By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
Most up-and-coming young race drivers want people to know all about them, thinking the knowledge will further their career. But Ben Kennedy just wants to be one of the faces in the lineup.
But Kennedy’s situation is unique, and he can’t be blamed for wanting to be looked at as just another racer. His mother is Lesa Kennedy, the chairwoman of International Speedway Corp. and the vice chair and executive vice president of NASCAR. Ben’s late great-grandfather is NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.
Most of the time when Kennedy, a 20-year-old University of Florida student, is driving his Late Model or competing on the NASCAR K&N Pro Series, the only time it’s apparent that he’s a part of NASCAR’s first family is when his mother or grandmother show up to watch him race, which is pretty often these days.
That puts Lesa Kennedy in a far different position at the track than the one in which she usually finds herself. When Ben’s racing, she’s more Mom and less NASCAR executive.
“I think it initially scared her a little bit,” Ben Kennedy said with a chuckle. “But she’s warming up to it a little bit. She’s starting to become a fan and enjoys coming to the races and stuff.”
Kennedy said he’s relieved that his connections to the people who control NASCAR haven’t drawn a lot of attention.
“I’m glad they don’t really shine any light on that,” he said. “My goal is to blend in with everybody out there and not stand out too much.”
So far there’s been little evidence of Kennedy receiving any special favors. In fact, the opposite might be true.
In a recent race at Gresham Motorsports Park in Jefferson, Ga., Kennedy was leading late in the feature event when he was black-flagged for jumping the restart. He was sent to the rear of the pack but bounced back for a top-five finish.
“It was very frustrating and unfortunate the way it happened,” he said. “But it was a part of racing.
“I definitely respect their call and everything that went with it. I still ended up with a top five, so it wasn’t a horrible night.”
Kennedy’s had many other rewarding nights since he decided at a relatively late age to give race driving a try.
He was encouraged by NASCAR team owner Eddie Wood, who told him how much fun he and his own son Jon had racing together. Veteran crew chief and team manager Robbie Loomis set up his first drive in a competitive go-kart, and NASCAR driver Mark Martin helped steer his career in his early days of competing on the short tracks of Florida, where he won a championship in the Pro-Truck class at Orlando Speedworld and New Smyrna Speedway as well as a Super Late Model championship at Orlando.
He was the 2010 Rookie of the Year in the Bright House Challenge Series and was named the SRP Pistons Sportsman of the Year.
Kennedy said his career has taken giant strides in the past two years as he’s ventured away from his home base in Florida and raced at tracks across the nation. His best finish in the K&N Series came in the circuit’s first visit to historic Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C., where he finished third.
This year he’s racing a car prepared by Bill Elliott’s race team in Dawsonville, Ga., and is getting career guidance from Elliott.
His crew chief is Mike Fritz, who recently worked with Ricky Carmichael in NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series.
“Bill’s been a great help,” Kennedy said. “He’s a very nice person, and he has a ton of experience. He’s been around the sport forever. He has a great crew and a great facility in Dawsonville. He’s a great all-around resource for us.”
Racing at different tracks is making a difference as well.
“I’ve probably learned more in the last year than I have in the rest of my racing career, just from traveling,” Kennedy said. “At the beginning of last year, I’d only been to four tracks. At the end of last year I’d been to 20 something. That traveling experience will pay off.”
Like most of his peers, Kennedy would like to see his career take him to the top levels of NASCAR.
“My long-term goal is to get to the Sprint Cup Series one day,” he said. “But I’m going to take it one step at a time and see where it goes each year, whether it’s trucks or Nationwide [Series] or wherever it goes from here.
“Hopefully I’ll reach my ultimate goal.”
But if driving doesn’t work out, there’s still the possibility of a key position in the family company.
“I’ve thought about it,” he said. “If it comes, it’ll come. If not, I’ll stick to this end of it. I’ve definitely considered it many times. I’ve been around the business side all of my life, but now I’m really enjoying the competitive side.”