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.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Social roundup: Media day at Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

Photo: IndyCar
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The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is still more than a week away, but Media Day was in full swing on Tuesday with a number of attractions for fans and media in attendance.

That being said, it’s easier to get all the pre-advance work done before cars from six different series hit the track starting on Friday, April 7. The Long Beach IndyCar race airs on April 9 at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

The day began with Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden fielding interviews with the local L.A. affiliates for NBC, Fox, and ABC before being a attending a midday luncheon. He also did various interviews with other outlets.

There were also a number of opportunities for rides around the 1.968-mile street circuit. IndyCar drivers Zach Veach and Gabby Chaves were in charge of the Verizon IndyCar Series two-seater while Scott Pruett manned driving duties in a two-seat version of his Lexus RC F GT3. Rocky Moran Sr. and Jr. also held demo rides of their own around the circuit in a Camry; James Sofronas took folks for rides in a GMG Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R.

Formula Drift was on hand as well, though their days were spent preparing for the event. Several cars made practice runs along Seaside Way and through turns 9, 10, and 11 of the circuit.

The Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is slated for April 7-9, with first practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series rolling off at 1:00 p.m. local time on Friday April 7.

INDYCAR reveals next round of design for 2018 common aero kit

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After the initial renderings of the 2018 common aero kit were released in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, questions then turned to when INDYCAR would release the next round of what the future of the single kit would look like.

The date was something of a moving target, without a set time piece either just before or just after the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season began with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12.

That being said, today marks the arrival of round two of what the new kit will look like, revealed first on IndyCar.com. The timing works well as it’s just after St. Petersburg but before Round 2, the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, which runs April 9 at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN to kick off the NBC Sports Group’s coverage portion of the season.

In today’s release, INDYCAR is still yet to confirm the supplier of the new common aero kit. But the car’s development remains on track to be revealed in the flesh this summer before a mid-summer testing debut.

Rendering courtesy of INDYCAR

“While this remains a work in progress, we are encouraged with where the development of the 2018 car stands,” Jay Frye, INDYCAR president of competition and operations, said in the release. “The look of the car is bold, the performance data from simulations is meeting targeted goals and safety enhancements built into the design will be substantial.”

Tino Belli, INDYCAR director of aerodynamic development, explained the design process with a focus on producing more downforce from the underside of the car rather than on top, addressing driver feedback.

“We’ve been working on the aerodynamics to suit the look, rather than the other way around,” Belli said in the release.

“We’re working on creating more of the downforce from the underwing,” Belli said. “The hole in the floor (of the undertray on this year’s car) will be sealed for the road courses and short ovals, but will still be open for the superspeedways.”

While aerodynamic targets and additional safety enhancements are set to include side impact structures in the sidepods and repositioned radiators, with turbocharger inlets moving to the inside of the radiator inlet ducts, no word was given today in terms of a windscreen or other cockpit protection enhancement device which has been rumored but not officially confirmed to be part of the 2018 kit. Belli said in the release that INDYCAR has achieved “97 percent” of its goals from developing the new car’s look and efficiency.

Of note, INDYCAR announced long-term contract extensions with four key partners, Dallara, Chevrolet, Honda and Firestone, at St. Petersburg, which was great news for the series but perhaps overshadowed in the kickoff to the new season. It further pushed the development of Frye’s much-mentioned “five-year plan” for the series.

Just because the base Dallara DW12 chassis remains as the tub does not necessarily mean it will be Dallara as the common kit supplier. Dallara’s Stefano De Ponti, director of the company’s U.S. operations, did say how much it has meant to the company to be celebrating its 20th year with INDYCAR during the St. Petersburg announcement.

“Dallara came here in 1997. That has marked the Dallara presence in North American motorsports. It was an important step,” De Ponti said at St. Petersburg.

“Obviously the plant, facility, engineering center we built in Indianapolis was, for the most part of it, obviously to support our program here as a partner with IndyCar.

“I personally wish, yes, that the extension will go beyond the set extension we have so far. We would like to be very, very clear, to be trustful and a supported partner of IndyCar as a manufacturer.

“Obviously, as an engineering company, we like competition, of course. We welcome everything that IndyCar decides to do with us for the future.

“At the end of the day, we want to be, and we are committed, to work with IndyCar for the benefit of the series. That would benefit all of us.”

Comedian Adam Carolla makes pro racing debut in Trans Am

Adam Carolla pilots the No. 33 GoShare Corvette at Willow Springs International Raceway. Photo: Burtin Racing
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As the host of such shows as CarCast, Ace on the House, and Adam Carolla and Friends Build Stuff Live, and with a massive classic car collection to boot, funnyman Adam Carolla is an unapologetic gearhead who is well-versed in the car industry. He even made a documentary honoring Paul Newman in recent years. However, he recently took his love of all things automotive one step further: he contested his first professional car race.

He joined the Burtin Racing team, which fields Corvette C7.Rs in the Trans Am presented by Pirelli West Coast Championship, at California’s Willow Springs International Raceway for the High Desert Challenge, the season opener for Trans Am’s 2017 season. He piloted their No. 33 GoShare entry as a teammate to Richard Wall, who signed as a last-minute entrant for team’s the No. 7 machine.

Carolla was not daunted by the challenge. He quickly came to grips with the 850-horsepower beast and qualified a solid fifth for the 100-mile feature. In the race itself, he worked his way up to third before facing a tough challenge from Trans Am veteran and former champion Greg Pickett, who previously ran the Muscle Milk Pickett Racing effort in the American Le Mans Series and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Photo: Burtin Racing

However, Carolla was unfazed by Pickett’s advance and he held off the former champion to claim third, not far behind teammate Wall, who crossed the line in second. Tomy Drissi won the event in the No. 8 Ghost in The Shell Chevrolet Corvette.

For Carolla, simply contesting the Trans Am event was an honor. “For me, Trans Am has always been huge,” said Carolla, who earned the COOLSHIRT Systems “Cool Move of the Race” award for his performance.

“I have old Trans Am cars from the 70’s and 80’s. I have some 2.5 (liter) Trans Am cars from the 70’s and I have Paul Newman cars that were raced in Trans Am. So just the idea of being asked to race in the modern Trans Am was a huge honor. Just being able to hold my own in modern Trans Am was exciting to me.”

Team owner Claudio Burtin was ecstatic with Carolla’s performance. “I think we all have to take our hat off to Adam Carolla on his debut in Trans Am,” he said of Carolla. “This is a fast and difficult track at Willow Springs, and the team is ecstatic with Adam’s podium finish. GoShare is thrilled with the results and we will work to improve one step higher on the podium next time.”

The Trans Am presented by Pirelli West Championships resume action on April 29-30 at Auto Club Speedway.

Preferred Freezer Services expands partnership with Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing

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Preferred Freezer Services, which has been a sponsor of Ed Carpenter Racing and driver J.R. Hildebrand since 2014, is set to expand its partnership with both driver and team. Hildebrand’s No. 21 Chevrolet with sport the white and blue Preferred Freezer Services livery at four races during the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the first being at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 7-9. The expansion also includes the entire month of May, which will see the brand on the No. 21 for the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500. They will return as a primary sponsor for the Honda Indy Toronto in July and will be an associate sponsor throughout the season.

“Preferred Freezer Services was a big part of helping me get to running just the Indy 500 with ECR the first year in 2014. We’ve been fortunate to see the program grow and help it expand over the last few years,” Hildebrand said of the relationship. “I’m really excited to be able to continue that partnership and have them on board for a few more races this year! It is great to work with these guys again and I can’t wait to kick it off at such an awesome event as Long Beach.”

As Hildebrand explained, the partnership between sponsor, driver and team dates back to 2014, when Preferred Freezer Services adorned a then one-off No. 21 entry for Hildebrand, incidentally his first start for Ed Carpenter Racing. They expanded their partnership in 2015, adorning Hildebrand’s entry at that year’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indy 500. Their presence grew even more last year, when they appeared on the cars of Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden at both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hildebrand has finished in top ten in the last three Indianapolis 500 mile races. However, his best finish remains his infamous second place at the 2011 race, in which he crashed in the final corner while leading, which yielded victory to Dan Wheldon.