing.
“Watching the fans as Ben Dodge was getting the fans up on their feet coming to the green flag, watching all of the hats wave from the grandstands, that was probably one of the recent highlights. The Spring Sizzler is one the top races for the Modified Tour, to see a packed house, it was chilling to see the fans excited and get racing going. It’s one of the coolest moments in my 10 years in this business.”
-By Connor Sullivan, Speed51.com State Editor (CT, MA, LI) – Twitter: @Connor51CT
-Photo credit: Howie Hodge