Spotlight: IU East student is living her dream at the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500

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IU East student Ashley Keller is a public relations intern with A.J. Foyt Enterprises. Keller is working at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The 100th Indy 500 is Sunday, May 29.  Photo by Brooke Squibb.

Ashley Keller discovered her passion for racing from behind the wheel of a drag car at age 16.

The love affair and the adrenaline rush of the sport accelerated as she took her talents behind the scenes. She worked in concessions and customer service at Winchester Speedway, which is less than 10 miles from her hometown of Farmland.

The 29-year-old senior at Indiana University East has dreamed of putting her skills into public relations and marketing for the sport for many years.

“I enjoy the public relations side of the sport. My dream job is to do PR for a team or a series,” Keller said. “I want to use my creative skills and talents to better the sport.”

She has worked multiple internships toward that goal as she works toward graduation later this year.

“She understands that internships can open doors and lead to additional opportunities,” said Cal Simpson, a lecturer in business and entrepreneurship at IU East, who Keller considers a great mentor.

The senior and super intern is living her dream this May on the sport’s biggest stage, the Indianapolis 500, on its biggest anniversary (100th), and with its biggest star.

Keller is working a whirlwind, but loving-every-minute internship for A.J. Foyt Enterprises. Foyt is a legend with a record-sharing four victories and he has a legendary spokesperson in Anne Fornoro, who assigns duties to Keller.

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Ashley Keller. Photo by Bill Ray.

And there certainly is a large array of duties to do for the No. 35 team with driver Alex Tagliani, and at times assisting with teams for drivers Takuma Sato and Jack Hawksworth.

Keller writes bios and race reports and acts as a liaison between the team and media. She escorted drivers to appearances at Riley Hospital for Children and a community day at a local school.

Last week, she was approached to show some people around the garage. It turned out to be rookies for the Indianapolis Colts. In explaining the basics about a car, she pulled out a steering wheel — one that is worth about $40,000. “I remember thinking, ‘I better not break this,’” she joked.

The goal is simple, Keller said. “You want to make sure people are happy, that your sponsors and fans are enjoying themselves.”

She even escorted Tagliani (the top qualifier in 2011) from the medical center at the speedway after a qualifying accident last Sunday.

“I am getting the full effect of this internship,” she said with a laugh later that evening. “All I have to do now is visit Victory Lane and I am good.”

That’s not far-fetched, even though the team has had several challenges this year. Any car can win this race.

To say that Keller is committed and challenged would be an understatement: She is taking all of her allotted three weeks of vacation from a full-time job in student affairs at Ivy Tech Community College in Richmond.

She has spent little time this month with her husband — a race-loving mechanic — and their beloved Labrador-mix named Enzo. Thankfully, Keller says, “He is very supportive of what I do.”

Keller admits the internship has been challenging, but she’s up to it in more ways than one.

“Sometimes, I am too excited to sleep,” she said. “The adrenaline really drives me.”

Simpson said her drive to succeed is noticed by fellow students and instructors.

“She is a one-of-a-kind student and very passionate about racing, I have no doubt that she will succeed in achieving her goals,” he said.

Keller is a “great example” of a student who helped design her own program in a specific industry, said Liz Ferris, who helped guide Keller in her internships. Ferris is now an academic advisor for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“Her energy and follow-through are the reason she has so many significant experiences — many of them unpaid — in the racing industry,” Ferris said. “I worked with her on her resume, but she already had a strong online professional presence.”

She couldn’t have better mentors in Indy-car racing than Fornoro, who won the highest honor in sports public relations in 2013, and Mike Kitchel, a Centerville native who serves as communications director for the INDYCAR series.

Keller approached him for some advice at a recent major marketing event and he graciously pointed her to some possibilities. “I feel like I am ready to get somewhere,” she said. “He got me the contacts for the teams.”

Fornoro called with the internship offer after Keller made inquiries.

Fornoro has been “extremely educational and inviting,” Keller said. “She walks me through a lot of things. She’s so well-respected.”

Keller was impressed — and touched — when she arrived on the first day at the track. “I was handed a radio (communications headset) with my name on it. That means I am respected. That’s a big deal to me.”

It’s a big deal, too, to be involve with this year’s event. “To be at the 100th running, it’s such a big race, a historic race,” she said. “I am honored to be brought in with A.J. Foyt’s team.”

Keller ’s previous internships have led to jobs that she currently does in racing. She will work five NASCAR races this summer for GoFas Racing.

She has done work for RacetrackEngineering.com in Indianapolis, which provides everything from music and sounds to relays for televisions broadcasts.

She has helped create a website and worked on re-branding and social media strategies.

All of her work has helped build the foundation that is preparing her for a full-time job in race marketing. The field is growing and becoming more sophisticated.

“They are looking for preparedness and a degree now,” she said. “IU East is helping me get where I want to go. I’ve had a lot of great mentors in and out of the classroom.”