By Seth Eggert, NASCAR Writer
For this week’s edition of Climbing the Ladder, Seth Eggert sat down with ThorSport Racing driver Ben Rhodes. Rhodes is a 19-year-old NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver. Rhodes drives the Alpha Energy Solutions No. 41 Toyota Tundra. Rhodes is campaigning for both the 2016 Camping World Truck Series Championship and 2016 Truck Series Rookie of the Year Honors.
Seth Eggert: How did you become interested in motorsports?
Ben Rhodes: I was seven years old, and my brother started racing. We bought a go-kart from some family friends that had been in racing, but never really knew what it was. It sat around for a while, but by the time I was seven, my brother finally got it out and drove it around the house a little bit. We took it out to a race, and from that point on I was hooked. I watched him for the first two weeks, and then I got into it.
I’ll admit, the first race was pretty bad. I drug the leader across the start finish line, there was a bunch of wrecks, and I was lapped about five times, but after that I started catching on. Ever since then I have just been hooked on racing.
SE: Where and when was your first race? What was the result?
BR: Well, my first race was at Sportsdrome Speedway in Jeffersonville, Indiana, just across the river from where I lived in Louisville, Kentucky. I don’t really remember what the result was. I was a few laps down though, it wasn’t very good.
SE: Who would you consider your mentor?
BR: Well, from the very beginning it had to be my Dad because for the first few steps that I was in the majority of the learning happens. He was my crew chief, he was everything. He set up the cars for me. He was even my driving coach even though he had never really been around it before. He was the one who would learn it and then teach the seven year-old me and make it to where I could understand it.
SE: What or who inspires or motivates you?
BR: I am self-motivated for what I do. I think everyone in this sport has to be. If you don’t have a love for it, then you don’t really have a love for the sport. I am self-motivated in that aspect, but my inspiration for wanting to do good has been from watching all of the NASCAR drivers on Sundays when I was little. I was eight or nine at the time when I started watching NASCAR and really understanding it, reading up on the rules, and trying to figure out what was happening. That’s what inspired me to follow and chase my dream in NASCAR.
SE: At what track would you want to win at the most?
BR: I want win at Kentucky Speedway the most. That’s my home track, that’s where I’ll have all of my family, friends. Everybody that I know from Kentucky will be there. That’s really cool for me because you don’t get that support at every track you go to. It’s very unique for me to have at Kentucky Speedway, I had my entire school, all of my school teachers, was there at one of my races in the past. So we just have a ton of support from everybody, and that would be on the top of my list.
SE: How are you able to balance school and racing?
BR: That was really tough. Luckily I went to Holy Cross High School, I had some really good teachers behind me. I did a little bit of online classes, they were able to allow me to take one or two online college classes to make the schedule a little easier. I was able to do the classes on the road, at airports, and once I knocked them out, which I did really quickly, I didn’t have to worry about it at the airports. Instead, I worried about the five other classes that I had, which really gave me some time to make all of the work up. I’d miss something every week, but I had some really good teachers who were behind me and supported what I did. I was very fortunate to have that, because I know a lot of drivers who don’t have that.
SE: You have driven for several organizations Turner Motorsports, JR Motorsports, and now ThorSport Racing, describe the transition.
BR: The transition has been great to ThorSport. This is an awesome team. I really love being with ThorSport, this is one of the best teams that I have ever the experience of being around. It’s just been great, a smooth transition. I was welcomed into the Toyota family, the ThorSport family and the have shown me awesome hospitality. Every truck that they have, they have been building to what I feel is fast, what my crew chief feels is fast. They’ve given me the opportunity to build my team which is awesome.
SE: You drove for JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series last year, what was the motivation to leave JRM for the Truck Series?
BR: It was just full-time. That was the best full-time opportunity that I had and I felt like the Truck Series was right for me. I feel like the competition in the Truck Series this year is stouter than its ever been. We have a stacked field of awesome drivers in it.
With (Dale Earnhardt) Jr., I was only going to have the same opportunity that I did in 2015, to run select races, and a 10 race schedule. Share a car with three other drivers in it. While that was good at first, 10 races wasn’t enough for me to learn. It was too gapped out for me apply what I learned from the last one to the next one. So I was trying to relearn everything and get comfortable again. Now I can go back-to-back, I have the same group of guys, the same crew, and they all have the same driver and we are learning as a whole and getting better as a whole.
SE: Looking back at Kansas, is there anything that you could have done differently in the closing laps?
BR: I really wouldn’t have changed a thing. I wish Johnny (Sauter) would have changed something. But I really couldn’t have changed anything, that was the only place I felt like I could of gone. If I went to the high-side, I know he saw and would have gone to the high side in turns one and two because that’s what he thought I was going to do. So he went down to the bottom to block the draft, and went back up to the top to block me if I took the high side. So he saw that I took the bottom, he came back down to try to block me once more. So, I really don’t know if I could have done anything, I know there was a hole there and I decided to take it. I have been quoting Ayrton Senna’s line, “If you don’t go for a gap, you can’t really call yourself a racecar driver.”
SE: Has the caution clock benefited you and your team?
BR: Well, at Daytona it didn’t. We were right there at the caution clock and everybody decided to check up and come to pit right before the caution clock came out. And that didn’t help us at all. At Kansas it did because people were running out of gas and it gave us more positions on track. I guess it just depends on who you are and where you are as to if it benefits you. I can tell you on a really green racetrack like this (Charlotte) if we can get the caution clock, run to it the first 20 minutes, that’s a help.
SE: How are you going to spend the down time in between Truck Series races this season? How are you going to keep yourself occupied?
BR: This season we have had a bunch of sponsors come on board with us. We have Becker Law Office, Oxmoor Toyota, Delta Dental of Kentucky, Park Community Credit Union. We have a bunch of sponsors in Kentucky that are working with me, as well as Alpha Energy Solutions. I do a lot of stuff with them. We stay busy with them. I have a show as well called, “On Track With Ben Rhodes” which airs in Louisville, Kentucky and the surrounding area. So I am having a lot of fun with the marketing and public relations.
SE: How do you spend down time during rain delays?
BR: Well, we kind of just sat out there, watched TV. We sat out in the garage, sat in the trailer, you don’t really get to do much because you’re just in a holding pattern. Sometimes it’ll stop, everyone will get ready, and then it ends up raining again.
SE: Is it refreshing to have that break, or is it frustrating?
BR: I would actually like to race every week. I would race everyday if I could, but the break is a necessary evil. There’s a lot of good that comes from the break. Between our break from Daytona, Atlanta to Martinsville, that was really good for us. We were able to take what we learned in the first two races and apply it to what we learned after that. The breaks are necessary; I know that the guys in the shop really need a break to start to get some good trucks built after those last few races where we had those incidents. We’re rebuilding our trucks now, but we get to rebuild them to how we like them and make improvements on them. We’re happy about that, but it’s just a lot of work to do it.
SE: Fill in the blank, in a year from now you will be?
BR: I will be a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series winner, Rookie of the Year, and going to try for the Championship.