(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

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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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Cooper Tire extends as FIA World RX official tire supplier

CANTERBURY, ENGLAND - MAY 25:  Andreas Bakkerud of Norway leads Timmy Hansen of Sweden out of a corner drives during the FIA World Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill Circuit on May 25, 2014 in Canterbury, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
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Cooper Tire has been confirmed Tuesday as the official tire supplier for the FIA World Rallycross Championship for three more years, starting in 2017.

The move was announced today by the FIA World Motor Sport Council.

It continues Cooper Tire Europe’s run as the official tire supplier that’s occurred for several years.

Hinchcliffe embraces ambassadorial role to help grow IndyCar

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5  Honda Dallara, prepares to practice during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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Those of us who remember the early James Hinchcliffe videos circa 2006 to 2008 – the brat video at Road America, the novelty size check, the spot-on Kimi Raikkonen imitation among others – knew then that the Canadian was never shy of being goofy to help promote not only himself, but his racing series that he competed in at the time. At that point, it was the Champ Car Atlantic series, where he spent three years before moving into Indy Lights for two years in 2009. These were the early days for the “Mayor of Hinchtown,” the head of his own fictional city.

Now though, into his sixth season in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda is busier than ever with other external commitments, but he’s never stopped being an ambassador for the sport.

If anything, he’s continued to grow in that department.

This year alone has been no exception. Hinchcliffe won the pole for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, which made for a remarkable story in its own right, and also meant he’d be going through the ringer of the in-between week media tour to help promote the race.

Then there was Hinchcliffe’s role as one of five IndyCar drivers on an appearance of Celebrity Family Feud, along with Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan, the surprisingly funny Will Power (those of us in the paddock know his humor, but probably not the national audience at large) and Hinchcliffe’s roommate and good friend Conor Daly.

Today, of course, Hinchcliffe has been named to the cast of the new season of “Dancing with the Stars.” It’s a move that sure, can grow his profile, but by default is also tasked with growing IndyCar’s, knowing how dedicated its smallish but hardcore group of fans are.

“For me personally, it’s a great opportunity to get outside my comfort zone and do something you probably don’t have the opportunity to do again,” he said during a conference call today. “After everything last year, it’s definitely given me a different approach to life and maybe given me a little bit more confidence to try things like this.

“But certainly getting one of our drivers out into some primetime, mainstream media and especially during the off-season, kind of keep IndyCar’s name out there a little bit. Again, we’re all assuming this is me making it past week one, so it’s already a bit of a bold statement. But for sure, it’s definitely got two sides to it.”

Couple all this with his outside business commitments – Hinchcliffe has been a race analyst for Champ Car races in the past, now hosts his own “Mayor on Air” podcast, has his own beer brewed by Flat 12 Bierworks (Hinchtown Hammerdown) is a co-founder of Speed Group, a driver development, management and social media/PR company and he’s a spokesperson for Honda Canada via a personal deal – and sometimes you wonder how the 29-year-old Canadian does it all.

One, he has a good group of people around him.

And two, he takes it seriously in terms of knowing what he needs to do to help promote the sport he’s been so blessed and fortunate to be a part of.

“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “From a young age, I was counseled that this is the world, this is the motorsports world that we live in, and I’ve always just prepared myself for that, and so I’ve not shied away from extra commitments.

“I’m a very driven person on track and off, whether it’s my racing or promoting the sport or outside business ventures I’m involved in. I like staying busy. I like staying active in that sense. This is a big part of our sport and is a huge help.

“This kind of thing, sure, it benefits me personally but it also benefits the sport, and I’ve always said from day one that anything that I can do outside of a race car to help grow the sport of IndyCar racing is something you can sign me up for because I’ve got such a passion for this sport.”

Hinchcliffe is in his sixth IndyCar season, but only fifth full-time after his injuries sustained last May at Indianapolis sidelined him for the rest of the year.

But like Castroneves – Hinchcliffe’s now “DWTS” compatriot and predecessor – his goal is to keep driving first and then tackle the rest of the to-do items later.

And looking at Castroneves provides him a window to do just that. The Brazilian is 41, but is in his 17th straight season with Team Penske, 19th overall since debuting as a rookie in CART driving for Tony Bettenhausen in 1998. Yet he’s still at the top of his game and in the top-five in points; Hinchcliffe is not too far behind him in eighth.

“I plan on being around it for a long time as a driver, for a long time after that, as well, and I just love the fact that we’ve got the opportunity to do this kind of stuff,” Hinchcliffe said.

“You just try and help spread the word and show people that IndyCar racing is an incredible form of sport.”

On a lighter note, Hinchcliffe’s training and dancing schedule will mean that he’ll spend quite a bit of time away from his home in Indianapolis. Daly, his good friend, is also his roommate.

Hinchcliffe joked that that part of the preparation is underway.

“I have a tremendous concern. I’ve already set up a network of people that will be coming to check on him and the house in my absence,” he deadpanned, in classic “Hinch” form.

Sabres’ favorite to sing Canadian, American anthems for IndyCar race at Watkins Glen

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Don’t be surprised if some fans attending Saturday’s Indy Lights race or Sunday’s Verizon IndyCar Series Grand Prix at the Glen, both at Watkins Glen International, wear jerseys or jackets of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

The Sabres’ beloved national anthem singer, Doug Allen, will sing both the Canadian and American Anthems prior to the start of both of this weekend’s races.

Known as “Anthem Guy,” Allen has gotten Sabres fans fired up before home games for over 20 years by singing “O Canada” and “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Allen is also known for his charitable side, serving as Facilities Coordinator for the Buffalo City Mission and Worship director at his church, Fellowship Wesleyan Church in West Seneca, New York.

Sunday’s race is the second-to-last event on the 16-race IndyCar schedule. It replaces the originally scheduled race for this weekend, the inaugural event in Boston, which was subsequently cancelled.

Here’s an example of Allen and his stirring rendition of the anthems:

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Kevin Magnussen set to race Italian GP pending final check

during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.
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Following a series of checks both on-site in hospital at Verviers and further checks back home in Denmark, Kevin Magnnussen appears set to compete in this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, barring any hiccups from a final check on Thursday from the FIA.

Renault Sport F1 Team released the following update on Tuesday:

During the Belgian Grand Prix held at Spa-Francorchamps on Sunday 28 August Renault Sport Formula One Team driver Kevin Magnussen exited the track at high speed. After initial checks at the circuit’s medical centre, Kevin was referred to a local hospital in Verviers for further routine examinations.

Kevin had heavily bruised his left ankle but the tests showed no fracture or serious injury and he was released from hospital the same day and returned home to Denmark. He has since undergone further checks in Denmark that indicate he is able to race at the Italian Grand Prix in six days.

The FIA will confirm Kevin is fit to compete following a final assessment on Thursday in Monza.

Kevin commented, ‘I’m feeling much better, which is very good news. I’ve had several checks that show I am fit to race in Monza and I am sure I will be in the car this weekend. We were running in the top ten in Belgium and I’m very motivated to repeat this again in Italy.’

No further comment will be given.