Ben Kennedy, great-grandson of NASCAR founder, making his own path behind the wheel

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NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rookie Ben Kennedy hasn’t taken the usual path of a young driver. But perhaps that was to be expected.

The great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and son of International Speedway Corporation CEO Lesa France Kennedy received a thorough education in the sport by working jobs at Daytona International Speedway – everything from cooking hot dogs and hamburgers for track employees to creating signs for events at “The World Center of Racing.”

Kennedy, 21, also just completed a more formal education as well, receiving his diploma in sports management from the University of Florida – which included a final semester internship at NBC Sports Group during the Sochi Olympics.

But instead of parlaying it all into a job somewhere within the sanctioning body or with a race team or even some ISC track, Kennedy is focusing on a dream that precious few are able to realize: Becoming a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver.

Thus, the backup plan in case he doesn’t turn out to be the next Jimmie Johnson.

“Having [a degree] in your back pocket in case this racing thing doesn’t work out – I think some people say the odds of being a pro athlete nowadays are less than you winning the lottery, so if this racing thing doesn’t work, you have that degree in your back pocket and work somewhere in the motorsports industry or some other business,” he said recently to MotorSportsTalk.

“I’ll come to that road if I come to it, and if not, I’m gonna keep digging on this racing stuff.”

While time will tell if Kennedy makes it to the Cup Series, it’s clear by his ascension to the Trucks that he is indeed a talented wheelman.

He won multiple championships at Florida short tracks such as New Smyrna Speedway and the Orlando Speedworld, and made the jump to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East in 2011. In 2012, he scored his first NASCAR-sanctioned win in a Whelen Euro Series event in France. Last year, he broke through for his first K&N East triumph at Five Flags Speedway in Florida.

He would go on to add one more win at Winston-Salem en route to a fourth-place finish overall in the standings. But his 2013 campaign was also notable for him getting his first taste of the Trucks by running in five races (Bristol, Iowa, Chicago, Martinsville, and Homestead-Miami).

Three of those races had Kennedy drive for Turner Scott Motorsports and post a strong fourth-place result at Martinsville. The TSM group obviously liked what they saw; Kennedy is now one of their full-time drivers.

“It’s been really cool working for TSM and racing for them for the past five races last year and now [full-time] this year as well,” Kennedy said. “I know we have a great crew together – it’s something that [team owners] Steve Turner and Harry Scott have worked on, and I think they have an awesome team going right now. It’s got a little bit of everything and we’ve got Mike Shelton as our crew chief, who [helped] James Buescher to his 2012 [Truck Series] championship.

“They’re definitely race-winning trucks, and there’s definitely a race-winning crew behind it.”

Heading into the third Truck race of the year tonight at Kansas Speedway, Kennedy’s already had some cool moments. He sat on the pole and led 52 laps at his beloved Daytona in the season-opening race (in which he finished 15th).

Most recently at Martinsville, he earned his best Truck result yet with a third-place finish. Kennedy now sits sixth in the championship, just 10 points behind current co-leaders Johnny Sauter and Timothy Peters.

While Kennedy figures his best chances of winning will come on the short tracks with which he’s more familiar, he’s looking forward to mastering the art of racing on the bigger ovals.

“I’m starting to learn [aerodynamics] and how the Trucks go around the corner with other Trucks around them, and how they get aero-tight and aero-loose, all that stuff,” he explained.

“Another big jump for me was the difference of the tires that we run – going from a more flexible, bias-ply tire that’s more forgiving to a radial tire that’s much less forgiving and kind of on edge all the time.”

It’s a lot to take in for any young racer, even one with a pedigree. But put the family ties to the back burner and that’s what you have with Kennedy: An evolving young racer.

It will be a tough process. But while he admits there’s a little bit more pressure on him to succeed, his family’s behind him at every turn.

“They’re really supportive of whatever I want to do, which is really cool,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, when we all get in our race cars and strap in and put the helmets on, there’s always pressure to win on every one of us coming up through this.

“We all want to make it up to the Cup Series, and there’s pressure on us to win, to be a great spokesperson for the sponsors that we work with. And there’s definitely pressure to make it up to the Cup Series one day, which I know is, for most of us, our hopes and dreams.”

And so, with an open mind, humble attitude, and heavy right foot, Kennedy – representing a new generation of one of American sports’ most influential families – charges into the future that neither he nor anyone else can predict.

But somehow, you figure he’s going to leave his mark, whether it’s in the boardroom or behind the wheel.

source: Getty Images
Ben Kennedy and his No. 31 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet, earlier in the season at Daytona. Credit: Getty Images.

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500