Ben Rhodes: Chasing dreams on-track and on-camera
Ask some of the people who work most closely with Ben Rhodes about him and you'll get the same sense -- that the NASCAR Camping World Truck 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 . 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 Series in 2015. After a seventh-place series debut at Iowa Speedway in May, Rhodes endured largely uneven results in the JRM No. 88, despite help from the team's fleet of Sprint Cup drivers -- Dale Earnhardt Jr ., Kevin Harvick , Chase Elliott and Regan Smith . "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 , second-year driver Cameron Hayley 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 . 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 star Kyle Busch 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 ," 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 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 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.
Kenseth on '16 woes: Results will come 'eventually'
RELATED: Kenseth honors Steve Byrnes' family a year later CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Matt Kenseth spent the majority of his most recent Sunday afternoon running in the top five at Martinsville Speedway , but when the STP 500 came down to a final 11-lap dash, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver began dropping like a stone through the field. Hoping to battle teammate Kyle Busch for the victory, Kenseth instead found himself searching for any opening that would allow him to drop down to the inside and stop the free fall. By the time Busch took the checkered flag, Kenseth had plummeted to 15th . It was another missed opportunity for the 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, whose No. 20 Toyota has had plenty of speed but not a lot of good fortune in 2016. "I thought when eight cars stayed out, the way my car handled and the way it would restart … and being on warm tires and all (that) stuff, I knew that it probably wasn’t going to be good," Kenseth said Tuesday during an appearance at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. "But I didn’t think it would be that bad. "I never thought I would get shuffled to 15th . I thought I would have been able to somewhere find a gap, pop in there fourth or fifth or something like that and hopefully make a position or two up. I knew that my chances for a win were greatly diminished, but I didn’t think that I would fall back that far." Busch and JGR teammate Denny Hamlin each now have wins (Hamlin scored in the season-opening Daytona 500 ). Teammate Carl Edwards posted a solid sixth-place finish on Sunday and sits fourth, just behind Busch, in the points standings after six of 36 races. Kenseth is 14th in points but showing no signs of concern as the series prepares to head to Texas Motor Speedway this week for Saturday night’s Duck Commander 500 . It’s a long season and there are a lot of laps to be run between now and September, when the field for this year’s 16-team Chase field will be set. His team’s results thus far have been disappointing, "but we’ve run pretty good," Kenseth said. "We were in contention to win a couple of races, neither of them worked out. We had fast enough cars, if all the stars had aligned maybe even won a couple more. "If you run good enough, over time the law of averages is going to work out and you’re going to win some races and get some (good) finishes. It’s just tough to go through when you’re not getting the finishes. "I’d much rather run the way we’re running and perform the way we’re performing and not get the finishes than be a 15th -place car and luck into a ninth-place finish or something like that." Kenseth, 44, has the best average finishing position among active drivers at TMS (8.2) and only six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson has a better driver rating. But his last two starts on the 1.5-mile track haven’t been particularly memorable with finishes outside the top 20. Kenseth missed last year’s Chase race at Texas while serving a two-race suspension. Two of his 36 career victories in the series came at Texas -- both earned while he still was competing for Roush Fenway Racing . "I don’t see anybody hanging their heads around (the team’s shop)," Kenseth said. "I don’t think we need a group intervention. … We’re all grown- ups , been doing it for a long time. I think Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) understands, I understand, I think my crew guys understand. … "It’s easy to dwell on the negatives and be like, 'Man we were in the process of making a pass for the lead and hopefully win the race and a caution came out and we finished 15th .' Is that disappointing? Yeah it’s disappointing. But you’ve got to keep it all in perspective. "You’re going to have days where things go right, as well. Like I said, it all starts with performance. … Sometimes it’s painful, but if you’re patient enough you’re going to end up getting the results eventually."
High 5: Bowyer's Royals spirit, playoff stir-ups & Gordon's longtime fan
Presenting NASCAR content from around the web Editor's note: On Wednesday at noon ET, "High 5" will present some of the best NASCAR-related content from around the web. 1. World champs Jeff Gordon 's win at Martinsville wasn't the only big event happening in sports this weekend. The Kansas City Royals won their second World Series title on Sunday, defeating the New York Mets four games to one in the series. Royals manager Ned Yost's connection to Dale Earnhardt and NASCAR has been well-documented over the past year. Here is one example. WE’RE #CROWNED !!! Your Kansas City Royals are WORLD CHAMPIONS!!!! pic.twitter.com/Ic8oL4aWu5 — Royals (@Royals) November 2, 2015 Happy for Ned Yost and the @Royals today. — Dale Earnhardt Jr . (@DaleJr) November 2, 2015 But if anyone in NASCAR is SUPER excited about this, it's Kansas-native Clint Bowyer . So excited that he's questioning next-morning commitments. That poor dentist. Been really fun to root for these guys we call our own. All I've seen on my timeline is #takethecrown . How bout #TookTheCrown Let's all — Clint Bowyer (@ClintBowyer) November 2, 2015 Gonna go ahead and apologize in advance for my 9am dentist appointment. We took the damn crown for crying out loud. @Royals — Clint Bowyer (@ClintBowyer) November 2, 2015 2. Buckeyes, Tigers & the Tide -- oh my! As the Championship Round between the final four drivers at Homestead approaches, another sport is gearing up for its four-team playoff of its own -- College football. The College Football Playoff Committee announced its first rankings of the season on Tuesday night. Making the cut were the Clemson Tigers, LSU Tigers, Ohio State Buckeyes and the Alabama Crimson Tide. 1. Clemson 2. LSU 3. Ohio State 4. Alabama pic.twitter.com/7FtqlrlmSl — CFBPlayoff (@CFBPlayoff) November 4, 2015 The first three teams hold unblemished records this season, while Alabama -- the unexpected pick of the lot -- has one loss against Ole Miss. But just as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup has showed us, anything can happen when there are four coveted spots at the line. 3. 3-on-3 Several celebrities hit the court with Austin Dillon for his 3-on-3 Celebrity Baskeball Tournament on Tuesday night at High Point University. NASCAR’s Ty Dillon , Denny Hamlin and Brendan Gaughan , as well as country singer Colt Ford and MMA fighter Rashad Evans, were among the VIP guests who served as captains. He shoots...he scores!! @austindillon3 is king of the court today! -JW pic.twitter.com/HRLFZ3q6sT — Miss Sprint Cup (@MissSprintCup) November 3, 2015 Coach @dennyhamlin keeps an eye on his team...self-proclaimed the "Bad News Bears"! Ha! -JW pic.twitter.com/UjDVzZ4Km9 — Miss Sprint Cup (@MissSprintCup) November 3, 2015 The 16-team format resembled the bracket-style system that governs the NCAA basketball playoffs. Austin Dillon 's team, seeded 1 from the start, ultimately prevailed over Gaughan's squad. All proceeds from the night benefitted the Childress Institute for Pediatric Trauma. 4. Gordon's longtime fan He's been with Jeff Gordon since the beginning, watched him grow from a young racer into a championship-winner Cup driver. It's not team owner Rick Hendrick and it's not former crew chief Ray Evernham. Rather, it's Gordon's stepfather John Bickford. "Jeff ran with the bigger kids and the very best that was out there. He had a lot of skills then and it was one of those things that I probably knew that he could keep advancing," Bickford told Popular Speed in a recent article. One thing is for certain: he's hoping for a fifth title for his stepson. "I certainly hope Jeff takes that checkered flag in first place!" Bickford said. "I've never done this. It's been 39 years of continuous focus on this racing. So, I don't know how I'll feel. I guess I'm hoping for a bit of a sense of completion." Click here to read the entire story from Popular Speed. 5. Chase take-aways Sunday's race at Martinsville was highlighted by Gordon's Chase-clinching win and Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano 's ongoing drama, which ultimately resulted in Kenseth's two-race suspension . But the race's wild finish held many other implications for other drivers, especially those contending for a title. FOX Sports 1 breaks down the top five takeaways from Sunday's showdown here.
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