Ben Rhodes’ championship season in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East has come to an end with numbers that put the 17-year-old in rare air with some of the division’s legends.
Five wins in 16 races as a rookie in NASCAR’s top developmental level. A title clinched before even getting to the September 26 season finale. Only three finishes outside the top 10 all season long.
The championship may have been locked up for almost a full month now, but even after hoisting the trophy and getting the acknowledgement from NASCAR President Mike Helton at Dover, the feat hasn’t truly settled in with Rhodes.
“It’s been great to win the championship but I’d say it really sinks in at the banquet when you really see everything,” said the Louisville, Kentucky native. “I think that’s when it will really sink in for me.”
Next stop is the NASCAR Night of Champions in Charlotte, North Carolina in December, when he will be awarded his championship ring. Rhodes, admittedly not a bling-bling kind of kid, won’t be shy about wearing his new piece of jewelry.
“I’ve never had a ring like that before,” said Rhodes. “If I was ever going to wear a ring I think I’d have to earn it to wear it. I wouldn’t wear stuff just to wear it. I wouldn’t buy it. I’d have to earn it.”
He certainly earned it this year. In his first full season in the K&N Pro Series East Rhodes scored five wins, 11 top fives, 13 top 10s and six poles. He beat Cameron Hayley for the championship by 60 points. And of course in addition to the championship he also claimed Rookie of the Year honors.
He said that the hardest part of this season has been balancing school and racing. Rhodes is in his final year at Holy Cross High School in Louisville, a school that has been very understanding of all his absences.
“I know a lot of schools that I was going to go to, they said I could only miss like two days and that would be it,” he said. “My school lets me miss however many days I need to miss as long as I make up the work.”
His teachers sometimes even give him extra time to get assignments in should he need it, but he says the balancing act is still incredibly difficult even with that extra time.
“I’ve been missing so much schoolwork for racing that it’s just hard for me to balance that back and forth,” he said. “It can be a struggle at times, that’s for sure. But my school is very good at letting me get out to go do what I love.”
Rhodes has lofty goals for someone of his age. Louisville is known for college basketball and a very different form of racing: horse racing. But Rhodes wants to transform it into a car racing city.
“I’m trying to build up the fan base there and it’s great because Louisville is a very strong community,” he said. “So everybody there hops on board and they’re all pulling for you just because it’s somebody from their hometown. That’s really cool about it.”
But he’s also humble. When asked if he’d like a sign to say, “Welcome to Louisville, home of the Kentucky Derby and Ben Rhodes,” he laughed and replied, “If they wanted to I would probably veto it.”
Rhodes just wants to race. He wants to “do my thing. I don’t care about the fame or recognition of anything.”
He has one more race for Turner-Scott Motorsports on his 2014 schedule. He’ll be making his fourth start in the Camping World Truck Series at Phoenix International Raceway (AZ) in November.
As for 2015? Well, Rhodes has nothing set in stone just yet.
“I’d love to move into one of the national series whether it be Trucks or Nationwide,” he said. “But as of right now there’s no plans. We are still trying to get everything together. Hopefully we can get it all figured out sooner than later. It always makes me anxious.”
Rhodes said he has some things in the works, but “until you sign the contract you never know.”
So for now Rhodes has to do what every other 17-year-old kid does. And that’s something that doesn’t really have him too thrilled.
“Now I’ve got to go back to school and be normal,” he said. “I don’t want to be normal.”
-By Rob Blount, Speed51.com Regional Editor (Long Island, CT, and NJ) -Twitter: @RobBlount. Photo credit: Speed51.com