Family, speed run deep in veins of Ben Kennedy
February 21, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Turner Scott Motorsports crew chief Michael Shelton figured it was probably a pretty big deal to his driver Ben Kennedy to race on NASCAR's famous Daytona International Speedway high banks considering Kennedy's great-grandfather Bill France Sr. built the iconic track.
But in between NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practices Thursday afternoon at the speedway, Shelton realized exactly how significant his driver's debut would be as he observed Kennedy chatting with a certain visitor. NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, 76, walked a half-mile to the Truck Series paddock area tucked in the middle of the speedway’s infield, just to have a few words with the 23-year old rookie Kennedy.
“I told Ben, 'you know you've got a lot of people looking at you when Bobby Allison, one of my childhood heroes, comes by to talk,' " Shelton said. "That lets you know how far it goes with Ben. But he handles it really well. He’s down to earth. I think (the attention) will die down a little bit as the season goes, but right now it’s a really big deal."
And what advice did the NASCAR legend Allison give Kennedy?
“I told him to step on the gas, turn left and be careful,’’ Allison said, then he smiled and pointed his finger for emphasis. “And most of all, don’t trust anybody (in the draft).’’
Judging by Kennedy’s initial laps in the No. 31 Florida Lottery Chevrolet, the draft will be trying to rein him in. He was fastest during Preseason Thunder testing -- his first-ever laps at the 2.5-mile track -- and the first time a member of the France family had ever turned an official NASCAR national series lap on the speedway.
Kennedy followed with the quickest lap during practices this week. If weather impacts Friday qualifying, his best practice speed of 192.806 mph would put Kennedy on the pole for the night’s NextEra Energy Resources 250.
Kennedy, who is working a 40-hour internship with NBC Sports to complete his final semester at the University of Florida, is absolutely cognizant of the significance of his effort and his presence.
“I think it’s really cool and obviously my whole family will be out here, I can’t even imagine what Friday night’s going to be like,’’ said Kennedy, whose mother Lesa France Kennedy is CEO of International Speedway Corporation (ISC) and whose uncle Brian France is CEO and Chairman of NASCAR.
“Once I’m in the truck though, that sort of all goes out the window and you focus on what you need to do and being safe about it and making all the right moves and trying to win the race.”
Kennedy is also self-aware enough to know that his family’s position atop the sport means he will be more scrutinized than most of his competition -- a reality in stark contrast to his easy-going, “one of the guys” demeanor.
A reporter from the Gainesville, Fla., PBS television affiliate was at the track Thursday working on a video feature about him. "All his fraternity brothers think he is just the coolest thing, racing like this,’’ reporter Tori Petry said.
“We just try to make sure he knows we’re all behind him 100 percent,’’ said Shelton, who won the 2012 Truck Series championship with driver James Buescher in the No. 31 truck.
“Probably on his side of this, that’s a little pressure on him. But I’ve known Ben a pretty good while now. He wants to win races, no doubt, but he’s not coming in here saying we’ve got to win a race in the first five races.
“He’s laid back, he knows it’s going to be a learning curve and there’s a lot of tracks he hasn’t raced on yet. And that’s where it’s going to be a little more of a struggle.”
Shelton explained that Kennedy was put through the same preparation and evaluations that any driver would undergo. And each time, he impressed. No matter any preconceived perceptions about opportunity or funding, Kennedy’s performance will be the ultimate grade.
“The crew chiefs were all impressed with him, he progressively picked up speed every time he went out and his feedback was good -- and that’s big,’’ Shelton said.
“Martinsville (last year) is a great example. He took his time, got up to speed, at the end of the race finished fourth and stayed out of trouble and learned the whole race. And that’s a tough place.
“I really hope the outside pressures don’t get to him and the expectations don’t get too high for him.’’
His fourth-place finish at the notoriously tough Martinsville, Va., half-miler was the highlight of Kennedy’s five Truck starts last year. He also won twice in the developmental NASCAR K&N Pro Series East division -- from the pole at Pensacola, Fla., and then again at historic Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Of course, considering Kennedy’s family background in racing administration and business, there were plenty of options at the home company other than driving race cars at 200 mph.
But, Kennedy is absolutely 100 percent committed to succeeding as a NASCAR driver. This isn’t about publicity, it’s about pursuing a passion. If anything, the potential attention his story draws makes his quest more challenging.
“Certainly maybe an extra spotlight on you, maybe a little bit of criticism, but everyone’s entitled to their own opinion going through the sport,’’ Kennedy said.
“Growing up around the sport, people say it’s in your blood. I think it’s sort of been ingrained in my blood throughout the past two decades. Always being around the sport, sleeping at my house and waking up to the (Rolex) 24-hour race, once you get around it so much you start to enjoy it and want to be around it more.
“It’s cool to see both aspects, the competition side with everything I’m doing and the business side as well with my mom and ISC.
“I’m going to give this racing a valiant effort. I’d love to make it to the Sprint Cup level, but either way, I’d like to have some kind of involvement in the sport and the growth of the sport.’’
Racing was a tougher sell for his mom -- at least initially.
“She’s getting better with it,’’ Kennedy said, smiling. “I know it’s tough in the beginning running short tracks in late models and getting in wrecks and her sort of witnessing that. But I think it’s sort of grown on her. It’s cool to see how she’s sort of progressed.
“Neither of us knew a whole lot about the competition side of it. She’s pushing me to get better, she’s really getting into it.’’
And when France Kennedy comes to the track, it’s a rare opportunity to simply be mom, an ordinary race fan and not concerned about the behind-the-scene details.
Quite naturally, there was always a natural temptation for his parents to worry.
“We’d joke around with him, are you sure you don’t want to take some golf lessons or some tennis lessons, but he was always driven toward it,’’ said France Kennedy, whose husband, physician Dr. Bruce Kennedy, was killed in a 2007 plane crash.
“Ben’s totally focused on racing and the competition aspect of the business and I know for the foreseeable future, that’s where his passion is. Where he goes beyond that, I’m not really sure but I do know where he’s at today, and he’s all in.
“It’s a side of the business he’ll have experience in and I think that will go a long way down the road if he chooses a different route. He’s getting a great education right now and learning a really interesting part of the business. I think it always helps to have passion and to be able to learn from that passion.”
No one on Kennedy’s Turner Scott Motorsports team is questioning his passion and or his potential.
Or how special this week will be.
Shelton recalled a story about the preseason Daytona test. He said Kennedy’s spotter Jimmy Kitchens repeatedly asked for a specific time that Kennedy would be on track.
“He was almost nervous about it, so finally I said, ‘what’s the deal?’" Shelton recalled.
“He said I’ve got to make sure Lesa’s here. She’s busy and I just have to make sure she knows what time we’re on the race track because she wants to be here. It’s a big deal.
“Finally, it came up that it would be first time a France family member had taken an official lap at this track. I hadn’t realized that.
That was for the test, now we’re here for the race and I don’t want to jinx anything. … but to win, that would be something all right. And he’s capable of doing it.”