Ben Rhodes is one driver you can bet will arrive at driver introductions with a smile on his face, especially in 2017, where he returns with Thorsport Racing for a second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series.
As part of the heavily populated young gun show in NASCAR, which has seemed to blossom thus far in 2017, the 20-year-old Kentuckian has started the new year off strong in his No. 27 Toyota, running top three on the final lap at Daytona before crashing out spectacularly with most of the field. The strong run, however, boosted Rhodes to Round No. 2 in Atlanta, where he earned a fourth-place finish.
With the early-season break behind the Truck Series field, Rhodes enters Martinsville Speedway hot off a pole run in the event last year, where he led his first laps in NASCAR competition.
Rhodes sat down with Frontstretch on the eve of the 2017 season at Daytona to talk about his talents in marketing, his fellow young competitors and how flying a plane is like drafting at Daytona.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: You’re back with Thorsport. What are your thoughts right now?
Ben Rhodes: I will say that last year at Thorsport Racing, we struggled the most at the bigger tracks. Especially at Daytona or Talladega. Now, we race good there but I think now, we’re going to qualify better. That’s free speed. Once we get into the race, I know we are going to race great.
Catanzareti: Obviously, you’re very passionate about this team. Coming back with this team, were there any doubts that you were? How was the offseason for you?
Rhodes: The offseason, same ole offseason in NASCAR. They call it the silly season, right? It’s always eventful and from about August to… November, December, January, that’s the stretch — some people go August to January, some people go August to August. It just changes. It depends on what deals come your way.
I’m really happy about this. We have support from Safelite this year, a lot of support from Toyota. Alpha Energy Solutions is back with us again this year as well. A lot of great people behind us, a lot of good supporters, so it made the decision pretty easy.
Catanzareti: Do you see this as a second chance in the Truck Series for you?
Rhodes: No, I see it as the real chance. The reason I say that is because last year we had to overcome adversity that no team had to. We had the shop burn down for one; we had good speed while the shop was still in ashes but as we were rebuilding it, that’s when we realized that we only have one truck and it’s a short track truck. What are we going to take to the mile-and-a-halves?
Our season was really put to a halt to some extent. And then all the other adversity we overcame, there was about five or six races we were in contention for the win and then something would happen. Either we had one truck and we couldn’t hurt it because we had to race it for the next several weeks or an engine would blow at Bristol, a tire went down at Chicago, we were doing well at Daytona here last year, Martinsville we got caught up in a mess. You name it, something happened.
I see this as a really good chance, we have more support and faster trucks than the others. Last year, at some point, we would be racing with one or two trucks, this year, we have nine in our arsenal.
Catanzareti: You’re with a big team, but you said you had to conserve equipment, almost like what a small team would do. I know something like that has to benefit a driver, I bet your learned a lot through that experience.
Rhodes: I learned a lot. There was a big difference in how I was driving from my first race to my last race. And not just from stuff I learned and the pace of race, but, guys, we don’t have a whole lot of good trucks. We had four new teams, so we stretched out our infrastructure and we were still growing big time. That was a huge leap for Thorsport to go from three to four trucks.
There’s a way your can make it work with one, two or three, but to make that extra jump is a huge work load that is puts on everyone at the shop.
And then have everything go [fart noise], it teaches a driver really how to take care of their equipment. I don’t know if that’s a problem with the Cup Series where it’s ‘Ah! New car! New car! New car!’ Now, we’re rolling out Tundras really quick. We have a fantastic body shop now.
Rhodes: I actually like having new teammates. Change is good in NASCAR. It goes back to segments in the race; there’s new changes every year. Its something you have to roll with. I’ve dealt with it my whole career, I’ve been with a new team every single year for the past — this is the first time I’ve really come back with a team. So [laughs], I’m used to faces coming and going.
Rico, I’m still good friends with Rico, still good friends with Cameron [Hayley]. Great guys, great teammates, but I’m happy about developing relationships with Cody Coughlin and Grant Enfinger. From what I’ve seen so far, they’re good on the track and off.
The first person I saw when I got out of my truck today was Grant Enfinger, so that just shows what type of guy he is. We started talking for a minute, debriefing with my crew chief, and as soon as we’re done here, him and I are going at it again.
Catanzareti: One of your biggest strengths is marketability. From what I’ve seen of you, you’re always dressed nice, always has a smile on your face. Marketability is very important in this sport right now. How did that come about for you? How are you a good speaker?
Rhodes: I don’t know if I am a good speaker, sometimes I say things I shouldn’t say! I’m actually dressing down this year, I wore more of the dress pants because they were comfortable and light-weight and now going to some jeans, I got my converse on now and I’m kind of dressing down a little bit.
But, I would say it started at Kentucky Speedway in . The first year Cup was at Kentucky I was racing Legend cars and we were racing the Fast Midwest Series that raced at Kentucky almost every weekend. We raced that weekend in front of those guys and I was like, ‘Holy moly, this is the big-time stuff! I got to put on a show!’ They gave me the opportunity to put my Legend car up front right at the front gate, meet people. I was 13 at the time, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I was scared to talk to people.
They put me up there, they said ‘You can’t leave the car.’ So, people would come by, they want to talk, my parents would push me saying ‘Look, if you want to do this, you have to learn to talk to people.’ Every year since, I’ve had a car out at Kentucky Speedway, we’ve done multiple shows. Because of their push at a young age, I think that’s what really helped get me on the right track on this side of the sport.
You have the business side and the racing side, and as a driver, you have to balance both, especially today.
Catanzareti: So, you were not an advocate for school presentations? It started through racing, I guess?
Rhodes: [Laughs] Yeah, it wasn’t so much the school presentations as much as it was the racing that made me do it and my parents that made me do it. Doing the presentation in front of your peers is one thing, but getting out in front of strangers is completely different. I think I got more nervous, eventually, doing my peer presentations than I did speaking on camera!
You know your peers can make fun of you all day every day, the strangers, you just brush off, ‘Ah, who are you?’ [Laughs].
Catanzareti: You have proven your racing ability, but as you said, the business and the racing do combine. Do you think you would still be here if you weren’t a marketable racecar driver?
Rhodes: I don’t know. It’s so hard, I think that you almost have to be the total package these days. I don’t know if I am, I am still trying to work on it, still trying to engage with fans and be the best I can be on and off the track. You just have to have fun with it. I think that’s what it comes down to. People try to make it a science and make it almost like an engineering session, which, we have enough engineers in NASCAR!
I think you have to be yourself and have fun. Just be realistic and be authentic. I think being on the business side has been a huge aid. Competition drives it at the lower levels and having that business side helps accelerate that growth. To put in engineering terms!
Catanzareti: You came on the scene really quick. You went straight to XFINITY, did 10 races there, huge team with JR Motorsports. It’s been about a year or so, looking back on those races, what goes through your mind?
Rhodes: That was probably the most difficult season I had ever had. if I could go back and do it all, I think I would’ve done — while I’ve had a great relationship with JRM and those guys are great, I was walking through the garage and saying ‘Hi’ to all my old guys — I developed great relationship, but the problem with that was that I wasn’t in the car enough.
If I could go back and do it all again, I think I’d go to Trucks for a full season rather than XFINITY for a partial season. That’s because, as a young driver, I felt like I needed that seat time. I craved that seat time for sure. Going to the tracks and watching from the outside, you can only learn so much doing that. Getting into it hands-on, that’s the type of learner I am.
It made it hard to benefit from it. You would just get comfortable, Lap 200 in the race, ‘Wait, you can’t throw the checkered flag, I just now got comfortable. Let’s restart this whole thing.’
Then, you would wait a month to get in the car again and you’re just in a perpetual cycle of re-learning. You never got a solid foundation under you. I feel like that is what the Truck Series has provided me, especially in 2016.
Catanzareti: That shows you the importance of the ladder system. Some people will go straight to the top, they get their name known, but they struggle.
Rhodes: They may struggle for a year or two. Or maybe just half a year, it depends on the learner. If I could’ve had a full season of XFINITY, I think we would’ve been fine. it would’ve been struggle at first, the end of the year I would’ve still been learning, the second year would’ve been great. Definitely 10 races was pretty hard.
Catanzareti: You’re one of the many young talents in NASCAR. Do you ever feel threatened by someone like William Byron, who goes out and lights the world on fire?
Rhodes: Not really, everybody is in a different situation. William’s situation is different than my situation. Every team is different, the amount of funding you have is different. The amount of engineering and support and bodies you have is all different. So, it’s hard to compare ‘apples to apples’ to people. Especially in racing.
In football, you could do it. In NBA you could do it. But, I think racing is so much more of a team sport than what people realize. You could be the best driver in the world but if you don’t have the best mechanics and the best crew behind you, you’re not going to be able to showcase the ability. If could have the best mechanics behind you, but if you’re the worst driver in the world and you’re wrecking every week, your whole team is going to be so mad at you. You’re not giving them what they deserve. It’s such a fine line between everything.
I think having youth in the sport is huge. When I see young guys in the sport doing well, I’m happy about that because it shows the health of the sport. I want youth in NASCAR because I like to see young guys in the sport, people I could connect with and be friends with. It just shows health in the sport just like anything else.
Catanzareti: You just celebrated your 20th birthday, you got your private pilot license. That’s pretty intense.
Rhodes: That was interesting. It reminds me of racing here at Daytona actually. Between practice sessions I was drawing correlations. The whole time you’re at Daytona you’re full throttle, checking gauges the whole time. In the airplane, you’re watching out, you’re doing your stuff outside just like Daytona, then you reference your gauges. It’s very similar to being out there in the pack. Always referencing your instruments, same thing as being a private pilot.
I just kind of drawing the correlation there. It’s a lot of fun, I’m glad to have it now because I’m really hoping to be able to use it to get to some of these races.
— Ben Rhodes (@benrhodes) February 20, 2017
Catanzareti: What was the first NASCAR race you went to?
Rhodes: You know what, it was Kentucky Speedway. I just got into racing and I had only watched it on TV until Kentucky came to town. I never had a chance to go watch it because we were always doing our own race. We would race 100 races a year, for a small family, that was a tall order! It made it hard to go and see them, but once Kentucky came to town, that was convenient. I raced that weekend, we went up to the ticket counter, got our tickets, got our funnel cake, went up to the top and, man, scanners and all, we were fans.
I fell in love with it even more at that time. As a young kid, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but once I saw it, I was like [opens mouth in amazement] even more. I still have the tickets I think.
Catanzareti: What was your favorite NASCAR moment that didn’t involve you?
Rhodes: That’s hard. There’s a lot. That’s so hard. I don’t know, everyone always thinks back to the Intimidator and what he’s been able to do. I like to think back to how he drove and some of these rough and tough guys, these grizzled veterans of NASCAR, back in the 90s. The 90s and early 2000s are like, I love it. I’ve always looked back on those guys and how they drove each other. And how they had respect for each other on the track, but at the same time, they drove each other so rough and tough. I like that. I want to see more of that. So, I try to compare myself to some of those guys and try to emulate them.
[Below is a video capture of our conversation with Ben Rhodes.]