Kyle Busch. Joey Logano. Kyle Larson.
You may soon add Ben Rhodes to the list of young phenom drivers that have gone on to stardom in the Sprint Cup Series.
Rhodes, just 17, has already clinched NASCAR’s K&N Pro Series East championship in his first season on the circuit.
Friday night, he makes his second career ARCA Series start at his home track, Kentucky Speedway, located just over an hour from Rhodes’ Louisville-area home.
Several cars and busloads of friends, family members and teachers and fellow students from Holy Cross High School, where he’s a senior (and with a perfect 4.0 grade point average), will also be on hand to cheer Rhodes on.
While some drivers might feel pressure at having such a loud crowd in attendance, Rhodes thrives on it.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Rhodes, who was named the K&N Pro Series East/Sunoco Rookie of the Year on Wednesday. “I’m going to be looking for them up in the seats.”
But Rhodes has another thing in mind, as well. Although it’s only his second career ARCA start, he’s going into the race with the same attitude he did on the K&N Series this season: to win, period.
“That’s definitely the goal every time I get into a race car,” Rhodes said. “Doing it on my home track would make it even more special.”
Rhodes is a member of the 2014 NASCAR Next class, which contains over a dozen different drivers across several race series who are looked upon as the next generation of racers in the sport.
Present day drivers such as Larson, Austin Dillon and Dylan Kwasniewski are among past NASCAR Next class members.
Rhodes has done a phenomenal job in his first season on the K&N Series. In 15 starts, he has five wins (including four in a row; he missed tying Ricky Craven’s K&N record of five straight), 11 top-five and 13 top-10 finishes with one more race to go next weekend at Dover. He also has earned six pole positions.
He’s also competed in three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series events thus far, with two top-10 finishes. He has one more truck race scheduled for later this season at Phoenix.
Rhodes has been racing for 10 years. His father bought him a used go-kart when he was seven and he’s been racing since.
But Rhodes’ start in a go-kart wasn’t exactly the smoothest or easiest.
“I hated it at first,” he said in an interview with MST. “I got ran over by a guy in my first race. The car was sitting on top of me. He ran over my bumper, ran over my feet and I actually got lapped several times. So it wasn’t a good race, it wasn’t a good start.
“I wanted to quit, but my did had just bought this go-kart. I was too afraid to tell him to sell the thing, I don’t want to do it no more. So I just stuck with it and kept going. Eventually, I started winning races and I really enjoyed it.”
He progressed up the racing ladder from go-karts to bandalero’s to Legends cars, where he won an uncanny 43 races in 2011 as a 14-year-old. In his first full season in the late model class in 2013, he won six races in a very difficult category.
But no one could have predicted the success that awaited Rhodes in the K&N series this season.
“It’s still amazing. It hasn’t really sunk in yet,” he said.
But the fierce competitor he is – you’d never know it by meeting him because he seems to have such a quiet and low-key demeanor – Rhodes expects and demands perfection from himself.
“As a racer, at least for me, I never enjoy the moment,” he said. “I’m too caught up in what I did, what mistakes I made, trying to improve and to get better for the next race. I don’t enjoy the moment; that’s my biggest problem.
“After we clinched (the K&N championship) at Greenville-Pickens, I was actually mad at myself more than happy because I let the race go because I made a mistake.
“We still won the championship, but to me, you feel so close to winning and it’s so hard to get the win, when you make a mistake and you know you’ve cost your team, your guys and yourself the race.
“But then seeing my guys in victory lane with the trophy and champagne, they were so pumped up and that lifted my spirits quite a bit. That’s when it started sinking in a bit.”
Rhodes has climbed the racing ladder of success quicker than most. While it’s likely he’ll return to the K&N Series for another go-round next season, he’s not ruling out the possibility of jumping to the Camping World Truck Series or Nationwide (soon to be Xfinity) Series if the right financial deal and sponsorship comes along.
“We’re looking to try to go to the national series, the national level,” he said. “I feel like if you’re not moving, you’re moving backwards.
“I feel like your name can be easily forgotten. We definitely want to make sure we’re still in it. The K&N Pro Series, we’ve had a really great first year, so I feel like it’s time to move up. I always want to go where there’s the best competition so I can learn from them.”
His timeline to reach the Sprint Cup Series is by the age of 22, five years from now.
“That’s every kid’s dream,” Rhodes said. “To get there sooner than later, it would be awesome. But I understand the progress of getting there. I want to be successful at every level I go to.
“And if I’m not successful at the level I go to, then maybe I’m not ready to move up. I don’t want to move up to something where I get destroyed, but I want to move up to something where, if I’m not winning, I’m definitely learning. And then, maybe several races down the road, I’ll be there contending for those wins.”
Rhodes’ driving and personal style is a hybrid of several driver idols that he’s tried to emulate over his career. He quickly mentions the names of Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson as among his biggest influences.
“As far as looking at all of their traits and personalities, I kind of take the best from each one and apply them to my life,” Rhodes said. “Carl Edwards is great with the media and interviews, and so is Brad Keselowski, he’s really good and personable. Jeff Gordon is also pretty good with them.
“You look at Kenseth, he’s really calm on the racetrack. So is Jimmie (Johnson). He’s there when he needs to be. He doesn’t care about getting caught up in it. Whereas some guys like Kyle Busch, they want to lead every lap and be right there. They drive with a sense of desperation.
“I want to take Kyle Busch’s desperation and tune that in with Jimmie Johnson’s calmness so that it’s a perfect mix, and then I want to take all of their media skills and make it the perfect mix. I’m trying to learn from every single one of them and try to be the best I can be.”
And being the best he can be isn’t just on the racetrack. Rhodes is quick to point out that he takes the responsibility of being part of the NASCAR Next class very seriously.
“When I get to meet all the fans, it’s cool, because we’re trying to build the NASCAR fan base back up from the youth level,” he said. “It’s my obligation to grow the sport.”
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