In anyone’s education, there are milestone moments. For Ben Rhodes, one came at Kansas Speedway on May 7.
After wrecking with Johnny Sauter while battling for the lead on the final lap of a Camping World Truck Series race, the young driver from Louisville got called to the NASCAR hauler for the first time.
“The principal’s office. That’s exactly what it was like, getting called to the principal’s office,” the 2015 graduate of Louisville Holy Cross High School said. “But instead of just the principal being there, there were five ‘principals.’”
Running second, Rhodes, 19, made an aggressive move to get underneath race leader Sauter. When Sauter’s truck moved down the track, Rhodes got into him and both ended up crashing. Instead of finishing 1-2, Sauter wound up 16th, Rhodes 18th.
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So Rhodes found himself summoned to the stock-car sanctioning body’s race hauler to explain himself.
NASCAR’s “five principals” grilled Rhodes about his late-race aggression.
“(They said) ‘Do you think that was a good move? Do you honestly think you would have made it? Your angle looked pretty bad,’” Rhodes says. “I listened, then I said ‘I was full-throttle and my truck was sticking. I was going to make it if (Sauter) had held his (racing) line.’ But we left it good. I listened to what they were telling me, and they listened to me. It was interesting, a life experience.”
This week, Ben Rhodes’ educational tour through NASCAR will hold session in his home state.
When the green flag drops on the Camping World Truck Series Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 Thursday at 8:30 p.m., Rhodes will bid to become the first Kentuckian to win a major racing series event at Kentucky Speedway.
The driver of the Alpha Energy Solutions No. 41 Toyota Tundra has momentum, too. In the prior two trucks races, Rhodes has logged the two best finishes of his career, a fourth at Iowa Speedway (a short track at .88 of a mile) and a second at Gateway Motorsports Park (1.25 miles).
“We have had some good runs,” Rhodes said last week. “I wouldn’t say we’ve figured anything out so much as we got to two races we’d been pointing toward. My comfort level is high on the shorter tracks.”
“Could you imagine if (Rhodes) won the first race of his (trucks series career) at Kentucky … on a new racetrack and, oh by the way, he beat Kyle Busch?” asks Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger. “I think I could make a story out of that.”
If Rhodes were to win this year in Sparta, there would be far more to the story than just a son of the commonwealth scoring a victory in Kentucky.
The race team Rhodes drives for is the Sandusky, Ohio-based ThorSport Racing. A June 13 fire produced major damage to the shop where ThorSport Racing builds its trucks.
According to an Ohio fire marshal’s report, the fire was accidental and started in mulch underneath the stairs of a shop patio. It is estimated to have done $10 million in damage. Some 40 percent of ThorSport’s 100,000-feet race shop will have to be rebuilt.
Immediately following the blaze, the team owned by Duke and Rhonda Thorson had to prepare trucks for its four drivers under a tent in the parking lot of a local Kroger.
“That’s not as exotic as it sounds, because that’s not that much different than how we work when we go to the tracks on race weekends,” said ThorSport General Manager David Pepper.
To keep the production of race trucks for drivers Rico Abreu, Matt Crafton, Cameron Hayley and Rhodes going, ThorSport has fanned out its employees to various locations — an auto body shop, a builder of NHRA-car haulers, the shop of a former racecar driver — in and around Sandusky.
“Obviously, since the fire, this has been a challenging time for our people,” Pepper said.
The truck that was being prepared for Rhodes to drive at Kentucky Speedway was damaged in the fire and will not be in use in Sparta. “They are getting me another truck ready,” Rhodes said.
In a way, the education of Rhodes as a driver may have been accelerated due to the fire. Rhodes drove to his fourth-place finish at Iowa and second place at Gateway knowing he had no margin for error since he had no backup truck available.
“I think he was still aggressive,” Joe Rhodes said of his son, “but when you know you must save your stuff, it teaches you patience, too. But Ben understands the worth of a dollar. He tries to be careful with the equipment he’s driving all the time.”
Ben Rhodes’ recent hot streak has pushed him from 17th to 10th in the trucks series points. His goal for 2016 is to be one of the eight drivers who will make the first trucks series Chase for the Championship.
“Ben’s doing us a great job,” said ThorSport Racing’s Pepper. “He’s incredibly impressive when you meet him in person. We sit in my office, he’s so mature, I forget I’m not dealing with a peer. And inside the truck, he’s a little bulldog, just drives the wheels off of it.”
This year will be the third time Rhodes has raced at Kentucky Speedway in a major-series event.
In 2014, he appeared on the verge of winning an ARCA race in Sparta, but wrecked while working his way back through the field after giving up the lead following a late caution. Last year, Rhodes finished 30th at Kentucky in its September Xfinity Series race, one of 10 he drove in 2015 for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s JR Motorsports.
Winning the 2016 trucks race would mean something beyond claiming his first career victory in a NASCAR national touring series in his home state. “We are the first race to be on (the repaved Kentucky Speedway track),” Rhodes said. “I want to be the first guy to win on it.”
If it happens, there will be a lot of people in Sparta cheering. Rhodes says his sponsor, his family’s Alpha Energy Solutions, plans to distribute up to 5,000 tickets for Thursday’s race.
“We are going to have all kinds of people there,” Rhodes said. “It’s a chance for me to kind of share what I do with friends and family. … I think extra pressure comes with it, but I try to ignore it. I know what I can control and what I can’t.”
In the education of a NASCAR driver, that’s a pretty good lesson to have learned.
NASCAR at Kentucky Speedway
July 7: Camping World Trucks Series Buckle Up In Your Truck 225, 8:30 p.m.
July 8: Xfinity Series Alsco 300, 8:30 p.m.
July 9: Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts, 7:30 p.m.