The Charlotte race weekend was a big one for me as I experienced NASCAR’s past, present, and future! In one weekend, I had the opportunity to interview one of NASCAR’s greatest legends-Richard Petty- and some of NASCAR’s future stars – Ben Rhodes, Gray Gaulding, and Ryan Gifford. Ben, Gray, and Ryan are involved in the NASCAR Next program, a program that features race car drivers who have a promising NASCAR future ahead of them and promotes these drivers to fans and teams. One of my goals as a teenage journalist is to promote the sport to my generation. I think one of the best ways to do this is to feature young drivers that people my age can relate to and follow their development in the sport. After all, these are the drivers that are our sport’s future and we will be able to say, “We knew them when…”
Ben Rhodes is a 16 year old Louisville, Kentucky native who had a busy year in 2013, driving both the #41 Alpha Energy Solutions car in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for Hawk-McCall Motorsports and K&N Pro Series East car for Turner-Scott Motorsports. Along with 6 victories in the All-American Series, he finished third (behind Kyle Busch and David Ragan) in the Denny Hamlin Short Track Showdown. He also finished in the top-10 in five of his seven K&N East races. Ben plans to race full-time in the K&N series in 2014, running for both Rookie of the Year and the championship.
Here’s a chance to get to know Ben!
ML: Tell me a little bit about your racing career up to this point.
BR: I started out racing go-karts when I turned 7. I raced those for about 6 years, and then moved on to Bandolero, then Legends. I won about 43 races in 2011 in Legend cars and then moved into Late Models. I had zero wins my first year in Late Models. My second year-this year- I have 5 wins and I’m racing part-time K&N. A lot of progress and a lot of work to get where we are now.
ML: What are your plans for next year?
BR: Next year we are going to drive full time K&N for Turner-Scott Motorsports and a few truck races are on the radar. I’m looking forward to it!
ML: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome in your racing career?
BR: Really there’s been a challenge in every series I’ve been in. In go-karts there was always somebody that I kind of became rivals with. In Legends cars I had a big rival. Every track we went to he was just as fast as me. I’ve learned a lot from every person I’ve raced against. It made me a better person and better on the track too. For example, they would try to hang me out to dry on the outside. They would try to set you up so you would fall to the back. I had to learn how to set them up and counteract it. It was cool to learn all that.
ML: Where were you and who told you that you were a NASCAR Next driver?
BR: (looks at PR representative, Stix) What was it? A week ahead of Iowa when we found out we were on NASCAR Next? (Stix nods) About a week ahead of the first Iowa race, which was an East-West combo, so the majority of the NASCAR Next people were going to be there. They told us a week ahead of time, we showed up, they had the announcement, then it was official. We got all the goodies! We got the shirts, a couple of hats, and our schedule later in the mail-where we were going to go and all the cool events we got to take part in.
ML: What is your favorite opportunity you’ve had as a NASCAR Next driver?
BR: Probably the Chicago trip! That’s been our biggest and best event so far. We got to look around the city a little bit, then we went to the track and met some of the firemen and safety crews. We went to the Contender’s Live Event (an event in Chicago with all of the Chase drivers). That was pretty cool!
ML: What Sprint Cup or Nationwide driver do you admire and look up to the most and why?
BR: Growing up it was Jeff Gordon because my family knew him. My uncle worked on his sprint car growing up, building engines and stuff.
ML: How do you balance school and racing?
BR: I go to a small school so that helps! Everybody knows each other. I know all the teachers. They’ll send me emails. They will give me my work ahead of time if I ask for it. I can really go up to them and ask them about anything and they’ll be there to help. It’s really great people at my school. They help out in any way that they can. They support me one-hundred percent. I can miss 30 days like I did last year and as long as I keep my grades up they’re okay with it.
ML: I don’t think I could miss that many school days and get everything done to pass all my classes!
BR: Yeah, it was kind of rough!
ML: Do you have time for any other hobbies?
BR: Not really- between getting home after long weekends and trying to make up my school work from missing Thursday and Friday of the previous week and everything else that happens during the day. I go home, I work out, do my homework and if I’ve done all that I like to spend time with my family-even if it is late at night.
ML: What’s your favorite TV show?
BR: (thinks for a minute, then laughs) Oh man….I don’t know! Anything to do with racing!
ML: Favorite singer or band?
BR: I can give you a genre! Hard rock- stuff I listen to when I work out to get me pumped up!
ML: Favorite junk food?
BR: There’s so many! Does Taco Bell count as junk food?
BR: Taco Bell, doughnuts, Little Debbies!
ML: What’s your favorite movie?
BR: It’s hard to pick favorites! I have a selection of favorites!
ML: What kind of movies- funny, scary?
BR: Funny movies and action movies I guess!
ML: What car do you have in real life?
BR: I got an old F-150 when I turned 16. It’s not bad! It gets me from Point A to
ML: What’s your favorite fast food?
BR: Probably Subway. I eat Subway all the time!
ML: Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram?
BR: Twitter. That’s the only one I really know! (laughs)
ML: Favorite app?
BR: Oh, this is hard! I look at iFunny a lot!
ML: What’s one thing about yourself that would surprise most people?
BR: I’m a relaxed driver on the streets. I’m a racecar driver so I like to go fast, but I go the speed limit on the street!
ML: Do you have a Sprint Cup driver that you pull for every weekend?
BR: I like a lot of drivers. I like Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Marcos Ambrose –I used to drive for him in late models and he’s hilarious!
ML: Do you follow any other sports? Football, baseball?
BR: Nope! Just racing!
I enjoyed getting to know Ben in person after following his career for the past year! I have a feeling that we’ll all be cheering for him in NASCAR for many years to come!