(Photo: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

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


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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Merhi relishing F1 return in Abu Dhabi, but will it be his last?

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26:  Roberto Merhi of Spain and Manor Marussia looks on at a press confernce during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Roberto Merhi is relishing his return to Formula 1 this weekend as he steps into the seat vacated by Alexander Rossi at Manor for the last race of the season.

Rossi joined Manor on a five-race deal in Singapore that would allow him to balance an F1 drive with commitments in GP2, where he looks set to finish the year as vice-champion.

Merhi was benched to allow Rossi to take the seat, but will return this weekend after missing the last three races due to the clash with GP2.

“I’m so excited to be back in the car this weekend for the season finale,” Merhi said. “As any reserve driver will tell you, I really missed the racing; it will be a long time yet before I’m ready to hang up my racing gloves for a full-time career in TV commentary!

“I’ve kept a close eye on everything the team has been doing over the past five races, so I don’t think it will be too difficult to get back up to speed on Friday and see how I stand versus Will [Stevens]. I’ve missed the competitive spirit between us.

“The most important thing is to do the best job possible for the team on Sunday, and ensure we have a result to celebrate.

“It has been a long, hard season, so I want to say thank you for this opportunity and I hope I can deliver another strong performance to reward the faith the team has shown in me.”

However, this looks set to be Merhi’s final F1 appearance for the time being at least. Just two seats remain on the grid for 2016 – both at Manor – but the Spaniard faces stiff competition from Rossi, Stevens and Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein for a role with the team.

Rossi and Stevens are both known to be better-funded than Merhi, while Wehrlein has been tipped for a seat thanks to Manor’s new technical partnership with Mercedes that comes into force for 2016.

Rosberg arriving in Abu Dhabi on “a massive high”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP walks in the paddock during previews for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 26, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg has set his sights on rounding out the 2015 Formula 1 season with a third consecutive victory in Abu Dhabi on Sunday.

Despite failing to put up much of a challenge to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton for this year’s world championship, Rosberg has been the man to beat in recent races, claiming the last five pole positions and winning in Mexico and Brazil.

Rosberg saw his hopes of winning a maiden world championship end in Abu Dhabi last year after a mechanical failure on his car, but the German is hoping to make up for this by continuing his good form and taking a third straight win.

“I’ve had two really great weekends now in Mexico and Brazil, so I’m heading into the final race on a massive high,” Rosberg said.

“Abu Dhabi hasn’t always been an easy one for me. Of course, last year was probably my biggest disappointment – losing the title at the last moment with a mechanical problem.

“But I showed my speed there with pole position and I have good momentum behind me right now, so I’m aiming to end the season on a big positive this time around.”

This weekend’s race will mark the final outing for the Mercedes W06 Hybrid, which has claimed 15 wins and 17 pole positions so far this season.

Rosberg is keen to make the most of his final run with the car, but remains wary of the threat from Ferrari behind after the Italian marque ran Mercedes close in Brazil two weeks ago.

“Of course, it’s also the last race for this incredible Silver Arrow – and it deserves a spectacular send off,” Rosberg said. “Everyone at the factories has done such a fantastic job one again this year.

“A car like this is something every driver dreams of having in their hands, so I’ll be pushing hard to make the most of it for one last time as a tribute to all their hard work.

“Of course, it will be close as always with Lewis and we saw a big push from Ferrari in São Paulo, so it won’t be straightforward. But I’m up for a battle and hopefully we can put on a great show for the fans to end the year.”

What we’re thankful for in F1, IndyCar and more, 2015

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Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at MotorSportsTalk. Here’s some of the things we’re thankful for from the racing season, 2015. See more things we’re thankful across the board from NBCSports.com at the #WhyImThankful hashtag.

Formula 1

  • The opportunity to crown a champion on U.S. soil. It hasn’t happened since 1982, and on October 25, 2015 it happened once again – the U.S. played host to the title-deciding round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas. Fittingly, Lewis Hamilton clinched his third title on his adopted “second home.”
  • Sebastian Vettel starring at Ferrari. The German made his move at the right time to get out of Red Bull and into Ferrari. From a personal perspective, I don’t think I appreciated him at Red Bull as much as I do now at Ferrari. He poked the bear that was the Mercedes AMG Petronas pairing of Hamilton and Nico Rosberg as much as possible in press conferences, and helped bring Ferrari back to the top of the podium after a challenging 2014 for the team.
  • An American driver makes his debut. It was only five races, but getting to see Alexander Rossi finally make his debut after years of trying, and a few failed opportunities in 2014, was long overdue. Rossi completed a near perfect run of events, beating Manor teammate Will Stevens in four of five starts, and posting a near-points run to 12th at COTA. He also posted a series of guest blogs here on MST throughout the fall.
  • Haas F1 Team confirms a solid first-year lineup. While neither Romain Grosjean nor Esteban Gutierrez was a surprise announcement once confirmed, both will be solid fits for Gene Haas and Guenther Steiner’s Haas F1 Team in 2016. Grosjean gives the team a proven podium finisher who’s made genuine strides over his career, and Gutierrez is an underrated driver with Ferrari ties, solid Mexican support, and more pace than you realize.
  • #PlacesAlonsoWouldRatherBeIn a year when nearly nothing has gone right for McLaren Honda, this did. Thank you, Internet, for once.


  • A dramatic title finale. Blame double points all you want for perhaps altering the outcome, but you can’t deny the intensity and excitement was there as Scott Dixon toppled Juan Pablo Montoya in the season finale at Sonoma. There was little between the two throughout the year; either would have been a worthy champion but Dixon is a good one.
  • A fantastic finish at Indy. Montoya lost the season-long war, but won the battle in a thrilling three-way bout with Dixon and Will Power at this year’s Indianapolis 500.
  • Newgarden finally wins. It was a question of when, not if, rising American star Josef Newgarden would win his first race (or races) in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Courtesy of a dominant performance at Barber Motorsports Park, he finally did. A second win, at Toronto, joined for good measure.
  • The racing family’s support for the Wilson family. In the most tragic moment of the IndyCar season, following the loss of Justin Wilson at Pocono Raceway, the community rallied together in the auction to raise more than $600,000 for the Wilson Children’s Fund.

Red Bull GRC

  • A great comeback from Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross. Down but not out, Scott Speed, Tanner Foust and the entire Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team rallied from a nightmare start to the campaign to emerge as championship contenders, and ultimately champions, by year’s end.
  • Increased IndyCar team presence. Veteran squads like Olsbergs MSE, Hoonigan Racing Division and Subaru WRT were joined by an onslaught of IndyCar squads in 2015. Andretti, Chip Ganassi Racing, SH Rallycross and Bryan Herta Rallysport brought seven cars to the Supercar grid in 2015, to make up more than half the lineup.

Around the rest of the non-NASCAR motorsports world

  • Mazda Road to Indy: As usual, some young rising drivers stood out in 2015, even beyond champions Spencer Pigot, Santiago Urrutia and Nico Jamin.
  • IMSA: Better racing, less kvetching, BoP not being as much of a storyline (it still was at times, but not all the time), improved processes and an increase in quality personnel – as well as new title sponsor WeatherTech for 2016 and beyond – contributed to a vastly improved 2015 second season of the-then TUDOR United SportsCar Championship compared to a rocky first season in 2014.
  • Pirelli World Challenge: The influx of quality GT3 cars and teams made what was already a strong top GT class even better; a management shakeup at year’s end also seems to have pleased most of the paddock as PWC prepares for 2016.
  • FIA World Endurance Championship: Great racing at most events, the emergence of Porsche’s newest factory aces Nick Tandy and Earl Bamber as overall winners at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Patrick Dempsey winning a race, Townsend Bell and Bill Sweedler scoring a podium on Le Mans debut, and other bits and pieces throughout the year made the WEC campaign an enjoyable one.
  • NHRA: Antron Brown and Erica Enders-Stevens proving how badass they are en route to Top Fuel and Pro Stock titles. Also, thanks to Gary Gerould for his incredible 37-year-run on the mic – my colleague Daniel McFadin’s interview with the retiring Gerould is linked here.

Zach Veach confirmed with Belardi to start 2016 Indy Lights season

Photo: Belardi Auto Racing
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Two-year Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series veteran Zach Veach will return to the series in 2016 following a year’s hiatus. At the moment, it’s for the start of the season only but with the intended plan of making it a full-season effort.

The young American joins the Belardi Auto Racing team, which he narrowly lost out to in his last full-time campaign in 2014 when he finished third in the points.

Veach, who turns 21 next month, is Brian Belardi’s first confirmed driver for the 2016 season. Perhaps one of the single most experienced drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy, Veach has been on all three rungs (Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000) since 2010 and spent 2015 as a color commentator for the IndyCar Radio Network.

He tested for the team last month at Sebring, and will have several other tests before the St. Petersburg season opening weekend March 11-13.

“I’m very thankful for this opportunity that Brian Belardi has given me,” Veach said. “After racing against his team for so many years, I’ve always had a ton of respect for him, his crew, and of course, his cars. Belardi Auto Racing competes to win championships and I would love to give them their second Indy Lights title.

“Right now, we only have a partial program in place, but with a great amount of effort on both sides. We will be doing everything possible to try to get funding together for an entire season, so we can put a championship fight in place. I look towards winter testing, and 2016, with a lot of hope and excitement.”

“We’re really happy to have Zach confirmed with us for next year, and we’ll work closely with him to make sure that we can get the funding we need to run him all season,” Belardi added.

“He’s a supreme talent both in and out of the car, and his initial test outings in the car were just as we expected.  Zach was on-pace very early in Sebring after familiarizing himself with the new Indy Lights car, and I know that we’ll challenge for race wins and the championship next year.”