Ben Rhodes: Chasing dreams on-track and on-camera

Ask some of the people who work most closely with Ben Rhodes[1] about him and you’ll get the same sense — that the NASCAR Camping World Truck[2] Series rookie isn’t an ordinary 19-year-old. Ask his crew chief. “I’ve known this kid since he was 15 years old and he was always very mature, very respectful and acts older than he is,” Kevin Bellicourt says. “I mean, the way he has shown maturity in the race car and everything around that, I do forget that he is 19 years old.”

Ask the sports director who co-hosts Rhodes’ TV show — yes, his own TV show — in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. “I’ll look at him sometimes and I’ll just be like, ‘Look, stop it. Just be a kid.’ But he’s not,” Kent Spencer says. “He’s definitely wise beyond his years.”

The wisdom has served Rhodes well in all facets of his budding NASCAR career, which carried him to the K&N Pro Series East championship in 2014 and a stint with the NASCAR Next youth initiative that identifies the sport’s up-and-coming stars. The next step is a full-season campaign this year with powerhouse ThorSport Racing in the Truck Series, which makes its next stop Friday night at Kansas Speedway[3]. Even in casual conversation, Rhodes’ composure comes through in a calm that belies his age, less than one year removed from receiving a high school diploma. It’s a collected nature that helps him feel just as at home in front of a TV camera’s lens as he does behind the wheel.

Rhodes doesn’t have to balance a racing career with schoolwork any more, but his focus is far from singular.

“It’s full-time racing now, and it’s full-time everything that has to do with racing, not just being on the track or working on the cars, but sponsors, events, fans — which is cool,” Rhodes says. “I really like that aspect of it. You can’t be on the track without that.”

The story of how Rhodes came to be on the track isn’t unlike the tale of other youngsters with a dream and a heavy right foot. But it’s the unique wrinkles of his narrative that make Rhodes’ story ready for prime time.

Early beginnings

Around their home state, where the term “racing” is most commonly associated with Thoroughbreds, it’s fitting that Rhodes’ career choice was galvanized by figuratively getting back on the horse. Rhodes had barely entered grade school when the itch for speed struck him. He recalls helping his older brother, Chris, try to emulate his father’s practice of removing the governor from their go-karts, much to their mother’s dismay. The recreational — and occasionally unrestricted — karting soon led to competition.

“We were having a blast around the house,” Rhodes says, “but when we hit the race track, it didn’t really click at first and it took awhile before I got in a wreck to figure it out.”

Rhodes recalls crashing his first time out — the leader coming around to lap him, clipping one of his back wheels and landing on top of his kart. The wreck naturally made him gun-shy, but it took another altercation to set his course toward making racing a lifelong pursuit. Rhodes’ family vividly recalls that incident at the Clark County, Indiana, 4-H Fairgrounds, where the 7-year-old driver was on the receiving end of an intentional wreck for the first time. His family worked to repair his kart while the youngster seethed, intent on retaliation. But as Rhodes began to furiously charge back through the pack, something changed in his demeanor.

“Once I passed the other guy, I didn’t even think about wanting revenge or whatever, I just started having a blast,” Rhodes says. “Passing cars was a lot more fun than getting passed, and that’s when it all started clicking for me. We started working on set-ups and had just an awesome time doing it. It was an awesome family experience.”

Into NASCAR

Those first forays led to progression and an eventual place in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East at age 16. After a partial first season, his first full campaign in 2014 netted a remarkable five victories and six pole positions, with Bellicourt serving as his car chief. The performance drew the interest of JR Motorsports, which fielded Rhodes in a 10-race slate in the NASCAR XFINITY[4] Series in 2015. After a seventh-place series debut at Iowa Speedway[5] in May, Rhodes endured largely uneven results in the JRM No. 88, despite help from the team’s fleet of Sprint Cup[6] drivers — Dale Earnhardt Jr[7]., Kevin Harvick[8], Chase Elliott[9] and Regan Smith[10].

“I learned so much from them, but the problem is it was hard to apply it,” Rhodes says of his sporadic schedule. “You have to be in the car feeling it. I had a month between times (in the car) more than once before I could actually feel what they were talking about or actually apply it. All the momentum that you had was lost. It was just really hard for me to get adjusted to and just hard to keep the learning going, but the jump, I felt like if I ran the whole season, the jump maybe wouldn’t have been that bad.”

An offseason to regroup also led to a new opportunity, as one of the newest faces at ThorSport Racing, a championship-caliber team with an evolving driver roster. In the offseason, Rhodes joined two-time Truck Series champ Matt Crafton[11], second-year driver Cameron Hayley[12] and fellow rookie Rico Abreu under the watch of team owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson. The team’s drivers have perennially lauded the resources that the Thorsons provide to compete at a high level. Rhodes found this out early on, when they sought his input to hire a crew chief for his No. 41 Toyota. He immediately thought of Bellicourt, who had just finished helping William Byron as crew chief for his K&N East championship run in 2015.

In some respects, the job was a tougher sell than most, requiring Bellicourt to move from North Carolina to within reach of ThorSport’s Sandusky, Ohio, shop. But it was also a commitment for his wife, his 11-month-old daughter and the baby the couple are expecting in early June. But the opportunity to move from the regional and touring level to a NASCAR national series was too good to pass up. After taking the leap, the driver-crew chief reunion went seamlessly.

“The communication is back to where it was and it’s like we never even left off,” Rhodes says. “I remember the first time that he was up at ThorSport and I was there and we were having such a good time. None of the guys up there had seen us run before or work together, so when we came up there, they were like, ‘We’ve got a feeling that you just brought your best friend in to work on these race cars.’ That was kind of cool that we hit it off right away once again.”

Says Bellicourt: “We just have a good time. I understand what he’s saying when he’s talking about the truck, and he understands when I’m trying to make a point with him. His understanding of the race car has just come a long way since I first met him when he was 15. He understands that a lot, and all the set-up stuff. That just helps a lot, too, with the driver having that knowledge. We’ve just been able to roll with it so far this season.”

Rolling with it has meant gradual gains in the early stages of the year, but one accomplishment stands out — winning the pole position last month at Martinsville Speedway[13]. Though a late-race wreck saddled Rhodes with a midpack 16th-place result, the speed shown in qualifying and out front for 42 laps made a solid impression.

“It felt really good to get the pole because it validates what we know that we have,” Rhodes says. “We’re trying to show others what my crew chief and I know. We have an awesome relationship and we know how to set up the race cars, we know how to get speed, it’s just a matter of getting the experience together now. It just validates that.”

The fact that Sprint Cup[14] star Kyle Busch[15] was among the competitive field in qualifying that day didn’t hurt the team’s confidence, Bellicourt says.

“You look at that and say there’s no reason we can’t run with any of these guys,” Bellicourt says. “Now Ben knows it. We knew it before, but you always want to make it happen and then you just get that extra confidence. I know it, the guys know it, Ben knows it, and hopefully now everybody else sees what we’re capable of.

“We’re looking to continue to do more of that to show that it wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan, one-time thing. We’re going to try to do it at Kansas again.”

On the mic

Rhodes has visions of keeping his racing aspirations going, climbing the ladder, chasing victories. But if his NASCAR dream somehow ended tomorrow, he has an entertaining backup plan — in television. The 19-year-old is in his fifth season as co-host of “On Track with Ben Rhodes[16],” a 30-minute weekly show that chronicles his racing career and allows him to meet and interview personalities in the Louisville area. Kent Spencer — the sports director at WHAS-11, an ABC affiliate in Louisville — has served as the show’s other co-host since its inception.

“I’d met Ben before, but in kind of a different realm,” Spencer says. “He was a young man trying to come up, went to a local high school, trying to make it in NASCAR, so we interviewed a few times there. This was obviously a different beast. He and I have a really good rapport together, we like to be around each other, so we kind of knew early on that this was going to work.”

The experience has allowed Rhodes to interact with community leaders from all walks of life. This season, Rhodes and Spencer have taken their show on the road, spending time with charitable organizations, returning to Holy Cross High School (the driver’s alma mater), and paying visits to Churchill Downs, site of Saturday’s 142nd Kentucky Derby. Rhodes’ comfort on camera has grown not only in his hometown, but also during media sessions in the garage on race weekends.

“I get to see and build new relationships with people, but it’s also trained me to talk to the media and how to talk on camera,” he says. “Before the show, I was really, really bad. Now that I’ve done the show for a couple seasons, I’ve done a lot better and it makes the job at the race track a lot easier for me.”

Even Bellicourt has noticed. “You give that kid a microphone and you’re going to have to rip it out of his hand before he quits talking,” he says with a laugh. “He’s very outgoing and does a good job with that. He’s kind of a total-package guy. He’s got the marketing side, he’s really good in front of the camera and obviously has performed on the race track great, so he’s got an enormous amount of talent.”

It all circles back to the versatility and composure that extends beyond Rhodes’ years.

“I got that feeling from him back when he was 17,” Spencer says. “You could definitely tell he’s not a normal high school junior, not a normal high school senior. It’s just the way he goes about things and the way he can communicate, and I think a large part of that is because the way that his mom and dad make him do a lot on his own.

“If you want this dream, it’s not easy. You’re going to have to work for it. Every week, we get done taping the show and Ben helps tear down the set. He does a lot setting up his own schedule. He’s out there and he’s doing it, getting the job done, but there’s a lot of times where it just blows me away.”

Several drivers with successful NASCAR credentials have made smooth transitions to the broadcasting booth for second careers after their driving days are done. Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon[17] added his name to the list this season, joining FOX Sports for its coverage of the sport. Rhodes says he’d love to see a similar trajectory for his career, but right now he’s one-upping it — by taking on both jobs at once.

“Hopefully my racing career goes on for a long time and I can build up a great reputation and go out on TV broadcasting,” he says. “I think it’s really cool that drivers do that once they’re done, and they’re able to go up in the broadcast booth and shine new light on the subject and able to give fans kind of the inside scoop on things. As things change and progress, maybe some of the other broadcasters might not be aware of it.

“New drivers like Jeff Gordon[18] and the guys that are fresh out of the race car can show them and talk about what’s changing in the sport. I think that’s really cool that drivers can do that.”

Spoken like a kid who is wise beyond his years.

References

  1. ^ Ben Rhodes (www.nascar.com)
  2. ^ Camping World Truck (www.nascar.com)
  3. ^ Kansas Speedway (www.nascar.com)
  4. ^ XFINITY (www.nascar.com)
  5. ^ Iowa Speedway (www.nascar.com)
  6. ^ Sprint Cup (www.nascar.com)
  7. ^ Dale Earnhardt Jr (www.nascar.com)
  8. ^ Kevin Harvick (www.nascar.com)
  9. ^ Chase Elliott (www.nascar.com)
  10. ^ Regan Smith (www.nascar.com)
  11. ^ Matt Crafton (www.nascar.com)
  12. ^ Cameron Hayley (www.nascar.com)
  13. ^ Martinsville Speedway (www.nascar.com)
  14. ^ Sprint Cup (www.nascar.com)
  15. ^ Kyle Busch (www.nascar.com)
  16. ^ Ben Rhodes (www.nascar.com)
  17. ^ Jeff Gordon (www.nascar.com)
  18. ^ Jeff Gordon (www.nascar.com)

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