Being born into NASCAR’s first family has had it perks for Ben Kennedy. The great-grandson of William H.G. “Big Bill” France Sr., founder of NASCAR, is on a mission. It’s one that is unlike any other that the sport has seen, and it includes working with the core group of NASCAR executives outside of racing – his family.
Kennedy, 23, made the jump from the defunct Turner Scott Motorsports to Red Horse Racing in 2015, moving away from Chevrolet for the first time in his career. His career has excelled on the track, and it is mainly due his hard work and determination instead of his family name. A handout isn’t necessary from his uncle, Brian France, CEO and Chairman of NASCAR. Graduating from the University of Florida, Kennedy is prepared to handle the difficult task of finding funding for his racing endeavors after having blank quarter panels for the majority of his rookie season in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Settling into his role with Red Horse, Kennedy has adjusted well to racing a Toyota. Through 13 races, he has four top 10s and a top five after winning his first career pole at Atlanta. Along with his success on the track, he owns Ben Kennedy Racing, which he purchased from NASCAR veteran Mark Martin, in the K&N Pro Series East, with Kaz Grala piloting the No. 3 Toyota. In this exclusive interview with Frontstretch, Kennedy discusses his journey to the top, adjusting to his new home as he looks for his first Truck Series victory, life as a car owner and living with the pressure of being in NASCAR’s first family.
Joseph Wolkin, Frontstretch: What has the transition to Red Horse Racing been like for you this year?
Ben Kennedy: “It’s been a good transition I think. From the Toyota side, they get all of the help and support from TRD [Toyota Racing Development] to be able to use all of their resources. Red Horse Racing has a group of the hardest working guys in the Truck Series. Scott Zipadelli is an extremely smart guy. We have a good thing going for us right now. We’re headed in the right direction, and we’re trying a bunch of things. I’m really looking forward to going into the second half of the season. We’re kind of looking at everything and reevaluating to see what we can do in the second half of the season.”
Wolkin: With the Truck Series entering the second half, how has the team run compared to your expectations?
Kennedy: “They have performed really well. We obviously have some ups and downs, but I feel like at this level of racing, you are going to always have that. We had trouble at Daytona a little bit. We came back to finish third at Atlanta after getting the pole there. I have seen all of these guys around the garage area and I’ve worked with them for a day or two here and there, but I have never worked with these guys for the long-term. I think we are finally starting to understand each other and I think Scott is starting to understand when I try to communicate certain things. I think we are getting to the point where we are starting to read each other’s minds a little bit, and I think it is a healthy relationship all around.”
Wolkin: What has it been like for you to work with a Toyota team after racing for Chevrolet teams for the past few years?
Kennedy: “It was a big transition for me. I grew up driving Chevys in Late Models, Super Late Models and in the K&N Pro Series. I ran the Truck Series with Turner Scott Motorsports last year. Chevy was great to me throughout all of those years. Red Horse introduced me to Toyota and all of the great people that work at Toyota. It has been a really positive transition for me. I have been able to go see all of the TRD facilities in Los Angeles and in North Carolina as well. To understand the resources they have and have our team understand those resources and how we can pick from them when we need to and kind of use our time wisely has been a big focus. Everyone at TRD has been welcoming with open arms.”
Wolkin: What makes Toyota so much different from Chevrolet?
Kennedy: “Well, you can see the body changes on the racetrack. Each manufacturer kind of brings its own characteristics that it can provide for its teams. Toyota has been the strongest in the Truck Series throughout the past couple of years when you look at Matt Crafton’s dominance and Kyle Busch with any race he had last year he pretty much won. That really reflects the amount of effort that Toyota puts in the Truck Series. It’s brought a lot to my career already and we’ve only been together for six months. To do that and know I have their support on the K&N side is a big deal.”
Wolkin: What do you guys need to improve on in the second half of the year to contend for wins?
Kennedy: “We have been working really hard on it. It’s been a roller coaster year for sure, but we just need to put a race together. If we can put a race together, I feel like we can have good finishes. We’re trying to eliminate all of the variables at this point. There have been a couple of things that have been going against us, and we are trying to find ways to eliminate it or filter it out of our system. I think it will really pay off in the second half of the season.”
Wolkin: Working with Timothy Peters – a veteran of the series – how do you lean on him during the race weekends?
Kennedy: “Timothy has been great. He has been an awesome teammate. We all get together at the shop on Monday, and we get to talk about the last race and the next race going forward. To have an asset like that in Timothy, have him at the race shop and have him get out of his truck to come talk to me during practice really means a lot to me. It helps me a lot in progressing as a driver and in my career. He has a lot of experience in this series. He has a lot of knowledge that I can pull from. He has his notebook, and I might take a little bit from his notebook and combine it with some other drivers to put something together for all of these tracks.”
Wolkin: Let’s shift gears for a minute and talk about your family. You’re part of the first family of NASCAR essentially. How do you deal with the pressure of being the great-grandson of the founder of NASCAR?
Kennedy: “They are always around the sport. They’ve been a big part of my career since I raced these little four-horsepower go-karts to these 600-750 horsepower racecars. It has been an insane progression. As far as the pressure goes, to me, pressure is whatever you put upon yourself. If you feel pressure, you’ll have anxiety and you will probably get nervous and all of that stuff. I think I put more pressure on myself than my family or anyone else does because of my family. But I put more pressure on myself because I want to make it to the next series. It’s the same deal for all of these guys in the Truck Series. They all want to make it to the Cup Series, and they have to go out there with the pressure that they need to perform well every week.”
Wolkin: What has your family done in terms of funding your racing over the years?
Kennedy: “They are just very supportive and being behind me while trying to get me to the next levels. I know I can go talk to my great uncle, Jim [France], and he has been a big part of helping me in the K&N Series and getting me the truck ride. I can go and talk to my mom every week, and we’ll talk about what we’re doing with partnerships. They are able and willing to help me be the best driver that I can be.”
Wolkin: What has been the best advice from one of your family members?
Kennedy: “The biggest advice they have given me is that whatever I want to do, I can pursue it, whether I want to be an astronaut and fly into outer space, be a racecar driver or make clothes for a living. I decided to try the competition side of racing, and that is where I am at today. I think their biggest advice has been do whatever you enjoy doing. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you enjoy doing it.”
Wolkin: How do you try to separate yourself from the family name to try making one for yourself?
Kennedy: “In the ways that I kind of have, I don’t take the extra effort to separate myself. It happens organically in a way because I am in the racecar and I’m the one driving. I don’t have NASCAR’s name plastered on my truck. In a way, it kind of secludes that, or at least hides it. I’m a Kennedy, not Ben France. I think it kinds of hides it in a way, but I just let it happen organically.”
Wolkin: Sponsorship has been difficult to find for your efforts over the years, but you signed Local Motors for 2015. How hard has the journey to find sponsorship been for you?
Kennedy: “It is definitely very difficult to find sponsors and partners in this series just because you are introducing a lot of people to the Truck Series. You’re introducing to them the value that is exchanged. There are so many different variables that can go into sponsorship. It can be business opportunities, the value that is on the truck and hospitality. I graduated last year from the University of Florida. I got to learn a lot of those tactics.
I work with a great guy that runs me as hard as I can to find sponsors. Luckily, we found Local Motors this year and we were able to put them on our truck. We can display their commitment to not only what they love and their brand, but their commitment to me, the sport and Red Horse Racing, which is pretty phenomenal to see something like that. It is a ground-breaking company.
They are 3D printing cars. They are getting involved in the sport with a helmet design challenge. We’re doing a truck design contest for Phoenix later this year. People will actually have the opportunity to design the truck that will be on the racetrack. It’s something that is very rare in this sport. I know it is something that Kyle Busch and Mars have done here and there. It will be the opportunity for someone to take an absolutely blank canvas and put anything they want on it. The community will be able to vote on it. They are doing stuff like that and as we continue our relationship with them, we can find different things to tie Local Motors to NASCAR.”
— Ben Kennedy (@BenKennedy33) May 3, 2014
Wolkin: What was your major?
Kennedy: “I graduated as a sports management major with a bachelor’s degree.”
Wolkin: Your K&N team with Kaz Grala is in the top 10 in the standings this year. How involved are you in the day-to-day operations of the team?
Kennedy: “I’m pretty involved with that. I try to be involved as I can with it. Being based in out in North Carolina with the team back near my home in Daytona Beach, Fla., it actually works out well because I get to spend time with my North Carolina family and visit the Red Horse Racing shop. When I go home, I can go see the Ben Kennedy Racing shop. I have been very happy with the way things are progressing over there. We set forth our goals this year to not only run well, but to unload well off the trailer because you don’t get much practice time in the K&N Series. Fortunately, we unloaded really well all year. Kaz has done a good job, and I think a win is coming for them.”
Wolkin: What makes you want to continue owning a team while you continue to make a name for yourself in the Truck Series?
Kennedy: “I ran the K&N Series for three years, and it almost started feeling like home to me. You come into a new series and you don’t really know anyone, the crowd or the tracks. After racing it for a couple of years, I wanted to keep it alive and keep it going. We built an awesome team. When I ended my K&N career and moved up to the Truck Series, I wanted to keep it going with Kenzie Ruston last year and Kaz this year.”
Wolkin: You are under 25 years old with plenty on your resume. How did you work your way to owning a team?
Kennedy: “When I came along, I originally ran for Mark Martin Enterprises in late models and our first K&N race with him. He has been great to me. He shut down his operation and gave us the opportunity to turn it around what he built and put it into our team. That was the birth of Ben Kennedy Racing. We didn’t really have a name for it or knew what we wanted to call it. We didn’t really know what to call it for a year, and it kind of just developed into Ben Kennedy Racing. We have grown and developed it into what it has become today.”
Wolkin: How did you begin to work with Mark Martin?
Kennedy: “I was running quarter-midgets for a while, and Mark Martin had been a long family friend of ours. Matt [Mark’s son] was running there for a while, and that opened the door for me to run a truck for him in the Pro Truck Series. It was a great opportunity for us. We knew he had the equipment to win in and get experience in.”