SPARTA — In the history of American education, Ben Rhodes might have set a national record Wednesday for coolest excuse to get out of school.
The Louisville high school senior was missing out on pre-calculus, world geography and his other classes at Holy Cross — because he was testing his race car at Kentucky Speedway.
"It is a very cool way to get out of school," Rhodes said, grinning.
For Rhodes, this has been a very cool summer, period. The Kentuckian has put himself on the NASCAR radar as an up-and-comer. Competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East (in baseball terms, think low Class A), Rhodes has won five times. With one race to go, he already has clinched the series championship.
Rhodes also has run three times in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (Class AA) and logged two top 10s, including a ninth on the always-challenging half-mile at Bristol Motor Speedway.
On Friday at 8 p.m., he will drive on the 11/2-mile oval at Kentucky Speedway for the first time when he competes in the ARCA Series ZLOOP 150.
"I'm pretty excited," Rhodes said. "This is my 'hometown' track. I've driven past this track many, many times (while) going on to the next go-kart race with my family. ... It's a dream to race at this track."
The job of a NASCAR driver is only partly that of a high-speed competitor. One must also be a smooth corporate pitch man. Rhodes seems a natural for that. In conversation, he is personable, polite and polished. You forget he is 17.
A lifelong Louisvillian, Rhodes is the middle of Joe and Lori Rhodes' three children. Starting from the time he was 3 when his dad bought Ben and his older brother, Chris, dirt bikes and go-karts, Rhodes says his racing has always been a family endeavor.
Alpha Energy Solutions, the Rhodes family's company, has been Ben's primary car sponsor this summer on the No. 41 Chevrolet he drives for Turner Scott Motorsports. "I really like the family aspect of everything we do," Rhodes said.
The state of Kentucky's NASCAR experience has been shaped by a paradox.
From the time Darrell Waltrip broke into the Cup Series in the early 1970s until well into the 2000s with Michael Waltrip, Jeremy Mayfield and the Green brothers, David, Mark and Jeff, the commonwealth had a steady driving presence at NASCAR's highest levels.
Yet our state did not have a Cup race.
But by the time Kentucky Speedway finally got a Sprint Cup date in 2011, none of those drivers — all of whom were from Owensboro — were competing regularly. No one else from Kentucky has been able to replace them.
At the Speedway, where they have a 106,000-seat grandstand to fill, they would not mind at all if Rhodes eventually gave our state's race fans a "home team" for which to root.
"I think it would be great for us," said Kentucky Speedway general manager Mark Simendinger. "I mean, to have a local rooting interest, that could be the difference for a lot of people whether they tune in or not. Especially when you couple that with somebody in Ben who has a great personality, is a grounded person and is easy to root for.
"But I don't want to put a lot of pressure on him. He is on a great trajectory. I think he is being handled the right way and I have a lot of hopes for his career."
To climb the NASCAR ladder, driving talent is often not enough. Many times, a driver has to bring cold, hard cash — either family money or from a sponsor — to get a team to put him in a car.
Next season, Rhodes says, his family's Alpha Energy Solutions will not be his primary sponsor.
Still, if the right financial deal can be cut, he said he would like to run full-time in 2015 in what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series (next year it will be called the Xfinity Series).
That would mean skipping over the truck series.
"I feel like the Nationwide (cars) are closer to what I've driven in the K&N," Rhodes said. "And that they would be an easier step to Sprint Cup — which is the ultimate goal."
First things first, Rhodes has to finish his final year of high school. It would be a pretty cool senior memory to, oh, win an ARCA race at Kentucky Speedway.
"We want to be the top dog here," Rhodes said. "Win in front of the hometown crowd."