“It's been a ride like you can't imagine,” explained Ormond Beach Mayor Ed Kelley.
No, the “ride” he’s referring to isn’t the exhilarating 150+ mph hot lap prior to the DAYTONA 500 that had his son Brian and Florida Georgia Line bandmate Tyler Hubbard screaming with their hands raised in the air.
The ride he’s referring to is the one the entire Kelley family has been on following the meteoric rise of Brian and Florida Georgia Line to country music superstardom.
Born at Halifax Health Medical Center, with the frontstretch of Daytona International Speedway (DIS) in sight, Brian attended Seabreeze High School– just mere minutes from the World Center of Racing. Things came full circle for the area native as Florida Georgia Line took the stage for the 2016 DAYTONA 500 Pre-Race Show, helping to open DIS's new motorsports stadium.
“It’s 100 percent a dream come true to be on a completely different end of things,” said Brian. “For four years in high school, playing for the Seabreeze Sandcrabs baseball team, we sold merchandise in a little trailer (at the Speedway) to raise money for the team. From doing that for four years, coming to the races as a fan, and now coming back to entertain and play some of our songs – it’s really unbelievable.”
Mayor Kelley recently recalled his son’s reaction to that momentous day.
“After performing the pre-race concert, being introduced to the DAYTONA 500 crowd and riding in the official pace car, he told me, ‘Dad, everything I've worked for has been made worthwhile by what I got to do today.’”
While the Rolex 24 At DAYTONA a few years ago was the last time the whole family attended DIS as race fans, the Kelley family has plenty of memories tied to the Speedway and the local community.
“It's just a great facility and it's a major engine that drives this community,” said Mayor Kelley. “The France’s are a tremendous family that continues to make a big difference for the local community.”
Working for local sunscreen company Hawaiian Tropic, Mayor Kelley’s experiences at DIS go surprisingly further than many would assume.
"Back then we sponsored Donnie Allison and he drove for us in the No.1 Hawaiian Tropic car,” Mayor Kelley said. “[Hawaiian Tropic Founder] Ron Rice and I would load people into vans to go to the infield where we would pull out big buckets of chicken and barrels of beer to treat all of the Hawaiian Tropic employees.”
The Hawaiian Tropic employees were in for an even greater treat at the 1979 DAYTONA 500.
“That year Donnie qualified to start second, so we were all excited to see if he could get his first career victory at DAYTONA,” Mayor Kelley said. “Going into the last lap I'm standing in the pits with Ron and we're waiting for Donnie to come around. Back in those days we couldn't see him; this was just the first DAYTONA 500 to be broadcast live from flag-to-flag, so there weren't any televisions for us. We saw him heading into Turn 1 and he was leading and we saw a board that notified us that he was leading out of Turn 2, so we're getting ready to celebrate a DAYTONA 500 victory. Ron's getting ready to call the Hawaiian Inn to celebrate the victory; it was going to be huge. We're waiting and waiting and waiting and nobody's coming off of Turn 4 until, all of a sudden, here comes the No. 43 car of Richard Petty. We're looking around at each other wondering what happened to Donnie.”
What Rice and Kelley couldn’t see was Yarborough lose control of his car and contact Allison halfway down the backstretch, kicking off a door-to-door battle between the two cars before they crashed into the outside wall in Turn 3.
After the cars settled in the grass, Allison and Yarborough began to argue and that argument turned into “The Fight.” As it turns out, what happened to Donnie stands as one of the most memorable moments in NASCAR history.
After nearly a decade with Hawaiian Tropic running European operations, Rice offered Kelley the opportunity to move to Florida and take over a distributor territory. Growing a bit weary of a schedule that demanded four to five flights per week, and with three-year-old daughter Katherine growing fast, Ed moved his young family back to the Daytona Beach area just 10 days after accepting Ron’s offer.
Ed planted himself as a fixture in the community and made his foray into local government with a successful election campaign for Commissioner for Zone 3 in 1993. He served in this role until 1997 when he decided to take a break from politics to focus on his growing family. In 2001, after a 30-year career with Hawaiian Tropic, he retired– just as Brian was beginning school.
“It wasn’t until his junior year of high school that he started to get really into his music,” Mayor Kelley remembered.
In fact, his interest was spurred by mere happenstance as, in order to take a class with a particular teacher in another subject, he had to switch his elective to the only option available – keyboards.
“He came home and started playing a few things,” said Kelley. “His grandmother gave him a keyboard and he really enjoyed it. When he was 16, he said, ‘Dad, I think I'd like to learn to play the guitar.’ So we go to the flea market and I spent $100 on a guitar thinking that's that. Next thing I know, he's online downloading songs and taking lessons.”
During the progression of his musical abilities, Brian was making quite the name for himself as an athlete. As a high school senior, the 6-foot-3-inch left-handed pitcher was named Volusia County Player of the Year by both the Orlando Sentinel and the Daytona Beach News-Journal. His 24-8 career record (7-1 as a senior) was highlighted by a no-hitter his sophomore year and a 2.26 ERA and 76 strikeouts in his final campaign.
Already named for induction into Seabreeze High School’s Hall of Fame based on character, community service and academics, Brian’s legacy grew as he accepted a scholarship offer to play baseball at Florida State University. However, life often doesn’t work out as expected.
“He went up to Tallahassee with no doubt in his abilities, but then he got there and found out that everyone else there was also an all-state player and every bit as talented,” his father said.
Lost in a crowd of up to 16 different pitchers, Brian was redshirted his freshman season.
“That was an incredibly humbling experience for him," Mayor Kelley recalled. “The first year he didn't get to play and the next year he didn't get to pitch. He played in just two games his sophomore year. He played right field once and left field once.”
Despite the disappointment, Brian made the best use of his time in Tallahassee.
“That's where he started writing music,” Mayor Kelley continued. “He’d email me from class songs he’d be writing. Casting Crowns, a local group that started at First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, really inspired him to start writing his own material. He wound up writing his first six songs, did a concert and the whole baseball team came out to support him.”
Brian also played guitar at First Baptist Church in downtown Tallahassee.
“It was a fantastic experience living up there and I'd do it all over again," Brian said. “I made a lot of friends and even though it was a hard time on the baseball field, it made me a stronger person.”
With his baseball career in flux, Brian asked for a release from his scholarship following his sophomore season. He enrolled at Daytona State College and began living with his sister in an apartment in Port Orange.
As things in Brian’s life seemingly began to settle down, the Kelley’s received unexpected news when Brian told his parents he felt it was time to find a way to combine the two things he loved most: music and baseball. The then 20-year-old told his parents of his bold new plan. He wanted to move to Nashville, attend Belmont University, play baseball and get involved in their music program.
With just three weeks before classes were set to begin, Brian was able to secure admission to Belmont and an opportunity to try out as a walk-on for the baseball team.
Brian met Tyler Hubbard shortly after arriving at Belmont. Both were heavily involved in leading worship for nondenominational Christian services on campus.
“Tyler's roommate had a class with Brian and thought the two would hit it off with their shared passion for writing music,” said Mayor Kelley.
The two aspiring musicians hit it off immediately. The following August the duo got a house together, moving in with their current bass player and photographer, and wrote every day.
“That wouldn't have happened if he threw just one pitch at Florida State,” said Mayor Kelley.
While Brian passed out CDs and demos at every publishing company on Music Row, with over 1,000 songs written every day in Nashville, catching a foothold in the Music City is routinely considered next to impossible.
Mayor Kelley remembers one of the first moments the group began to see success.
“They played at a music venue called 12th & Porter in 2011.The place was packed and people were screaming and yelling. We saw Brian the next day and he was so excited to tell me, ‘Dad, I made $12.50 last night!’”
While Brian’s music career was beginning to take off, Mayor Kelley had once again become involved as a leader in local government. The now six-year mayoral veteran was elected as Mayor of Ormond Beach on Nov. 3, 2010 and re-elected in 2012 and 2014.
“I don't just want to give back, I want to make a difference,” Mayor Kelley explained. “I feel called to serve my community and I'm just so appreciative of being able to serve so many great people and strive to make a difference every single day.”
“I feel so blessed and thankful that this family has received the opportunities it has to make a difference,” the mayor continued. “Being here and being involved and watching how this area has grown and changed has been fascinating.”
The Kelley's will get to be a part of another piece of DIS history as Florida Georgia Line, the recipients of country music’s first Digital Diamond award, will return to Daytona International Speedway on Saturday, May 28 to headline day two of the three-day Country 500 music festival that will feature country music’s biggest stars including Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Kid Rock, Lady Antebellum, Willie Nelson and more!
If their DAYTONA 500 Pre-Race Show was any indication, expect Florida Georgia Line to come out with an energy reserved only for a special homecoming.
"It's a dream come true to play a show of this scale back home," Brian said of the Country 500. "The energy here is undeniable and unlike anything else."
Get your tickets today to welcome Brian home at the inaugural Country 500 - The Great American Music Fest at DAYTONA, as the World Center of Racing transforms into the World Center of Entertainment over Memorial Day Weekend (May 27-29).
Single-day tickets are still available for just $75 while three-day weekend passes are only $200.
A star-studded lineup of talented musicians gives this the makings of yet another great tradition at Daytona International Speedway.