(Photo from the 2017 Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway)
RICHMOND, Va. - Prior to her victory at the 2017 Professional Women's Bowling Association Tour Championship at Richmond Raceway, Shannon O'Keefe admitted she didn't follow NASCAR - at all.
O'Keefe returned to "America's Premier Short Track" this week to put her title on the line, and though she didn't take home the checkered flag this year, finishing in third place Wednesday night on CBS Sports Network, she has become one of the sport's biggest fans.
O'Keefe once again will have the opportunity to enjoy race weekend after her time on the lanes inside the Old Dominion Building. She'll be joined by this year's champion, Maria Jose Rodriguez, and PWBA stars Liz Kuhlkin and Bryanna Coté as part of several pre-race festivities at Friday's Xfinity Series Go Bowling 250.
Rodriguez also will get the opportunity to participate and be introduced during the driver and crew chief meeting and driver introductions at Saturday's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Federated Auto Parts 400.
"It's incredible to have another major sport support us and what we're doing," O'Keefe said. "They've been so welcoming, they know us by name and it's really cool that we get to share and experience this and teach each other about the sports we love."
O'Keefe's win at the season-ending event in 2017 served as her first career major championship, but it also introduced her to a new world as she was able to take part in the festivities of race weekend at the track, which directly followed the Tour Championship.
"My brother used to live in North Carolina and worked for Speed Channel, but when they were sold he moved to California," O'Keefe said. "He worked around NASCAR for a decade, but I never followed it. Once in a while, we'd turn on something like the Daytona 500, but I didn't know anything about it. Being able to come here last year and win my first major, it held a special place in my heart, and I don't think I've missed a race since."
Getting to see the dynamics of a successful race team, and all it takes to put together a strong performance on the track, quickly caught O'Keefe's attention.
"Being up close and personal to it and in the pits last year really gave me an incredible appreciation for what they do and what they go through," said O'Keefe, who claimed a pair of titles in the 2018 PWBA Tour season on her way to winning PWBA Player of the Year. "When I got home from Richmond, I started to watch the races and just tried to learn as much as I could."
O'Keefe quickly found a driver to root for week in and out. She had teamed with NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski in a special bowling event held after last year's Tour Championship as part of the race week festivities.
And, just like O'Keefe, Keselowski claimed a title at Richmond Raceway, winning the Virginia529 College Savings 250 NASCAR Xfinity Series race.
"He's my favorite driver," O'Keefe said. "I had to opportunity to bowl with him at the charity event (featuring PWBA and NASCAR drivers) last year, and he was so nice. I've been following him ever since."
In addition to the on-track excitement, O'Keefe also has come to appreciate the athletic element needed to compete at the top level of the sport, noting several parallels to bowling.
The biggest comparison in O'Keefe's opinion, however, is the mental aspect.
"When they're competing, they have to be so mentally focused for hours at a time," O'Keefe said about NASCAR drivers. "I feel that's very similar to bowling, because when we're out here during an eight-game block, we don't have any downtime. We have to be all in, all the time. We can't take any mental breaks, otherwise it'll cost us the same way. It could cost them a race, and it could cost us making a cut or winning a title."
Be sure to follow the PWBA's social media channels on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for sights and sounds of the top PWBA players at each race in Richmond.