|BEN RHODES (9) RACES DILLON BASSETT AND|
ANDY MERCER IN A UARA-STARS RACE.
(DREW HIERWARTER PHOTO)
Rhodes learning from one of the best
By Tom Gillispie
Fifteen-year-old Ben Rhodes has an advantage over most drivers at Hickory Motor Speedway and everywhere else.
His mentor is Sprint Cup driver Marcos Ambrose.
"A lot people look at it as pressure (to work with Ambrose), and I feel pressure to perform," Rhodes said. "But he shares his experience and expertise from the Cup side, and it's a big advantage to have him as a mentor."
The youngster got to test this year at Virginia International Raceway with Ambrose, a standout on road courses and a Cup winner last year.
Rhodes was a top Legends-car driver — he says he won 43 of 66 races last year — and Ambrose's team was looking for a developmental driver to run Late Model. The team called last year, and Rhodes said yes. Starting last August, he ran four races last year for Ambrose, two at Hickory and one each at Newport, Tenn., and Myrtle Beach.
Rhodes has been running the UARA-Stars series, which is set to run Hickory on June 23, and filling in with races at Hickory. In a partial schedule, Rhodes is 16th in HMS Late Model points. He says he's also leading UARA rookie points, his goal for the season.
"I'm not running every single race (at Hickory)," he said, "but trying to get in as much as can when the UARA is off.
"Hickory is a great track. It has a lot of features that help you get around other tracks."
He says that most of the tracks he's raced on are about the size of Hickory (.366 mile), with the big one being 1.017-mile Rockingham Speedway.
Rhodes says he started out in go-karts at "6 1/2 or seven," first racing in his home area of Louisville, Ky., then racing from New York to Florida. He jumped into Bandeleros and Legends cars and then Late Models.
He's made a fine transition, but he says it hasn't been easy.
"There's a huge difference (between Legends cars and Late Models)," he said. "There's a bigger difference than people think. So many things are different, and I'm getting a feel for it, getting used to it. The brakes are a big difference. It's a hard transition. It's more difficult for people with no experience (in bigger cars). I've had to rid myself of what I did in Legends cars."
As for his goals for next year, "Depending on how this year goes, I'd like to do Late Models or (the) K&N (East series) next year," he said. "Right now, we plan to stick with Late Models next year. It's going good right now. We've had a lot of successful races. We've been fast in a lot of them but had bad luck; we were wrecked out of two races."
Even though he's only 15, he says he wishes he'd started Late Models sooner.
"Some of the people I'm racing against (in my age group) have more experience than I have," he said. "It's amazing how early people are getting started compared to Dale Earnhardt Jr. (who was in his 20s). My ultimate goal is to make it to Sprint Cup, and I'm giving it all I've got now. Hopefully, I can make it work."
Rhodes, who is 5-10, 123 pounds, says he's been working out, trying to get stronger.
"As far as muscle, I've been going to the gym probably times a week when I'm home or, even when I'm out of town, I'm trying to work out. It's a big advantage to be in better shape than your competitors.
"I never want to say got tired or make an excuse when I failed. I work out a lot, and I've actually gotten bigger."
Of course, that'll probably happen as he gets older.
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