As I stood on the inside barrier at Granite City Speedway with my camera, the Mod Fours screamed around the track. The white 00T car slowly worked its way up through traffic. I wondered if the streak would stay alive? As the checkers flew and the dust settled, Keith Thell pulled into the infield and drove his car into victory lane, where it had been parked after all 11 races so far in the 2015 season. That’s right! As he had done for the previous 10 races, Keith hops out of his car, gives the crowd a wave and stands with the checkers flag and his trophy, cracking a half smile for the camera. What he has accomplished so far in 2015 at GCS is a pretty incredible feat with so many tough competitors.
Not too far from Granite City Speedway you will find a home out in the country filled with a young family. As you take in the beautiful landscapes and the smell of the nearby farms, you are likely to be startled by the sound of an engine roaring to life in a nearby garage. That’s the Thell brothers. Keith and Kyle. I had the chance to visit with Keith out at his home.
The first thing that struck me about Keith was his down to earth friendly manner. As he started to talk about his racing career and his family, I couldn’t help but admire his humbleness and love for his family. It fits right in with what I had seen on the track. No matter where Keith started in the field on race day, he always seemed to work his way through the field in a smooth calculated way, trying not to push others around, but always finding his way to the front.
Let’s learn a little more about what makes Keith Thell such a tough competitor.
How’s this season going?
I can’t complain. Car’s working really well. I have 17 wins this year, which is what I had at the end of the year last year. It helps a lot not competing with your brother every night.
What was it like last year racing against your brother?
I liked it; for the most part it went really well. There were a couple times where it kind of sucked racing against your brother for the win. But at the same time it was really fun. I don’t think I would be near as good if I didn’t race him every time. It made me get better.
Who did you learn the most about racing from?
The most I learned from would be my Dad and my brother Kyle. When I first started and we raced together, he (Kyle) would either be behind me or he would see me drive. He was basically the best at it at that time. He would tell me here is what you’re doing wrong, do this. Sometimes I would get irritated, like he was ripping on me. He was just trying to make me better. That definitely helped a lot. My Dad raced from 1999 to 2007. He raced a short tracker. He helped me a lot as I was racing because he knew what was going on.
What was it like being at the Thell house as a kid?
When my Dad raced, Kyle and I would be out here by ourselves. I was probably 7, Kyle was 10, and we would have the car up on jack stands, changing transmissions, doing all this stuff to his car. My Dad likes to race, but he would be a one-day a week type guy, but Kyle and I would push him every night. We would be like, “let’s go, let’s go to Willmar, lets go to Grove Creek, to Rice Lake”, all these tracks. And so sometimes we would be under the car changing stuff, hoping he would get home from work and be like, “ah right let’s go”.
We had Go Karts out here at the neighbors that Kyle and I would duke it out in. We would be racing out there with our cousins and stuff. So it kind of transferred from the Go Kart track to the big track.
Who were your favorite drivers growing up?
Well my Dad was my favorite, and then Shane Sabraski is my cousin actually, but he was one of my favorites too. I would love to race him. Kyle always wanted to get an A Mod and race guys like that, but it will take some time before he is up there you know. Kyle’s a great driver, and him and my Dad, they’ll figure it out. When we started this, Kyle went out the first year and he struggled. He’s riding in the back and Rob VanMil lapped him, he’s like, “this car’s junk, it’s terrible”, and all of a sudden he got more seat time, we got the car better, and then he started winning races. He just kept getting better and better and better. He won 5 races his second year. He won 13 his next year and then 31 the year after. I didn’t win any my first year, then I won 17 last year, and then I have 17 right now.
What was your favorite win?
Favorite win was probably last year at Brainerd. I started 8th, Kyle redrew pole and then Rob VanMil redrew 3rd. Rob’s a 3 time national champ, he’s won it three years in a row and then Kyle’s a two time. They’ve won it 5 years in a row, and I’m starting 8th, “I’m screwed”. I’m like, “there’s no way I’m winning this”. “I will just try to get a top 5 or something.” I ended up passing both of them. I passed Kyle on the last corner and won. And I’m like, “holy crap, I just beat two guys that won about 500 features in their life”. Just to beat two national champs, I didn’t expect that. Then I just got confidence from there.
Is there a secret to you winning all these races?
I would say majority is setup. I mean obviously you have to have the whole deal but setup is huge. I’ve raced a lot the past two years, so I’ve got a lot of experience. I went from not having a lot to having a lot fast. I feel really comfortable. It’s like anything, any sport whatever you play, baseball or football. The more you do it, the better you’re going to be. Like I said, my Dad and Kyle and myself and Andy Deters work to get this car fast. Kyle was really good in it, and I got in it and I didn’t like it. I’m like, “this car sucks”, but Kyle loved it. So my Dad and I kind of just changed a few things around, nothing huge, and then I went out the next night and won. I won like 3 in a row. But yeah, somebody could jump in this car and not like it at all. But I could jump in somebody else’s car and hate it too. It’s what your driving style is. A lot of people don’t realize that. You kind of have to do what fits you instead of what everyone else is doing.
What challenges do you face to keep your car running? What’s your week like?
Last year we raced 4 nights a week. We would race Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. This year we don’t race many Sundays, because I would have to go to Bemidji and I have only been there once this year. You get home on Sunday, car sits there, usually Monday I unload it and wash it. It’s kind of all I do on Mondays usually. Depending upon if I don’t break anything major, I always put it on the hoist here. I rotate tires every week. I run my tires really bad. They’re bald. Then I change gears pretty much for every track. Then grease and bolt check. Kyle sticks a lot more time in his car than I do right now, because he’s trying to figure out his car. He’s always got it up in the air looking, measuring angles, doing research, trying to get better, because it’s something new to us you know. He sticks a lot of time into that car. He’s always scaling it. It’s kind of hard to say how many hours a week because it really varies.
It doesn’t seem like you smash up your car to much.
I tore it up one time at Ogilvie. I got in a crash. Matt Halls actually broke, and his left rear spring flew out and then came through the front and hit me right in the shield, right in the face. He was stopped, and there was nothing he could do because his car broke. I slide sideways, and it hit me in the face and I kind of like, ya know, I got sideways and then a slower car came by and drilled me. Pushed everything up. That was a long week.
What would you say is a great way for someone to get into racing?
I would say a Mod Four is a great class. It’s the cheapest class for Wissota. They’re really fun. A lot of people are like, “well I want to get into something fast”, or they feel cool in something fast, and I’m like, “well these are just as fast as anything”. They’re relatively cheap compared to An A Mod. I mean a hornet and a hobby stock, that’s a good idea for a couple years just to get your feet wet, and then this is a really good class to get into. I can’t believe it’s not as big as what it could be. I don’t know if people think it’s cool to have 8 cylinders or what. A lot of my friends that come watch are like, why don’t more people race mod fours? They are fun to watch, they’re fast. But a lot of people love them too.
What do you want to do after this? What’s the next step?
I don’t know. I would like to get an A mod, but my Mom and my Dad, they didn’t necessary like me and Kyle racing against each other, because they always got nervous we would run into each other and wreck. They like being able to cheer for us in different classes you know what I mean. So I don’t know, ideally I would like to race an A mod, but I think it’s going to take some convincing. We will see, maybe it’s A mod, maybe it’s… I don’t know. Maybe another year in this car, I haven’t really decided yet.
Anything you would change in the sport?
If the pit passes could drop, be cheaper. And almost even raise the drivers’ pass. Guys like my uncle Troy, who get nothing back, they don’t get to race, they don’t get their money back, they come in and work their butts off the whole time, and they don’t even hardly watch the races. They watch Kyle and I race, and that’s about it. My dad’s the same way. My dad will be like, “I didn’t see that race, I was busy working on the car”.
Who works on your cars?
Well, the Mod Four, me and my Dad and my little brother Kevin. He’s 13. And then my uncle Troy and my Grandpa helps a lot. Andy Deters built this car. He’s a huge, huge help. If it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t be as near as good as we are. But my Dad’s a big help. If it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be able to do it, no way. You aren’t going to be that good by yourself. I just drive it, I mean I do a lot of work on the car too, but if I didn’t have my Dad and Kyle and Andy and Roy Halls who builds the engines, I wouldn’t be near as good. No way.
I had a great time visiting with Keith. I feel like there are many more things to talk about, and many more people he wanted to thank, but here are a few of the people he mentioned in our interview.
The main person, the biggest person on the race team is my Dad. His name is Greg. Like I said, if we break something he’s coming home from work. He’s out here for hours until dark. He never stops doing stuff. And he does a lot of stuff for me and goes to pretty much every race. He helps Kyle and I out a ton.
Andy Deters is another guy I mentioned before. He builds our cars. He’s a huge, huge help. He made it really easy to get into a really good car cheap because he is just that kind of guy.
My Grandpa, I mentioned him before too. Every year he says to Kyle and I, let’s go to Wyoming. He wants to go to Wyoming and race. They have Mod Fours out there. Every year he’s like, let’s go. One of these years, I have to go because it would make his racing career. He loves to travel too. But yeah he’s another big help. He’s helping out with everything he can. He will come to the races at Willmar, and he will help us pay our entry fees. He’s a big help.
He used to go to pretty much every race and help us all the time in the pits. He’s an electrician, and he’s really high up in that company, so he’s out of town all the time, but he comes to at least one race a weekend. He has stuck a lot of money in his own pit passes to get in and help us on these cars. He doesn’t get anything back from it. But my Dad and Troy, they are always working on the cars.
He’s another big help too. He’s willing to pretty much do everything. When Kyle wrecked a valve spring at Ogilvie last week, he was at his son’s which is about 45 minutes away and he was like, “I’m going to come over there and help”, because he just wants to help and make sure everything is good. You are not going to find too many engine builders that are going to drive all the way to your house to make sure everything goes well.
Randy is my Dad’s friend. He and his kids come to the race a lot. He’s called the tire grinder. Like last year when Kyle had the Mod Four and the Modified, we had all three cars there, and he grinds all twelve tires. He just loves to help, and he loves racing too.
My brother Kyle. This year he hasn’t done much because I know what’s going on. When I first started though, he helped me out a lot with driving. And just watching him drive, I got a lot better because he’s one of the best drivers I’ve watched. That made me better to have him in the same trailer. Last year I was like, “God this sucks, I got Kyle to race with every single night”, but now this year I guarantee I wouldn’t be near as good if I didn’t race him. There’s no way.
I can’t forget my little brother Kevin. He’s also a huge, huge help. I think he’s missed one race this year. He’s always working his butt of in the pits. He will come out here and help me. I asked him if he wants to race. He’s like I dunno. I think I have more fun just helping you and Kyle, and just being pit crew. I’m like all right, I’ll take that. I’d like to see him race because I know he’d be good. He’s not too competitive. He’s competitive with Kyle and I, like he wants us to win, but he doesn’t like to compete in too much. Because I wrestled in High school, and I wanted him to wrestle, but he didn’t want anything to do with it. But yeah, got to mention him too because he’s a huge help. We went to Bemidji one time with just the two of us and my uncle. He was out there being my crew chief. He was 12 years old at that time. Now he’s 13.
Sponsors are huge, there’s no way you could do it without them.
Halls Racing Engines
Renewable Clean Ethanol
Bob Harris Enterprise helps a lot with shocks.
Also Granny and Papa, that’s my Grandma and Grandpa. I’ve called them granny and Papa since I was little. We put Granny and Papa on the car and they give us money like a sponsor. Just like “Got Milk?” (dairy farmers), they don’t get anything out of it, they just want to help.
It was really cool hanging out with Keith, and I left his place with a new understanding of who this young man who keeps on winning really is. I believe he will be around for a very long time challenging his way up through the ranks along side his Brother Kyle, and who knows, maybe even his younger brother Kevin someday.
Next time you are at the track, keep an eye on those Thell Brothers!