July 8th, 2016

Reed: Rhodes' time will come

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Reed: Rhodes' time will come
Holy Cross alum Ben Rhodes preps for practice run at Kentucky Speedway / photo by Paul Najjar

SPARTA, Ky. – Ben Rhodes has a face made for a Wheaties box, not to mention the cover of Sports Illustrated. At 19, he is boyishly handsome and cool more than cocky. His smile could light up the Toyota factory in Georgetown. When he puts on the decal-spangled black suit that he wears to work, Rhodes becomes a sort of action hero.

Only a year out of Holy Cross High School in Louisville, Rhodes is literally living his dream. He was an outstanding student but is deferring his education so he can drive very expensive vehicles at very high rates of speed before very large crowds and a national TV audience.

Though he ran 10 races last year in NASCAR’s XFINITY series, Ben is still considered a rookie in the Camping World Truck Series.

Here it must be noted that the trucks driven by Ben and his competitors bear little resemblance to the ones you see in the parking lot at your local Wal-Mart. Ben’s truck, for example, is this growling black monster with the No. 41 painted on the sides, not to mention the usual complement of decals representing the companies that sponsor Ben.

In the racing world, the decals are very important because racing stock cars at the highest level is a very expensive proposition. Ben’s primary sponsor, as noted on the car’s hood and in other prominent places, is Alpha Energy Solutions. I don’t know the size of the company’s investment in Ben, but I’d guess it’s at least enough to buy dinner for the Cincinnati Bengals at Morton’s Steak House.

Behind every truck is a huge moving van known as a “hauler” because its main job is to transport the truck from city to city. But in the garage area of any race track, the hauler also serves as team headquarters and lunchroom for the crew – about 10 people or more – that’s in charge of tuning up the truck to where it’s capable of hitting more than 180 mph on the straightaways.

It was in the garage area at Kentucky Speedway that I encountered Ben on Wednesday afternoon. The trucks were revving up for a practice session for Thursday night’s Buckle Up Your Truck 225. That’s 225 miles, for those of you watching at home, or 150 times around the 1½ -mile track.

The trucks would be the first to compete on the radically renovated Kentucky Speedway track. The changes includes things a novice fan wouldn’t notice with the naked eye -- an improved draining system, a new surface, steeper banking in a couple of turns, more safety barriers and other tweaks designed to gain speed and traction while also improving safety.

As Ben’s crew tinkered on his truck – his crew chief is Kevin Bellicourt -- the mechanics kept glancing skyward, where clouds were gathering and the wind was getting stronger. Unlike racehorses, cars and trucks do not compete in the rain. The sport is dangerous enough even when the track is dry as Jon Stewart’s wit.

I’ve known Ben since he was 15, already driving race cars even though he was too young to get a Kentucky driver’s license. I found him to be the sort of young man that dads wants their daughters to date. He was polite, respectful and bright. He was able to carry on a conversation in a language that adults can understand.

But I noticed a difference in Ben as he walked out of his hauler and began getting ready for work. No longer the deferential kid, he was the man in charge. Older crew members were deferential because, well, he’s the meal ticket. If Ben does well, everybody gets a fatter paycheck.

We only had time for a handshake before Ben climbed into the cockpit. These modified trucks do not have amenities such as doors, and the cargo area behind the cockpit is covered over. Suffice it to say that these pickup trucks were not built to haul your granny’s refrigerator to Goodwill.

Alas, soon after Ben and his competitors had exited the garage area and headed for the track, the rains came, delaying practice for several hours. Upon being warned that the blowers used to dry the track are even louder than the trucks, my colleague Paul Najjar packed away our ear plugs and headed back to Louisville.

On Thursday night, I watched the race on TV. At the beginning of the show, the announcers mentioned Ben’s return to his home state. But they didn’t dwell much on his recent strong finishes because they had other stories to tell. The major story line was veteran NASCAR star Kyle Busch’s presence in the race where his team, Kyle Busch Motorsports, was trying to win for a record 51st time in the truck series.

The competition in NASCAR is every bit as keen as it is in the NFL or on the PGA Tour. You can be a driving prodigy, like Ben, and still not become a breakout star because somebody has a car or truck that’s faster. Or because you don’t get that lucky break that often means the difference between winning and finishing where Ben did Thursday, which was 13th.

I don’t know of any sport that requires as much sustained concentration as car racing. For a couple of hours, the drivers work without timeouts. Even when the yellow caution flags come out and the field slows down and bunches up, the cars don’t stop. There’s no chance to check the cell phone for messages. Take your mind off the business at hand and you’ll find yourself upside down and plastered against the outer wall.

Although Ben ranked as high as sixth in the early going, he kept getting shuffled back into the pack during those periods when the field was forced to slow down because of trucks spinning out of control or blowing an engine. One of the first casualties was Busch, who was knocked out when his car was damaged in a collision.

Yet Kyle Busch Motorsports was celebrating after the race because rookie William Byron, 18, led for 70 of the race’s 150 laps and brought home the team’s record 51st victory. Yes, you ready that age correctly. Byron, a year younger than Rhodes, has dominated the Truck Series, winning four of 11 starts in his debut season. The TV announcers predicted greatness for him.

It’s the same in any sport. As the great baseball pitcher Satchel Paige once advised, don’t look over your shoulder because you don’t want to see what’s gaining on you. At 19, Rhodes already isn’t as much of a phenomenon as he was only yesterday. New kids who share his dream are out there revving their engines and testing their resolve and hustling sponsors.

Had that elusive first victory come at Kentucky Speedway, before a large group of Ben’s family and friends, it would have been sweet beyond belief. Now it will have to come somewhere else. Driving vehicles for a living requires patience and faith – and both are tested every time a driver climbs into the cockpit and starts his engine. 

Besides a fat check, the winner of the Buckle Up Your Truck 225 received a vintage Crosley jukebox. Rhodes really wanted that jukebox. He’s an old soul in a young body. When you’re around him, you think Sinatra or Elvis more than rap or hip-hop. 

Somewhere, somehow, Ben’s time will come. He’s too good and too focused to fail. The spot on the Wheaties box awaits, not to mention the adoring audiences in NASCAR citadels such as Daytona and Darlington. For now, though, all he and his crew can do is move on down the road and hope for better luck next time. 

 

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