By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
For this week’s edition of Climbing the Ladder, Seth Eggert sat down with ThorSport Racing driver Ben Rhodes to revisit an interview from 2016. That interview can be found here.
Rhodes is a 21-year-old NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver. He drives the No. 41 Alpha Energy Solutions Ford F-150. Rhodes is campaigning for the 2018 Camping World Truck Series Championship and currently sits fifth in the Championship Standings.
Seth Eggert: You’re first race was when you were seven-years-old. How did you convince your parents to let you race? Was it difficult?
Ben Rhodes: “I don’t think I really needed to convince my parents. I think it was actually an idea that came from my Mom. My Dad had me on a Four-Wheeler, go-karts, and dirt bikes at our house since I was three-years-old. Eventually we had some go-karts around our house and we had a little oval for our front driveway. I think it was the time when she looked out and saw that her six-year-old son was spraying down the oval with water and seeing how many times he could spin the kart and still go in the same direction. Then she figured out that we were finally bored and that we needed to go to the racetrack.”
“After that it all kind of fell into place. But, it was Mom, she was the starter for that.”
SE:The last time we talked, you told me that you consider your Dad to be your mentor. Who would be your mentor at the track?
BR: “I wouldn’t say that I technically have one mentor. I just try to pull information from everybody. There is so many key people in this sport that have been around for so long, longer than I’ve been racing, and certainly a lot longer than I’ve been alive. I just try to pull info from everyone, and so far, so good. That’s been my best strategy, but I will say that my crew chief, Eddie Troconis, has been a huge help in my career these past couple of years we hit it off really well. We’re friends not just at the racetrack, but off the track as well.”
SE: Your teammate, Myatt Snider, has been the driver in a Driving Experience for the CARS Tour. Would you ever want to do something like that?
BR: “I will say, it would be a lot easier to drive a race fan than it is to ride with a race fan. Most people, like the instructors for the Richard Petty Driving Experience and other drivers that have ridden passenger, they’re pretty brave. I couldn’t do that.”
SE: Is it an advantage or a disadvantage to have your shop based in Ohio compared to the majority of other teams being based in the Charlotte, N.C. area?
BR: “I wouldn’t say that it’s either an advantage or a disadvantage. It just has its pros and cons. A con would be that it’s hard to get some quality people up there at times. We have to typically start out with some fresh people. Fresh to the racing scene, or from some short tracks where they don’t have the experience that the guys from North Carolina have from doing it all of the time. But, on the flip side, whenever someone leaves a race team in Charlotte, they just push their toolbox across the street to the next one, along with the speed secrets. So our speed secrets stay intact up at ThorSport Racing.”
SE:It seems like you have a love/hate relationship with Kansas. Wrecked two years ago, last year you lost an engine while leading, and this year you had a fuel pump issue. How do you get past that?
BR: “The monkey’s been on our back for a while. The only race, and I’m not saying it because I won, but the only race where things really went our way was Vegas. We restarted in the right line every time, great pitstops. Everything worked perfectly, no mechanical issues. Every other race, there was a mistake or mechanical problems, something would happen. So, the monkey’s been on our back, and we’re doing the best we can to minimize mistakes. This year we’ve had four different races with mechanical issues.”
SE: You scored your first win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last year. How much does having a win under your belt boost your confidence?
BR: “It boosts confidence in the sense that, for me, ‘wow, things can actually go right for once.’ The whole team was performing how it should have been. I will say, the start of the day, for practice, was one of our worst starts. It was one of the worst practice sessions we have had all year. But we stuck with it, made the appropriate changes and got a lot of speed out of it. For me, it boosted myself, the whole team’s confidence, Eddie’s, everybody’s confidence knowing that we can unload horrible, but we’re not down and out, we can still make the appropriate adjustments and go win a race.”
SE: Can you describe your first experience making the Truck Series Playoffs?
BR: “I got in on a tie-breaker. That is a day that I will never forget. There was a lot of off-track things that happened after that. I will never forget that day as long as I live. There was so much stress and anxiety around it that I was just about ready to have a stroke in the truck.”
“The Playoffs, they were just incredible for me. I absolutely loved every minute of it. The intensity is so much higher, and in the season, we never had that. It is so much more difficult that I show up to the racetrack and feel this electricity in the air, and I absolutely love it.”
SE: Was there anything that you feel like you could have done differently last year to make it to the Championship Four?
BR: “We could have not got turned by Austin Cindric at Phoenix. I do feel like for that restart, we put ourselves, knowing where we were and what position we were in for that race, we put ourselves in a bad position, restarting right in front of him. The whole race he was away from us, not even within striking distance. We came in to pit to try to make the truck better, because we were losing some time to the leader, and by doing that, we put ourselves in a bad position. Honestly, I think we should have stayed out, and then I think the course of history would have been very different.”
“But we can obviously look at races before that. We can go and look at mistakes on pit road in the Playoffs, we could look at my mistakes out of the Playoffs that made it hard for us to get in. You can point blame everywhere you look. At the end of the day, Phoenix is where we went out at.”
SE: With ThorSport being the only full-time Ford team in the Truck Series, would you say that there is a friendly competition within the team to be the best Ford driver in the Truck Series?
BR:“Not really. I think that’s just the nature of the beast for any team. I will say though, that is how a team operates when everybody is just so competitive within the series, but I think that everybody is more competitive with their teammates. For me, I’m kind of relaxed a lot more. I know I have a lot of fun with my teammates. I poke fun at Myatt (Snider), Matt Crafton pokes a lot of fun at me. We just have fun with each other and I feel like when you can operate like that, and still race each other with a lot of respect on the racetrack, that makes everything so much smoother, and your season is going to go a lot better.”
SE: Your team has had various issues with the new Ilmor NT1 Spec Engine. How frustrating is it to have these issues when other teams are not?
BR:“That’s a very good point. It’s almost somebody has a button, and whenever we’re running extremely well in a race, about to pass the leader, like Kansas, someone presses that button and just slows us down. Last time at Atlanta, we finally figured out that the harness on the motor burned up, this time, I want to say it was a similar issue, maybe something with the wiring harness on the motor.”
“It’s frustrating that it’s happening to us. We’ve run the diagnostics; all of the systems seem to be okay on our side. We’re just hoping we can get some feedback from Ilmor and work on it, and later in the season eliminate all of those issues. When we’re going to racetracks that I know that we can win at, like Kansas, we don’t have issues and we could go out there and perform like we should.”
SE: Looking at the future, where will you be a year from now?
BR:“A year from now? Hopefully still in the sport. I would like to say a champion. I’ve been in the Truck Series a long time now. Duke and Rhonda Thorson are amazing team owners, and I would race with them for a long, time like Matt Crafton has, but my eyes are still on the Cup Series. So, I would love to go to move up, find an opportunity to move up with a very competitive team, whether that’s with Roush, Stewart-Haas, or some Ford team. I feel like that would be pretty awesome, but I think I’ve got to win some races this year and have our eyes on the main goal, and that is the championship.”