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Ben Rhodes, 17-year-old phenom, could tie Ricky Craven’s five-race K&N win streak record Friday at Loudon

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One of the records ESPN analyst and former NASCAR driver Ricky Craven takes pride in owning could wind up being tied Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Maine native will be on hand as 17-year-old racing phenom Ben Rhodes attempts to tie Craven’s nearly quarter-century old series record of five straight wins in the K&N East Series in the East Granite 100.

“I do think it’s impressive, certainly more impressive what Ben is doing than what I did back then,” Craven said during a Wednesday morning NASCAR teleconference. “I think it’s mostly because he’s 17 years old, and I think it deserves a lot of attention. It’s what separates him from the crowd.”

Craven won five in a row on the K&N Series during the 1991 season.

Ironically, Craven and Rhodes will meet for the first time before the race, but Craven is already wishing Rhodes well in Friday’s race.

“I’m very enthusiastic,” Craven said. “I’ll go out of my way to find him this weekend and shake hands and wish him luck, as I’m really pulling for him to not only tie the record but exceed it.

“(Holding the record for) 23 years is a long time. I never really thought at the time that winning four or five in a row was important, and I think even if this happens that Ben would probably reiterate that. As a competitor, it’s just about winning and it’s about winning a championship.”

While the two haven’t met yet, Craven has been keeping up on Rhodes’ career from a distance.

“I’ve spent some time trying to better know Ben as a race car driver, and I’m really impressed,” Craven said. “He has all the tools, the ingredients, obviously a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of talent. But the people that I’ve asked say that he races like a 17 year old but he has the sense of a 37 year old, and I think that’s a magical combination.”

Rhodes is a native of Louisville, Kentucky. In addition to going for five wins in a row, he’ll also be going for his sixth win overall in just 10 races thus far this season on the K&N Pro Series East schedule.

The five wins came at Greenville (S.C.), and the last four on the schedule at Iowa, Winston-Salem (N.C.), Pensacola (Fla.) and Hampton (Va.).

He also finished second at Richmond, third at Bristol (Tenn.) and fourth at New Smyrna (Fla.).

He’s failed to finish inside the top-five just once thus far (15th at Daytona) and also has two poles.

He’s the latest young hot shoe in a series that has seen quite a few current Sprint Car drivers essentially start their own racing careers, including Austin Dillon, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson.

“You know, it’s strange, I don’t wake up every day thinking I’m old, but watching you and seeing what you are accomplishing at such an early age, I have kids older than you, Ben, so I guess it puts everything in perspective,” Craven said. “But no, I sincerely — I want to see you tie this weekend, and I really think you’ve got a great shot, not only because of all the things that have happened recently and the momentum that goes with that, but New Hampshire is a good track in terms of if you have a fast car and you have a real good feel for the car that day, it’s big enough that you can maneuver around other drivers.  So I think it’s a good place to get that fifth in a row.”

Rhodes has obviously caught the attention of a number of individuals, not just fans and media, but team owners as well. He’s already had two starts this season in the Camping World Truck Series (eighth at Martinsville, crashed and finished 22nd at Dover).

There’s already talk about him possibly even going up to the Nationwide Series. But of course that requires sponsorship, a good team and the luck of being in the right place at the right time.

“If funding wasn’t an issue, I would like to go to Nationwide,” Rhodes said. “I think it would be an easier jump from the K&N cars to Nationwide and an easier jump from Nationwide to Sprint Cup.

“But that’s looking pretty far ahead, and I think that would be much easier because of the aero package and everything that makes it up. I know those trucks with the huge side force that they have, it would make it hard learning those things and then trying to jump in the Nationwide car.

“It obviously works and it’s a very good learning curve and definitely a good stepping-stone, but if I could just get in that and learn from the get-go, I think that would be good. It would knock out some of the learning curve, I think, going from the trucks to the Nationwide, and I think sponsors and funding is a little bit better for Nationwide Series.”

Rhodes is part of the NASCAR Next driver development program – and it’s an understatement to say his development has been like the way he drives a race car: f-a-s-t.

“The success has been great,” Rhodes said. “We’ve already been trying to focus on some plans for next year and trying to get stuff together. But as you know and everybody knows in racing, it’s a difficult sport. A lot of stuff can be done at last minute and get it all together, so we’re still figuring out our plans, but it’s definitely been helping. It’s definitely been opening up some doors and bringing some attention to us. I’ve felt like we’ve had this in us all the time, it’s just finally coming together.”

To be compared to someone like Craven “gives me a lot of confidence,” Rhodes said. “Just to be able to talk to people that have been around the sport for a long time, and they obviously know way more than I do, and just to try to tap into that knowledge and hear what they have to say is always great.

“You know, I’m hearing what (Craven) says, and it gives me a big boost of confidence. Going into these races, it’s funny how I can relate to what he’s saying from way back then to what I’m feeling now. He’s talking about not throwing down and focusing on that championship, and that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m not really looking at each race. Winning each race is great, but our focus is the next one. I don’t even look back. You come in every day and you see the trophy is there anyway, but you look at them, admire them for a second, good job, pat on the back, and we’re right back to work ready to win the next one.

“I’m seeing a lot of similarities, and it’s cool to see that, and it definitely gives me a boost of confidence being in the same conversation as him and hearing what he has to say.”

Added Craven, “What Ben has accomplished already at such an early age, it doesn’t happen by mistake, so it speaks to his talent and it speaks to his focus. When you look at the young drivers in the series that have rolled out of it very quickly, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson, the latest example, and even if you take it a step further and look at the prospects of the sport, Chase Elliott, who graduates, has success, I think that benefits into that mold. Again, I’ve not watched him race. The numbers don’t lie.  They are very impressive. And listening to him, he just seems like he’s ahead of his years.”

As the teleconference ended, Craven had one last bit of encouragement to Rhodes: “I look forward to seeing you and look forward to pulling for you. You’ve given me a reason to watch the race. Have a great weekend.”

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Niki Lauda confident Valtteri Bottas can be F1 world champion with Mercedes

Valtteri Bottas
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Mercedes non-executive director Niki Lauda believes that Valtteri Bottas can become Formula 1 world champion following his move to Mercedes ahead of the 2017 season.

Bottas was formally announced as a Mercedes driver on Monday, replacing Nico Rosberg following the German’s shock decision to retire following his world title win at the end of last year.

Speaking to RTL, Lauda expressed his belief that Bottas can be just as fast as Rosberg has been and is also capable of winning a world championship.

“We took Bottas because it was the best option. He is a driver who can be just as fast as Nico and I think he can win the world championship,” Lauda said.

“It was not easy to solve the problem of Rosberg, because we were looking for a driver who could do well in our team.

“So far we have always had the best two drivers who were both capable of fighting for the championship. The Nico-Lewis pairing is a good example, because they were two top drivers and fought head-to-head.”

Lauda is sure that Bottas can hit the ground running at Mercedes, proving to be a safe option with four seasons of F1 experience already under his belt.

“In the last three years we have won everything there was to win and that’s why we involved Bottas, who brings experience and speed to the team,” Lauda said.

“We can start the season very quietly and safely with these two drivers.”

Lauda also believes that Bottas will not become involved in any intra-team tension with new teammate Lewis Hamilton, the Briton having enjoyed a particularly fiery rivalry with Rosberg during their time together at Mercedes.

“Bottas is Finnish, he is calm, doesn’t talk much, but works hard,” Lauda said.

“I am sure that he will fit perfectly in the team and will not have any problems with Hamilton.”

After a down season in 2016, Ryan Hunter-Reay is looking up in 2017

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The 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season was one Ryan Hunter-Reay would likely rather forget.

If you were an IndyCar driver, you’d want to forget it too, as Hunter-Reay endured his worst season in the last eight:

* He failed to win even one race since 2009, his last season outside Andretti Autosport.

* He managed just three podium finishes (same as 2015, but he also had two wins that season).

* After finishing seventh, sixth and sixth in the previous three seasons, Hunter-Reay finished 12th in the IndyCar standings in 2016, his worst showing since finishing 15th in 2009.

* He had an average starting position of 11.8 and an average finish of 10.9.

All in all, 2016 was very much a hit-and-miss season, with more emphasis on the miss rather than the hit.

“2016 I think was just a season of missed opportunities, especially when I look at the big one that got away, which was the Indy 500,” Hunter-Reay said during Wednesday’s annual IndyCar preseason Media Day. “I knew after halfway through that race that I had a car to win it, it was just a matter of getting to that sprint, to that fight at the end.”

Unfortunately, RHR finished 24th in that event, two laps behind winner Alexander Rossi, following contact in the pits.

“And then Pocono, again, same situation, 500-mile race, very similar circumstances,” Hunter-Reay said, although he finished third at Pocono as opposed to how he did at Indy. “Those were two wins I feel like got away.”

It’s something he can’t help but lament because had things turned out differently, Hunter-Reay likely would not have finished as low in the standings as he did.

“It being my first ever season not winning a race with a full-time program – those two hurt when I think about them,” he said.

Another thing that hurt and was a miss was his performance in street courses. While he started the season strong with a third-place finish at St. Petersburg, that was the lone street course highlight of 2016.

At Long Beach, he finished 18th. He bounced back with finishes of seventh and third in the two Belle Isle races, but wound up 12th at Toronto.

“It was a season of struggles on the street courses for Andretti Autosport as a whole,” Hunter-Reay admitted. “We have been going back to look at that and we’re going to bring some changes in this year.

“We’ve obviously had some personnel changes at Andretti Autosport, and we’ve also had a directional change on the way we’re going to approach street circuits.

“We had a couple good street course races. You know, we finished on the podium at two last year, but it’s not enough. That’s something that we need to get on top of.”

Like his fellow IndyCar peers, Hunter-Reay is over 2016 and it’s on to 2017, with a hunger that can only be fed with greater success.

“Absolutely,” said the 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner. “I’m always so motivated no matter what when I get in the race car.

“That’s how I’ve always been my whole career, just because I’ve always had to get in and prove myself to keep my ride. I have a lot of stability now with DHL (renewed at the end of last season). Obviously this is a great, great partner. It’s great for the series. I have four years left on my deal right now, and that stability within IndyCar, so big thanks to DHL and Andretti Autosport on that.”

While IndyCar will have a decidedly different race car in 2018, Hunter-Reay does not anticipate 2017 being similar to his 2016 campaign.

“I don’t want to make it seem like it’s a lame duck year for us,” he said. “This is something that we can progress on. We know the areas we need to improve in, and we’ve been focusing on that this off-season. I think we can improve there.

“There’s no reason why we can’t, and there’s no excuse not to, so that’s something that we’re very focused on, and I feel like we have a great opportunity to win four or five races this season, hopefully more. But it’s something where we’re going to have to go out and prove it.”

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Liberty Media offers $400m in F1 shares to teams

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo leads Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo Daniel Ricciardo of Australia driving the (3) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16- Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP), Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (33) Red Bull Racing Red Bull-TAG Heuer RB12 TAG Heuer and the rest of the field at the start during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Liberty Media has announced that $400 million worth of shares in Formula 1 will be set aside for teams to purchase following its acquisition of the sport.

Liberty announced in September that it had agreed to purchase F1 in an $8 billion deal, with final approval being given by the series’ governing body, the FIA, earlier this week. The takeover is set to be completed by the end of January.

Liberty issued a statement on Thursday confirming that it has allocated $400 million worth of shares to be bought by the teams racing in F1, with the idea being part of its mission statement after its initial offer was accepted.

“Liberty Media Corporation announced today that it intends to issue cash convertible senior notes in a private offering,” the statement reads.

“The notes will be convertible into cash in an amount determined by reference to the trading price of shares of Series C Liberty Media common stock (“LMCK”).

“Liberty expects to use the net proceeds of the offering to fund an increase to the cash consideration payable to the selling shareholders (the “Selling Shareholders”) of Formula 1 (“F1″) by $400 million and retain in treasury the approximately 19 million shares that would otherwise have been issuable to the Selling Shareholders based on the per share purchase price of $21.26. These LMCK shares will be reserved by Liberty for issuance to the F1 teams at a per share purchase price of $21.26.”

“We think it’s important to offer the teams the chance to invest in F1 and further align our interests,” Liberty president and CEO Greg Maffei said.

“We look forward to working with the teams to increase the appeal of this iconic sport and enhance the F1 business.”

F1 chairman Chase Carey added: “Several of the teams have expressed interest in investing and we have already begun productive discussions to make the sport more competitive and even more exciting.”

After winning Indy 500, Alexander Rossi has even greater goal for 2017

100th Indianapolis 500 Winner Alexander Rossi Visits The Empire State Building
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Yesterday, the Indy 500. Tomorrow, the Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

That’s essentially Alexander Rossi’s mindset for 2017.

After being the surprise winner of the 100th running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, as well as earning both Indy 500 and IndyCar Rookie of the Year honors in 2016, Rossi is ready to make the next step — a very big step indeed.

Sure, he’d love to repeat as 500 winner, but the series championship is his No. 1 priority – and he’s ready to go for the jugular right from the opening race of the 2017 season in March in St. Petersburg, Florida.

When asked during Wednesday’s IndyCar Media Day just how important a strong start will be this season, the Andretti Herta Autosport (with Curb-Agajanian) driver quickly replied, “Very important.”

“Racing is momentum and confidence, and all of the adjectives that relate to those things,” Rossi continued. “If you are on the back foot from day one, you’re always playing catch-up.”

Rossi quickly points to Will Power as a perfect example of why a strong start is important. Power missed the 2016 season-opening race in St. Pete due to reported lingering effects of an inner ear infection following a crash the day before in practice, which was inadvertently misdiagnosed as a concussion.

Power did not earn any points after missing the race, which he feared would keep him behind the eight-ball the remainder of the season. But Power went on a strong run and was able to finish second.

Still, if Power had raced at St. Pete, he may have eventually overtaken teammate Simon Pagenaud for the championship.

“We saw it a little bit with Will last year,” Rossi said. “He obviously is more than capable of winning championships but was always playing catch-up from St. Pete.

“It’s very important to come out of the box strong. Do you have to win, no, but I mean, you need to be fighting for the win at least and show that you’re competitive.”

Now that he’s won the biggest race in the world, Rossi knows he can’t live on his laurels or what happened last year. While winning the 500 was life-changing, his performance in the other 15 races of the 2016 season was more mediocre than good.

He had just one other top-five finish (fifth in the season finale at Sonoma), a sixth-place finish at Iowa and a pair of 10th-place finishes (Indy Grand Prix, Belle Isle 1).

Then there was the bad part of the season: seven finishes of 14th or lower, one DNF (Pocono) and ended the season with an average starting position of 14.3 and an average finish of 11.8.

“So ’16 was a lot of things,” Rossi said. “Most of it was a learning experience, from not only learning a new team, new car, new tracks, but a completely new organization in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and it was a very positive experience for most of that.

“With that being said, the year aside from the month of May was pretty difficult, and we weren’t very happy with how it went in any way as a four-car effort.

“Going into 2017 we have a lot higher expectations, and we’ve made a big push this off-season to rectify a lot of the things that didn’t go well. Obviously I’m looking forward to going back to Indianapolis in May, but by the same token, I’m just as excited about all the other races because I feel like we have a pretty big point to prove, and road and street courses, which were supposed to be my strong suit coming into IndyCar, they were not, and ovals were.”

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