NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver Ben Rhodes visited the St. Louis area June 14-15 to help promote the June 25 Drivin’ For Linemen 200 Brought To You By Altec at Gateway Motorsports Park. The 19-year-old driver of the No. 41 Alpha Energy Solutions Toyota Tundra for ThorSport Racing is competing for NASCAR’s 2016 Sunoco rookie-of-the-year title.
By all rights he could have backed out of his commitments and no one would have blamed him. A devastating fire ripped through his team’s 100,000 square-foot race shop in Sandusky, Ohio, early Monday morning. And yet he drove himself to St. Louis from his home in Louisville to fulfill every appearance, answer every question and smile for every photograph.
“That was tough,” Ben explained. “It’s something we’re going to have to overcome. Right now they’re setting everything up in the parking lot. We were able to get as much stuff out as possible. We recovered more trucks than I thought we would but I lost a couple of new trucks in the fire. The good news is that the truck we were going to bring for the next two races, at Iowa and Gateway, were pulled out before the fire got to it. We’re gonna have to come back bigger, stronger and better than before. No excuses. The fire’s not an excuse. We’re gonna go out there and run as hard as we can. We’re going to bring the best equipment that we have available to us right now.”
Rhodes never has raced at GMP but is looking forward to his first foray on the challenging oval. Although GMP is a 1.25-mile speedway, Rhodes team is assigning a half-mile truck to the task.
“It looks fast. Looks like two drag strips put together with some really tight corners,” Rhodes said. “Really long straightaways. It’s gonna be awesome going into the corners, seeing how deep you can drive in and get grip in our Tundra. I think we’re going to do just that. I like the fact that there’s less banking and that you carry so much speed into it. Back where my crew chief and I come from, the K&N Series days were all short-track, flat-track stuff. We’re bringing our Martinsville Speedway truck which is set up just for that. Hopefully that bodes well for the race.
“I know I’ve got some good teammates to lean on. They had really fast trucks here last year. We’re going to try to figure it out. We have one day to do it. I think we can. I have confidence in all my guys. They’re really confident about it too.”
Ben explained how his ThorSport team will attempt to set up a truck for an egg-shaped oval track with turns that don’t match.
“The technical explanation is you’ve got to look at load. You have to look at handling. You’ve got to look at so many things. I think, overall, it’s a compromise. Just try to get it as good as you can with both corners. That’s all there is to it. I’ve been looking at Turn 2 and it’s got a lot of character itself. All of the corners are different here. It’s not just one and two, and three and four. One is different from two. Two is different from three, three is different from four. They’re all different and each one has its own challenges. You have to make the most out of each challenge and try to get through it better than the competition. For me, that means braking on the truck as precise as possible and looking for every little bump to try to exploit it — and tune our set-up to those bumps.”
ThorSport teammate Matt Crafton is a two-time champion in the Truck series but was involved in a late-race accident in the 2015 Drivin’ For Linemen 200 which most likely robbed him of a victory.
“Matt gives me a lot of advice going into race weekends. Since we can’t test — I only have two testing sessions allotted since I’m a rookie. I’d have none if I was a veteran. My thing is, I watch all the races and take notes and ask questions about the race and try to figure it all out. With that, Matt gives me a lot of great feedback. We try to do pace car rides together. And we just spend as much time on the subject as possible. It helps out every weekend.
“We have some really good notes from last year. Matt was in the lead for a long time, racing with Erik Jones for a long time. I feel like we can lean on Matt a little bit. I can lean on my crew chief (Kevin Bellicourt) who comes from this background. I know he feels really confident. And when he feels confident about something we’re usually really fast. He felt good about Martinsville and that turned out well for us.”
After racing a local sportscaster as well as some up-and-coming young local kart racers at the Gateway Kartplex, Rhodes sat for more media interviews, then headed to the iconic Gateway Arch in St. Louis for a 630-foot ride into the sky before throwing out the first pitch at the Cardinals-Astros game in Busch Stadium. He did not embarrass himself on the 60-foot, six-inch lob to home plate.
“Man, that was an experience, throwing that ball,” Rhodes admitted. “It really gives you perspective on how good these guys are. To stand up on that mound and throw it as fast as they do, and in control. I threw it basically as slow as I could to get it there, just so that I knew it would be in control. If I tried to throw it hard I didn’t know where it was going to go.”
He met his guests — GMP social media contest winner David Berliner and his son, Mason — and they took in the game at the 10-year-old ballpark. The next morning, it was off to visit with patients at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis before departing for Iowa.
“The hospital visit was a lot of fun. They really did it up here at Cardinal Glennon. Being able to give out gas monkeys (Ben’s moniker for stuffed monkeys dressed in GMP hoodies) and race tickets to the kids and their families — I was really impressed with how much Gateway did to give back to the community here. And for me to be a part of it, that was a lot of fun for me. I got just as much out of it as the kids did. We take our health for granted every day. To see kids that have to come back and forth to the hospital for many visits, that’s really hard. We’re able to do what we love and travel. I know we take that for granted and we’re very fortunate for our health. Being here at the children’s hospital puts it all in perspective.”
The Drivin’ For Linemen 200 Brought To You By Altec will be joined by the Illinois Lottery Presents ARCA Midwest 50 and the Vatterott College Silver Crown Showdown for USAC open-wheel racers. Spectator gates will open at 8 a.m. with the NASCAR race slated for 7:30 p.m.
To purchase tickets or obtain additional information, please call GMP at (618) 215-8888 or visit www.wwtraceway.com. Follow GMP on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.
NASCAR DRIVIN’ FOR LINEMEN 200 BROUGHT TO YOU BY ALTEC SCHEDULE
Friday, June 24
5-6 p.m. — NASCAR garages open to the public.
6-10 p.m. — Party at the ‘Plex at the Gateway Kartplex (kart racing, music, entertainment). NASCAR drivers have been invited to participate.
Saturday, June 25
8 a.m. — Spectator gates open.
8:30-9:25 a.m. — First NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice.
9:30-10:20 a.m. — First USAC practice.
10:30-11:55 a.m. — Final NASCAR Camping World Truck Series practice.
12:30 p.m. — USAC qualifying.
1 p.m. — ARCA Midwest Tour practice.
1:45-2:30 p.m. — NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver autograph session (infield area).
2:15 p.m. — ARCA Midwest Tour qualifying.
3 p.m. — USAC driver introductions.
3:30 p.m. — Vatterott College Silver Crown Showdown (USAC Silver Crown Series, 60 laps, 75 miles).
4:45 p.m. — NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Drivin’ For Linemen 200 Brought To You By Altec qualifying (multi-vehicle, three rounds).
6 p.m. — Illinois Lottery Presents ARCA Midwest 50 (40 laps, 50 miles, timed event).
7 p.m. — NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Drivin’ For Linemen 200 Brought To You By Altec driver introductions.
7:30 p.m. — NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Drivin’ For Linemen 200 Brought To You By Altec (160 laps, 200 miles).
Schedule is subject to change.