Young man's tragic death shakes Brad Keselowski
Michael Mastalez moved from Texas to Mooresville, N.C., in hopes of one day pursuing a career in NASCAR.
He didn't want to be a driver. He was more interested in working behind the scenes in the sport, which has a heavy presence in the Charlotte area, perhaps in finance.
But Mastalez was a big fan, particularly of Brad Keselowski, driver of Team Penske's No. 2 Ford in the Sprint Cup Series.
On March 30, a Wednesday night, Keselowski and two others sat down at a table where Mastalez, working his shift at a Mooresville restaurant near where Keselowski lives, was assigned.
One of the people with Keselowski was on a job interview. Keselowski asked Mastalez to help with a good-natured prank, to see how the candidate handled unexpected situations.
What happened over the next few hours was meaningful for both men. And when it was over, Keselowski says he was impressed enough with the way Mastalez handled it that he though he thought that he might soon bring Mastalez on board with his team as an intern.
Keselowski never got the chance.
On April 4, Mastalez, 21, was killed in the crash of a sightseeing helicopter. Mastalez, three other passengers including his girlfriend, Peyton Rasmussen, and pilot were all killed.
Coming just days after their encounter at the restaurant, Mastalez's death shook Keselowski.
"All my life I was raised to believe that if you work hard enough, do things the right way and treat people the right way, good things will happen to me," Keselowski told the Observer recently on a rainy afternoon at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. "I have control of my life and my own success. I've used that approach to live that way in everything I do.
"Michael's death is a sign it's not that simple.
"I will not change my core beliefs, but I will be more appreciative of the things I have and recognize that sometimes it's not all in my control."
Keselowski, wanting to honor Mastalez after learning of his death, took to Twitter and tweeted an account of what happened at the restaurant that night to his 650,000 followers.
He tweeted about Mooresville being for NASCAR drivers what Hollywood is for aspiring actors — every waiter wants to be one.
And then he told the story of his dinner plan on that late-March Wednesday, and of Mastalez playing a role.
The dinner, Keselowski tweeted, started as a quiet meeting with an associate and a job candidate in the back room of a Mooresville restaurant. But Keselowski had another plan.
"I grabbed Michael upon his introduction and walked into another room to speak with him," Keselowski tweeted. "Michael, we're going to have some fun. I want you to mess up everything we order on the menu tonight to see how this interview reacts."
Mastelez's nervous smile turned into a grin, Keselowski tweeted.
A few hours, a few beers and a lot of conversation later, the job candidate had barely said a word about his food.
"Michael and I could barely contain our laughter that night as he brought the check, asked how the food was and waited for the answer," Keselowski tweeted.
"Just fine," the job candidate said nervously.
The gag exposed, Keselowski thanked Michael for his help.
Mastalez stayed and chatted at length with Keselowski, according to the tweets, relating his story of moving from Texas to Mooresville to pursue his dream of working in motorsports.
"I guess not everyone gets to live their dream," Keselowski tweeted. "May this we never forget. Godspeed Michael Mastalez."
Keselowski told the Observer he has not been in direct contact with Mastalez's family in Texas, although he sent flowers to the funeral.
There, friends and family mourned a young man who loved his dog Hailey and driving what he called his "baby," a bright red Nissan coupe.
He enjoyed going to Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, where he would camp out with his buddies during NASCAR race weekends.
And he eventually moved to North Carolina to get closer to the sport. He attended UNC Charlotte and studied business and finance.
"He wanted to be around it," said Larry Todd, Mastalez's grandfather. "I never heard him say he wanted to be a driver, but he did like to watch the pit crews. He had an overall love for the sport."
And he followed Keselowski.
"I think Brad Keselowski was a very good influence on Michael," Todd said. "Even before they met, because of Brad's reputation of being one of the good guys."
Michael Mastalez's grandfather paused. He mentioned that he once met his childhood idol, John Wayne.
"Every kid," Todd said, "has his heroes."