Ben Rhodes discusses his young career and the fight to make it in the cutthroat sport of NASCAR.
He may only be 17, but Ben Rhodes has been racing like a veteran in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East.
Friday afternoon, the Kentucky-native was crowned the youngest champion in the division’s history. In mid-May, Rhodes put up a performance that proved why Turner Scott Motorsports signed him in 2013.
Winning four races in succession at Iowa, Winston-Salem, Pensacola and Hampton; tying Ricky Craven’s K&N Pro Series East record in 1991. He began to set his sights on reaching a goal much larger than any he has ever achieved before.
I have improved a lot as a driver, and the communication between driver and crew chief this year is really good ... We can control our own fate
Ben Rhodes on 2014 season
“Looking back, I probably should have slowed down and enjoyed it more,” Rhodes told Motorsport.com. “I think keeping in the grind like I was and doing what we were doing at the time led to more wins. It was just a really good time for us. We were in the grind the whole time and we never lifted at all. We were happy about it and at the end of the day; it was a win and we were focused on the next one. It was kind of like a pat on the back.”
Road to the championship
It all started with Marcos Ambrose. Yes, the Australian that is headed back home to race V8 Supercars for Roger Penske and Dick Johnson in 2015.
Rhodes raced Late Models for Ambrose, and excelled. His level of success led to a part-time deal with Turner Scott Motorsports in 2013, with a full-time gig in 2014. In his first seven events, Rhodes recorded five top fives, but was missing just a little bit to compete for wins.
The trucks have so much side force and punch such a big hole in the air that it takes such a unique learning experience
Ben Rhodes on adjusting to Trucks
“Last year, I feel like we actually could have won a couple of races,” Rhodes revealed. “We had enough speed at the time, but everything didn’t come together right. To have it finally happen this year is great. I knew we had it in us to win a championship, but we are finally making it work this year. I have improved a lot as a driver, and the communication between driver and crew chief this year is really good. It has made it to where we can control our own fate with how much we have improved.”
But 2014 was a year that turned out far greater than what he had dreamed. Following in the steps of teammate Dylan Kwasniewski, he has won a handful of races, giving the organization their second straight championship. There was not a single race in which Rhodes finished off of the lead lap.
Jumping up to Trucks
March was a giant month for the high school student. Making his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut at Martinsville, Rhodes tackled a whole new monster. Not only did he perform well in the event, but he was also able to capture a top ten finish.
Adjusting to the Truck Series hasn’t been the easiest task though. In three races at some of NASCAR’s toughest tracks, he has a pair of top ten finishes and was running well at Dover until he got caught up in a multi-truck wreck. Besides learning how to deal with the higher level of horsepower in the Truck Series, which has about 50 horsepower more than the K&N cars, Rhodes has dealt with a completely different aerodynamic setup.
The little mix up that they had earlier this season has been taken care of. We are all on an even playing field now that the waters have been smoothed out and everything is back to normal
Rhodes on drama between TSM owners
“The trucks have so much side force and punch such a big hole in the air that it takes such a unique learning experience to learn these trucks," Rhodes explained to Motorsport.com "You have to be put in a situation and learn from it quickly to adapt and get wins early on. To find out where the air is, you have to put air on the nose, and then you have to put air on the side of the truck, which is hard if there is a guy on the outside of you or even in front of you but a lane up."
"You might lose some side force from that. It has been really challenging to learn all of that. I feel like I have been learning it quickly, especially at a place like Dover where it is such a high-speed track. It is small, but it is still the fastest and biggest track that I can go on right now.”
Although he has yet to run both divisions on the same weekend, there have been a few test sessions in which Rhodes has to take the wheel of a truck after running the car in the lower-tier division. As a part of NASCAR Next, the ultimate goal for him is to move up from the K&N Pro Series, but there is still a learning curve that he needs to complete.
'It's a different animal'
“The trucks are kind of a different animal,” said Rhodes. “The K&N cars are my home this season and anytime I get in them, I feel at home. That has never been an issue. I got in (the truck) at Dover and felt like I was driving a boat or that I was pulling a trailer behind me or something. It is a different vehicle with a higher center of gravity. It has a little bit of different tires. It has been a little bit of a different animal for me this year, but it has been a unique learning experience that I have been very fortunate and blessed to have the opportunity to do that by going to these four race tracks in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this year with Phoenix, Dover, Bristol and Martinsville.”
He can shed light on some of these tracks that I have never been to, but he has
Ben Rhodes on his K&N crew chief, a former racer
“I feel like it has been a great opportunity and I have learned a ton from those races. It hasn’t been hard for me to switch back and forth just because the K&N cars are my home. When you go back to your home, it is easy to relax and get back into the grind of things. Moving to the trucks is more difficult for me.”
Working with different crew chiefs
Mark McFarland, the former JR Motorsports driver, has been working with Rhodes on the K&N side. Previously, he worked with Lee McCall, who was a Sprint Cup Series crew chief for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates for four years.
Working with McFarland has been an immense experience in his education on the race track. As a former racer himself, he knows some of the circuits that Rhodes is tackling for the first time. This combo has finished inside of the top 10 in all but two events in 2014, and they have been a model for consistency with plenty of speed at every track.
“He can shed light on some of these tracks that I have never been to, but he has,” he said regarding McFarland. “I lean on him in that aspect by showing me around the track. He can also relate to me as a driver. I can give him some feedback and he will understand it because he was in that situation. Or if I have trouble explaining a feeling and I try explaining it the best I can to him, he will understand what I am feeling because he had that before when he was a driver. Even if I can’t explain it that well, we are all on the same page.”
I am very fortunate to be paired up with Eddie D’Hondt as well. He’s Jeff Gordon’s spotter and is working with me in the Truck Series
But while working with McFarland in a division which he called his “home,” Rhodes is working with two-time Truck Series champion Mike Hillman Jr. as his crew chief in his limited races in the No. 32 truck. With Hillman on the pit box, he has enabled the 17-year-old to make an easy transition to the higher level of competition as he begins to prepare to race at Martinsville and Phoenix to end the season. Besides working will Hillman, he has also been working with Eddie D’Hondt, who has been Jeff Gordon’s spotter for a number of years.
“I have learned a lot from a guy that has so much experience. He has helped me a lot at Bristol, Dover and Martinsville; all of which are very tough tracks. He is a good crew chief to have and a good friend to have in the Truck Series for sure,” Rhodes said regarding Hillman.
“I am very fortunate to be paired up with Eddie D’Hondt as well. He’s Jeff Gordon’s spotter and is working with me in the Truck Series. He knows a lot of those tracks and he has been going to those tracks a lot longer than I have been alive. He knows what those tracks do at night time, where the line is and just knows them like the back of his hands. Having someone like him watching out for me means a lot because experience translates over to speed on the track.”
Working through dark times at TSM
Over the past few weeks, there has been a dispute between TSM owners Steve Turner and Harry Scott Jr. Due to the pending lawsuits and other financial mismatch between the two, Ron Hornaday Jr., who was inside of the top-five in driver points, was left without a ride. The organization had been fielding the No. 30 truck on a week-to-week basis, and it appeared as if he was going to run the full schedule.
With multiple employees released from the largest team in the Truck Series, rumors were swirling around that the team might shut down all together. However, according to Rhodes, everything is back to normal at the shop as the owners are still working things out.
I am missing an awful lot of school. The teachers have been really nice to me. They’ve allowed me to stay late with them and take the time to let me take tests and study
Rhodes on balancing school and racing
Throughout it all, his job was not in jeopardy.
“We still have our truck races all set for later in the year," Rhodes explained. ?Everything is going well over there right now. The little mix up that they had earlier this season has been taken care of. We are all on an even playing field now that the waters have been smoothed out and everything is back to normal. I’m really looking forward to that truck race (Phoenix). I think it is going to be a great learning experience and I am having a blast with Turner Scott Motorsports this year. They have given me great stuff all year and the guys are great to work with.”
As the team moves forward from the inner chaos, they are still looking for financial investors (sponsors) to come through for 2015. Ben Kennedy’s truck has seen a lack of sponsorship, and the No. 32 team has seen a vast array of drivers behind the wheel.
Racing while in high school
As a young lad, Rhodes recently entered his senior year at high school. Attending Holy Cross High School in Louisville, Kentucky, he has a 4.0 GPA. But due to chasing his dreams, he's also had to miss classes.
While racing, he has informed his teachers of the intentions he has to become a professional race car driver. Due to their help, similar to that of Chase Elliott earlier this year, he has been able to miss some days of class and still maintain a high GPA with the possibility of going to college; if he opts to do so.
On Friday evening at Kentucky, the majority of his teachers and the school’s staff came out to see him race in the Zloop 150 at Kentucky Speedway in his first intermediate track start in the ARCA Series.
“I am missing an awful lot of school. The teachers have been really nice to me. They’ve allowed me to stay late with them and take the time to let me take tests and study. They have kind of been like tutors to me and have really helped me on that aspect. They e-mail my work when I’m gone and they have been very great to me.”
“I’m very thankful to be in such a good school that works with me like that. All of the teachers and staff and faculty at my school are coming out to see me race for the first time. A lot of them have never seen a car race before. I told them that the essentials for this weekend are going to be a little money for concessions, ear plugs and a jacket; it might get a little chilly.”
Even with winning a NASCAR-level championship, he has managed to create for himself a low-key environment in the classroom setting. Not many people know or understand what he does outside of school. He doesn’t like to talk about it. Instead, he is trying to get to know his peers with the limited time he has to spend with them.
When the daily grind gets too rough between doing interviews and testing, he misses more class than most would want. However, he has not fallen behind. What Rhodes does is rather intriguing as he does homework in the airport and studies on the plane.
“I’d say the biggest thing is using my time wisely,” he stated on his time management skills. “When I’m on airplanes, I can be studying. If I am in the airport, I can be doing my homework or in a car ride. A lot of times, I have to sacrifice my social life and personal life to get all of my school work done. Education is really important to me and it means a lot to sponsors. It leads to better things in life. Education is certainly a doorway to better things. I put a lot of value at that and I work really hard at it. In the end, I know it is all worth it. I need to be smart and use my time wisely and not procrastinate.”
As long as his racing career works out, he is going to put college to the side; at least for the immediate future.
Moving forward, what does the future hold?
After this season, Rhodes is going to be temporarily left without a sponsor. Alpha Energy Solutions will not be backing him, at least on a full-time basis. But there is a good reason as to why.
In 2015, he is going to be moving up to either the Camping World Truck Series or the Nationwide Series for an entire season. It is unknown which division he will run, but as long as he finds sponsors willing to move up with him, there will be a new 18-year-old rookie at the national level.
“I’m looking to get into one of the national series next year; either the Camping World Truck Series or the Xfinity Series. I’m looking forward to trying to get into one of those series to run full-time and learn as much as possible,” Rhodes said.
Turning 18 is key
On Feb. 21, Rhodes will turn 18. That is the same day as the season-opener for the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and one day following the Camping World Truck Series’ first race of 2015. NASCAR enables drivers 16 and 17 years of age to race at tracks of 1.1-miles in length and shorter along with road courses in the Truck Series, which is going to put Rhodes in a bit of a pickle come Daytona. He told us that he isn’t sure what NASCAR would do, but “the issue will be getting approved in time to practice since my birthday is so close to race day.”
Other than that, it is just a matter of putting together a team for Rhodes. There is no word on what number he would use in either division. If he were to move to the Xfinity Series, he is expected to join Dylan Kwasniewski and Kyle Larson in a third car; unless Larson opts not to run another season in the sport’s second-tier division.
After running inside of the top-five during the ARCA Series race at Kentucky, he showed that he has the talent to succeed at the larger tracks given more seat time. Whatever the team opts to do, they understand that Rhodes is capable of doing plenty behind the wheel, and that is going to pay off in the long run.