Trucks rookie Ben Kennedy is first France family member to race in NASCAR
05/06/2014 11:15 PM
05/06/2014 11:15 PM
Ben Kennedy has seen Kansas Speedway from the ground up. He’s been in the garages, the grandstands, the suites, the hospitality tents, the Fan Walk.
But not until this week will Kennedy, a rookie in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, drive on the 1.5-mile tri-oval when he competes in the SFP 250 on Friday night.
Kennedy, 22, is an heir to NASCAR’s first family, the France family. He’s the great grandson of NASCAR co-founder William H.G. France, grandson of longtime NASCAR president Bill France, son of Lesa France Kennedy, a NASCAR executive vice president, and nephew of Brian France, NASCAR’s current chief executive office.
And he’s the first member of the France family to drive a race car in the sport they founded.
“They’re really strong supporters of my racing,” Kennedy said of his family. “I’ve always been around the sort of business side of the sport, I guess you could say. I think it’s really opened their eyes having someone in their family that’s a competitor in NASCAR.”
Part of the business side Kennedy experienced was the construction of Kansas Speedway. His mother, who is also chief executive officer for track owner International Speedway Corp., had a major hand in the design of Kansas Speedway, and Ben accompanied her on trips to the track when it was still a muddy hole in the ground.
“I remember the whole project coming together,” he said. “It was almost dinner-table conversation for us to talk about Kansas Speedway and this awesome project. I remember going out there when it was under construction and hanging out for the weekend and seeing it develop through the years.”
Kennedy was 9 years old when he was in Victory Lane after Jeff Gordon won the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway in 2001.
“It was cool to see it all come together … and having the Hollywood Casino was another big venture,” he said. “I’m excited to finally get on the race track this time.”
Kennedy didn’t plan on a career as a driver until he was in his early teens and former Sprint Cup crew chief Robbie Loomis put him in a quarter midget at a one-day go-kart school.
“The next thing you knew we were going racing on Friday nights,” Kennedy said. “After a couple years of doing that, I saw it more as a career.”
After competing for three seasons in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, Kennedy made five starts in the Camping World Trucks Series last year with a best finish of fourth at the fall Martinsville race.
This year, Kennedy won the pole at his hometown track at Daytona, where he finished 15th, and he finished third in the series’ second race at Martinsville.
“We’re starting to hit our stride,” said Kennedy, who drives the No. 31 Turner Scott Motorsports Chevrolet. “We had an awesome truck at Daytona, running up for the lead for a long time … and Martinsville, we missed the setup a little bit, worked on it throughout the race … got a bunch of restarts on the inside.
“I have no idea how we got a third-place finish, but we’ll take it.”
Because he comes from such a famous family, Kennedy feels a little extra pressure to prove he belongs on the track.
“It’s definitely there, there is a little bit of pressure,” he said. “To be honest, when we get in these cars and everything, it’s game time. Any driver out there will have pressure on their shoulders to perform and compete. We all want to be Cup drivers eventually. There is definitely that pressure that everyone’s watching you. If anything, it’s a little more motivation for me.”
His family gives him more advice on the business side of the sport than on the competitive side.
“He’s very dedicated. He’s putting all this effort into it,” Lesa France Kennedy said. “It’s been a very good learning experience from a business standpoint for him. He has to sell his product … he’s looking for sponsorships … he makes speaking engagements, and all those are learning experiences for anything he might do in the future.”
Kennedy graduated with a degree in sports management at the University of Florida last Saturday, and once his career ends, it’s possible he could one day succeed his uncle Brian as NASCAR’s top executive.
For now, his attention is on the track, and a win at Kansas would be especially meaningful to Kennedy.
“Winning the pole at Daytona was definitely special, being my backyard,” Kennedy said, “but Kansas has also been special to me because my mom had a big part in developing that speedway and planning it.
“I’ve been watching old videos … as young as the track is, there is definitely history there. Some big names have won at that place. I think we’re going to have a pretty fast hot rod there.”