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Published: Thursday, 6/18/2009

Hanging on to a racing dream

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

It is more than a long ride down the backstretch to get from Caboolture to Toledo. It takes a dream, a passion and that inherent sense of adventure associated with The Land Down Under.

Andrew Hagen will race at Toledo Speedway tomorrow night, but you will find his most ardent fans cheering from almost 10,000 miles away, in his hometown of Caboolture, Australia. It is near Sheep Station Creek, just east of Moodlu, and up the road from Narangba.

Hagen needed help to sustain his U.S.-based pursuit of a racing career, and the friends and family back in Caboolture, which is near Brisbane on Australia's eastern coast, came through.

"I didn't come here with much, and things got pretty bad money-wise," Hagen said. "There were some fund-raisers back home, a local businessman wanted to help, and I got lucky to connect with some good people over here. Without those things, I probably never even get a chance to race."

After doing some successful testing in a Star Mazda car in 2007, Hagen's open-wheel options on American soil evaporated as the economy withered. He stayed with a fellow Aussie in Charlotte and considered giving stock cars a whirl while his finances again shrank. He was barely hanging on.

"I had no money, no prospects, and I was in a new country where I didn't really know anyone," Hagen said. "Things ended up looking a little bleak."

Hagen, whose racing background was almost entirely open-wheel oriented, got an unexpected and significant boost from one of this area's long-established racing families - the Keselowskis of the

Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills. Like many good stories and most good jokes, the opening scene starts in a bar.

Racing superstar Dale Earnhardt Jr. owns Whiskey River in Charlotte, and Hagen went there one evening just hoping to network with racing folks. Current Nationwide Series driver Brad Keselowski was at the bar, and an introduction cracked open a window. Hagen hopes a stock car career is on the other side.

"Brad and I clicked right away, since we had a very similar story. Both of us grew up having to work on our own cars to make the race each week, and both of us know the struggles trying to find funding," Hagen said.

Keselowski, who is third in the Nationwide points championship 14 events into the 2009 schedule, suggested Hagen travel to Michigan where the Keselowski family racing operation has long been based. There, Hagen could get mentored by Brad's uncle Ron, who competed in 68 Sprint Cup Series races in the 1970s.

"I liked Andrew right away, since he was young, ambitious and a go-getter," Brad Keselowski said. "He has a lot of drive and commitment, which are pivotal for future success, and most importantly, he's fast. If all that fails, he has that funny accent."

The 25-year-old Brad, who is the son of ARCA RE/MAX Series 1989 champion and K-Automotive Motorsports owner Bob Keselowski, provided Hagen with a car and some developmental backing, while Ron tunes the car in his shop and attempts to feed Hagen's insatiable appetite for information.

"He's come a long ways from home, and talent-wise, he's got quite a bit," Ron Keselowski said. "I always look for the guy that learns a lot from his mistakes and then doesn't repeat them. Andrew's getting closer to that and getting better."

Hagen has had respectable qualifying runs and finishes in his three stock car races this season and hopes to be in contention in tomorrow night's 75-lap feature at Toledo Speedway, which is the second leg of the Hantz Group/Allegiant Air Gold Cup Late Model Series.

Hagen wants to parlay some success at this level into a job next season in the ARCA or NASCAR Camping World Truck Series ranks and constantly picks the brain of Ron Keselowski on that road.

"I know this is a long shot, since I came here with no stock car racing experience, and no oval racing experience," Hagen said.

"The racing is a challenge, and I feel like each time I improve a lot, but to be honest, some of the best lessons I've had have been while sitting around at lunch with Ron. I love listening to him talk about racing. Ron has probably forgotten more about NASCAR and stock cars than most people will ever know. He's been around forever and a day, and here I come from the other side of the world and hook up with him. That's pretty good luck, I think."

Contact Matt Markey at

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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