A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Ashley Brennaman Shirley found her calling at Kentucky Speedway and dad couldn’t be prouder

By Mark Hansel
NKyTribune managing editor

It’s not surprising that Ashley Brennaman Shirley is making her mark in the world of professional sports.

What may be a surprise to some, however, is the sport where she has found her niche.

Ashley Brennaman Shirley, communications manager at Kentucky Speedway, with her dad, Cincinnati Reds Broadcaster and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Marty Brennaman (provided photo)

Shirley, the daughter of Cincinnati Reds radio broadcaster and Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, Marty Brennaman, is the communications manager at Kentucky Speedway and a key member of the team that coordinates its NASCAR Tripleheader Weekend.

Shirley said she was hooked on NASCAR from the first live race she witnessed.

“Mind blown – I just could not believe how awesome it is in person,” she said. “I had seen a couple of races on TV, but my friends weren’t really into it, so I didn’t follow it. But from the first race, I was hooked, it just reels you in – the, excitement, the crowd, the atmosphere.”

Shirley went to Anderson High School and attended Ohio University, before returning to Cincinnati area and graduating from Northern Kentucky University with a degree in electronic media and broadcasting.

Marty Brennaman describes his daughter as a good kid that was never any trouble.

“She was a cheerleader, she was on the dance team, she was just a typical teenager,” Brennaman said. “She went to Ohio University and didn’t fare too well there. Like so many kids, they get away from home and they see how much fun they can have and she was struggling academically. She transferred from there to Northern Kentucky University and graduated with academic honors.”

In between, she took some time off from school and worked at the Montgomery Inn Boathouse with the Gregory family.

“She got home and applied herself and she did sensationally, Brennaman said. “I give her a lot of credit for doing it because she came home and worked for a while at the Boathouse and she did such a great job that they wanted to keep her on full-time, but she decided she wanted to go back to school. Her mother and I were extremely proud because she proved to us and, more importantly, she proved to herself that she could do it.”

At that time, it looked like baseball, not NASCAR, would be Shirley’s calling and she might have a career in the Reds organization as well.

In 2003, the first year for Great American Ballpark, she interned with the Reds while at NKU.

“It was a great internship, I did a lot of their events and the promos between innings,” she said. “After that I decided I wanted to do another (internship) and my dad gave my resume to (then Kentucky Speedway owner) Jerry Carroll and said, ‘See what you can do.’”

Carroll gave the resume to Debby Shipp, who was the human resources director at Kentucky Speedway at the time.

“They called me and I met with Tim (Bray, director of communications) and Debbie and it was great, instant chemistry, and they hired me for the summer,” Shirley said.

At the end of the summer, Shirley left the Speedway because there wasn’t a full-time position available.

“They kept me as long as they could, she said. “I loved every part of my job, I worked the switchboard, I did ticketing, I helped in credentials, reception – I would do whatever they wanted, because it was just a great job all around.”

She didn’t know it, but learning all those jobs would pay big dividends later.

“If we’re fortunate, we all find our niche in life, whatever it may be, as far as an occupation and she loves it down there and they have been wonderful to her. Over the years they’ve given her more responsibility and she’s worked under great people,” Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman speaking about his daughter, Ashley Brennaman Shirley, and her career at Kentucky Speedway.

After leaving the Speedway, she went to work for a graphic design firm for about a year, but got laid off because of cutbacks.

The very next day, Brennaman knocked on her door and told her Mark Cassis, then the Kentucky Speedway general manager, was trying to get in touch with her to offer a full-time position.

“It was fate and it was wonderful and Debbie said welcome back,” Shirley said. “I don’t even count that year I was gone, it was like it didn’t even happen.”

Shirley has been at Kentucky Speedway ever since and partly because she had learned the operation from the inside out, her responsibilities increased as the track became more prominent on the NASCAR circuit.

She knows her dad has put in a good word for her here or there along the way, but she also believes she is the one most responsible for her success.

“My dad has always been so supportive of anything we wanted to do,” Shirley said. “He has always said, ‘If I can help you get a job or get your foot in the door, I will, but once you’re in the door, and you get hired, it’s your job to keep it.’”

She knows some people have had misconceptions about her because of who her dad is but that doesn’t bother her.

“I’m just like him,” she said. “I don’t go around telling people I’m Marty Brennaman’s daughter. If they ask, of course I’m going to acknowledge it, I’m proud of my dad.”

That admiration goes both ways.

“If we’re fortunate, we all find our niche in life, whatever it may be, as far as an occupation and she loves it down there and they have been wonderful to her,” Brennaman said. “Over the years they’ve given her more responsibility and shes’ worked under great people like Tim Bray.”

Brennaman said he is proud of all of his children. He has two from his first marriage, Thom, of course is a well-known sportscaster in his own right and is now a member of the Reds broadcast team, and Dawn, who works with nonprofits in Chicago.

Reds radio announcer Marty Brennaman, right, with Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger, at the Montgomery Inn Boathouse in February when it was announced Brennaman would drive the Pace Car for the Quaker State 400 this year (file photo).

“I made a pact with myself that I would never pressure my kids into going off in any one direction as far as a vocation is concerned,” Brennaman said. “I’ve seen too many white collar guys that have a measure of success and put pressure on their child to follow suit. Sometimes it works famously, but those times it doesn’t you open yourself up for you kid to point the finger at you.

“Thom made up his mind to get into this profession on his own and Ashley was the same and my oldest daughter as well. All of them seem to have made the right choices and at the end of the day, that’s the most important thing of all. I’m thrilled to death that all three of my kids are good citizens, they are responsible and have good occupations and are essentially happy in their lives and as a parent, that’s all I can ask for.”

Shirley said she has always been close to her siblings even if they don’t see each other as often as she would like because they all have families of their own and busy schedules.

“They were around a lot when I was growing up and when we are together it’s like we never left, Shirley said. “My sister would always come up to visit at (Ohio University), because she was an OU grad. My brother also came up a couple of times to visit.”

Over the years Shirley has been part of some significant events at Kentucky Speedway, including a concert by country music legend Tim McGraw in 2005. Her most memorable moment, she says, is probably the announcement that the Speedway would finally get a Cup race, after some contentious litigation which resulted in the track being sold to Bruton Smith and Speedway Motorsports.

“I was nine months pregnant when we made the announcement about getting the NASCAR Cup race in August 2010 and I was due in September,” Shirley said. “It was 90-plus degrees and we had a huge tent out here, but it was just a great day. I was helping out at the switchboard at our office in Fort Mitchell and I said, ‘I’m going.”’

She recall another instance a few weeks later when, still pregnant she was working a race weekend. Her husband, James Shirley, was helping out at the track wearing the “Horsepower” mascot costume and she was afraid she would go into labor at the track.

Ashley Brennaman Shirley with husband, James and sons, Tanner, 16 and Aidan, 7.

Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said only half-jokingly, “Wouldn’t it be great if you had the baby here and Horsepower delivered him.”

“I was like, no that would not be good; but I made it through race weekend,” Shirley said.

She and James, who works for Haney Incorporated, have two children, Tanner, 16 and Aidan, 7.

Shirley said she enjoys her job every day, but as hectic as it is, her favorite experience every year is the NASCAR Tripleheader Weekend.

“That’s what we work for here and work toward – Race Week is so much fun,” she said. “When everybody comes down here and the place is packed, that’s fun. The stuff that we do through the year builds up to that week, and it’s exciting to see our product on display.”

She thinks this might become her most memorable race week so far becuase she gets to share it with her dad.

Marty Brennaman will drive the Pace Car for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400, presented by Walmart, Saturday.

Brennaman became a NASCAR fan because of Shirley and now really enjoys the sport. From time to time he will call to ask if she saw what happened at races.

“I love that because he is paying attention and he wants to know what is going on in the sport I work in and it’s great,” she said. “Him being the Pace Car driver this year, I might cry, because he’ never been down here to see a race and see how I work. He’s been to some NASCAR races in the past, but he’s never been here on race day.”

Brennaman said he doesn’t have a bucket list, but if he did, driving the Pace Car would be on it.

“That’s even more true after going down there a few weeks ago driving and having Mark Simendinger in the car with me and offering up pointers,” Brennaman said. “I was in the ride-along and got up to 165 miles an hour and that was an experience unlike anything I’ve ever had in my lifetime. I was very concerned about getting into the car to begin with because I’m not a big fan of speed, but it was such an adrenaline rush. I think we went around the track three or four times and I asked if we could continue.”

Reds infielder Scooter Gennett, Brennaman’s wife, Amanda, and his father-in-law were at the Speedway when he test drove and they all drove also, and got up to about 125 miles per hour. He said it was a thrill for them, but he’s not interested in that.

“It was really funny because after I had been  around the track three or four times and came out of the second turn, Mark said, ‘let me see what you’ve got’ and I got it up to about 96/97 miles per hour and that’s about my limit,” Brennaman said. “The Pace Car is only going to go 55 or 60 miles per hour, that’s it and that’s plenty.”

In the past, Brennaman might not have been able to get away from his Reds duties on a Saturday night. For the last several years, however, he has begun to take more time off, but he still had to get approval from the team.

“I didn’t want them to find out after the fact and create a problem,” Brennaman said. “I went to Phil Castellini and explained it to him and he was as happy for me as I was for myself. He said, ‘by all means, go ahead, enjoy it.’”

It helps that the Reds are in St. Louis this weekend so fans won’t have to choose between baseball and NASCAR.

Shirley sees a comparison between her enjoyment of baseball and her dad’s appreciation for NASCAR.

“He never tried to push baseball on me,” she said. “I grew up around it, the radio was always on with his voice in the background, him and Joe (Nuxhall). It was weird, but it just became normal.”

Now she gets to see Aidan go into the radio booth with his grandpa.

“They have a stool between my dad and (the other announcer) and I always try to get a picture of Aidan listening to him because those are the memories that I’m absolutely going to cherish,” she said.

Saturday night, her dad is going to be living out one of his dreams on her turf. That, too, will be a photo to treasure.

Racing kicks off at Kentucky Speedway tonight with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Buckle Up In Your Truck 225, followed by the XFINITY Series Alsco 300 on Friday.

The main event, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400, with Brennaman driving the Pace Car, takes place Saturday night Driver introductions are scheduled for 6:50 p.m. and the flag drops at 7:30.

For a complete schedule of events and activities, or for ticket or camping information, click here.

Contact Mark Hansel at mark.hansel@nkytrib.com

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