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In Part I of From Louisville with Love, Ben Rhodes spoke with Frontstretch about his 2020 improvements, playoff racing against his ThorSport Racing teammates, his two weeks with championship-winning crew chief Junior Joiner and traveling the NASCAR circuit in 2020 as a Kentucky resident.
In the final portion of this two-part series, Rhodes expresses his devastation at Kentucky Speedway’s removal off the NASCAR schedule and reveals an attempt to get some NASCAR Xfinity Series seat time in 2020 that didn’t come into fruition. Finally, Rhodes explains the numerous number changes during his time in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series and discusses both short-term and long-term NASCAR goals.
Michael Massie, Frontstretch: What were your emotions when you heard your home track Kentucky Speedway would no longer be on the schedule?
Ben Rhodes: It caught me off guard. I heard nothing about it. I heard no rumblings about it, nothing. Some of my partners that I’ve had year over year that have done stuff with at Kentucky and sponsored different things, been involved at the racetrack, maybe had tents up … they didn’t really know anything about it either. So it caught all of us off guard, and I can tell you that I was devastated and everyone I know was kind of angry and upset about it. And I’m really upset for the folks at Kentucky Speedway that I had grown this awesome relationship with over the years. I saw my very first NASCAR race at Kentucky Speedway, and I got to know all these people there. They became good friends of mine. And now to have to uproot everything they were doing, and a bunch of them were let go… it’s disappointing.
I don’t know if we’re ever going to be back racing again at Kentucky Speedway, and that upsets me and that upsets a lot of folks around here. To me, the track is getting better and better every year after they just repaved it. They need to come back at some point. If they don’t come back next year, they don’t come back the year after that or even in the next five years, OK, whatever. But six years, seven years, 10 years, they better come back at some point because that’s a heck of a racetrack, and it only gets better with time. The asphalt’s kind of like a fine wine, it just keeps getting better with time. It’d be an absolute shame if we never raced there with all the money that’s been put into that place, how nice of a racetrack it is.
In my mind, we should’ve taken a race away from a place that had a couple of them, and then we could’ve raced at Kentucky once, somewhere else once. At least then, everybody’s getting a fair share.
Massie: If NASCAR were to try to return to that area, should they go to that track just the way it is, reconfigure it the way they’re doing to Auto Club Speedway or is there another track in that area that they should try?
Rhodes: I’m not sure. I think that is the track in the area that they’d have to go to. But you look at the money that’s spent on some of these racetracks, it would be really nice to see some sort of partnership programs put in place for some short tracks around America to breathe some life into some of these short tracks and encourage more short track scenes around the country and encourage a stronger, grassroots motorsports in America. And to me, it would be really cool if we could get back to some of our short track roots in NASCAR. If they don’t do Xfinity or Cup, whatever. But do Trucks at least. Take us to some of these nice short tracks. Maybe shave a little bit of what you’re going to do to some of these other places and put a little bit into some of these short tracks and just get them going. Obviously, that’s an ‘if I ruled the world’ scenario, but I don’t think it’s a bad idea.
Massie: Are there any potential schedule changes that have been rumored for Trucks that you’re excited about?
Rhodes: So I’m hearing more road courses. For one, I love road courses. I think they’re a lot of fun, I’m glad that we’re doing that. But we need to develop our road course notebooks a little bit better. The past two years that we’ve gone to road courses, we ran decent last year at Canada [Canadian Tire Motorsports Park]. We came across the line battling for second. So we ran decent, but we needed more speed. Daytona [International Speedway road course], we had no speed at all. We were really far off. … I love road courses, but we have to develop. If we don’t, then it’s obviously no fun to go there and struggle. … So I’m hearing some of that. I’m hearing that we could be going to the Bristol [Motor Speedway] dirt race instead of Eldora [Speedway]. Not really sure how I feel about that.
And then the rest of the tracks, I’m not really sure. I don’t know what they have planned for us. But I hope there’s some more short tracks. I hope that, obviously we went to Richmond [Raceway] this year, they should keep it, I would think. It was really, really, really good racing.
Massie: You’ve been with ThorSport for five years, but your number has changed three times. Why all the number changes?
Rhodes: Well, when I first came there, they said, ‘What number would you like to run?’ I said No. 41. That one was near and dear to my heart at the time. But as we gained Safelite sponsorship in 2017, we had a cool idea to change the number to correlate with that sponsorship. At the time, their phone number ended in “2727.” So we changed it to No. 27 … That was really cool. They [Safelite] were thrilled about that. It was a great year hanging out with those folks. And then 2018, we went back to No. 41 since we were no longer with Safelite.
2019, Duke [Thorson, owner] wanted to run the No. 99 because to him, David Pepper [general manager] and all the powers at ThorSport, they all thought it was a better number to stay with the consistency of ThorSport with the Nos. 88, 98 and 99, kind of the double number, 9 and 8 routine. The oddball is just No. 13. I don’t know why 13. But they changed it for consistency, that’s the reason for all of it. Not sure if it made sense to other people, but it did to us at the time.
Massie: About that consistency, I get the ThorSport trucks mixed up on the track all the time. I can’t imagine what your spotters go through.
Rhodes: That’s funny. The NASCAR officials were actually confusing us for Johnny Sauter at times throughout the year. They’ll tell us we’re at the wrong place in line or doing this wrong or we’re not where we’re supposed to be. And we’re like, ‘Guys, recheck the number. Look at the door. It’s No. 99, not 13.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, oh, sorry, sorry.’
Massie: Are you trying to return to this team next year or have you had any talks about moving up?
Rhodes: I haven’t. I’ve had no talks with other teams. I did talk to a few Xfinity teams earlier in the year to see if there were opportunities to run anything in that series in companion with what I do in the Truck Series. My thought behind that was, obviously, as a driver, I want to be in a racecar as much as possible. But it’s hard to do that without any sort of sponsorship backing behind you.
The truck is what I’m doing and that’s the ‘A’ team, that’s what series I’m running for points for. The whole reason to try to jump in an Xfinity car was to get me practice laps basically so that when I jumped in the truck, we were already a leg up on the competition. We would have notes on tire pressures, I would have already been on the racetrack, I would know where the groove’s at, I would know which line has been rubbered in. I would have all those notes for myself, and we would fire off so much stronger and hopefully pick up more positions, be able to get the lead early on, because I don’t have to feel the truck out. Everybody else is still feeling their trucks out and being really gentle. I wouldn’t have to.
But obviously, that never happened because pretty much everybody in Xfinity has sponsorship behind them and I was just offering my services without that. So, long story short, I have not had any conversations with anybody in the Xfinity Series. And I’m really, really hoping just to get back at ThorSport next year. In fact, that’s my main plan. We really haven’t had any serious conversations about it.
I’m excited to see what the future holds. We’re excited to get through the playoffs here. All hands on deck, full focus toward the Championship 4. The season ends relatively early this year, Nov. 6, especially compared to the business dealings in the Truck Series. Everything in the Truck Series, it all trickles down from Cup to Xfinity and Truck. Once Cup gets set, then Xfinity and Trucks get set. The Truck Series is usually pretty late to do that.
I’m in no rush and no hurry to find anything out. I’m just fully focused on the championship.
Massie: You’re only 23 years old, so there’s still a ton of racing in front of you. Is your goal to eventually get to Cup, or do you want to be the face of the Truck Series like your teammates Matt Crafton and Sauter?
Rhodes: I used to have these crazy goals for myself. I’m talking really high goals, wanting to be in the Cup Series and setting different records. Yeah, obviously once I’ve gotten to Trucks, you hit different road blocks and different opportunities aren’t there.
I’m happy with where I’m at, I really am. I love ThorSport Racing. I’ve got a heck of a relationship with everybody there now. I absolutely love Duke and Rhonda Thorson. Whatever I can do for them in the future, I’m going to do it. They’re just great people.
As far as what the future holds, I really don’t know what that is. And I’ve quit putting goals out there for myself or a timeline on where I want to be, because nobody knows that and nobody knows what their future holds. Nobody can say that, ‘I want to be here,’ when there’s so many variables that come into play. So I quit giving myself a timeline, I quit giving myself goals.
Maybe I wanted to become a Cup champion but in the future I’m an IMSA champion or IndyCar or Xfinity or Truck or Cup. I really don’t know what the future holds, but I love racing and I want to do it for as long as I can and with the best opportunities I’ve got. And right now, ThorSport Racing is for sure, 100% the best opportunity I have.
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