This Gator was born to race
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 3:44 p.m.
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NASCAR was formed in 1948 at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach.
NASCAR coursed through Ben Kennedy's veins long before he took the wheel of his 620-horsepower stock car. Last summer, the 21-year-old University of Florida sports management junior and second-year NASCAR driver claimed his first career victory at the Michelin 100, Europe's first NASCAR-sanctioned oval race.
His pit crew called him the “World's Fastest Gator.”
For Kennedy, racing is in the genes: He is the son of Daytona International Speedway CEO Lesa France Kennedy and the great-grandson of NASCAR founding father Bill France Sr.
As a child, he traveled with his mother to racetracks across the country. Before he left middle school, he had been to races in more than half the states of the U.S.
“I can't tell you the first Daytona 500 I've been to because I was that young,” Kennedy says. “I've probably been to every one since I was born.”
He drove for the first time at age 5, playing NASCAR 98 on his PlayStation. In fourth-grade he raced his collection of more than 300 Matchbox cars on tracks made of Legos on his bedroom floor in Daytona Beach.
By age 14, Kennedy had begun racing on the Little Smyrna Speedway. He airbrushed No. 96 on the side of his first 4-horsepower go-kart.
“He was hooked pretty much from the beginning,” Lesa France Kennedy says. “Whenever he's out of the car, he's talking about the next race. There's no hesitation about it.”
During high school summers, he worked at the Daytona International Speedway selling race programs, emptying speedway trashcans and parking stock cars in the maintenance bay.
“There are so many different things that come together to put on a race,” adds his mother. “I think he had a chance to see it from that angle.”
This year, he will compete in more than 30 races in the K&N Pro East Series, essentially the minor leagues of NASCAR. His Chevrolet stock car still has No. 96 on the side.
Kennedy was ranked second in points for a short time this season, but three incidents — a wreck, a flat, and a bad fuel pump — dropped his lead back to No. 9.
“I definitely think we had a Top Five team this year,” his Pit Crew Chief Fritts says. “Next year, we won't settle for anything less than a championship and a handful of wins.”
Even Kennedy's victory in France had its share of problems. A faulty vent leaked nauseating exhaust fumes into his car during the race.
“It was very bittersweet in the victory lane,” he says. “You felt like you wanted to celebrate and like you wanted to lean over and start throwing up.”
Kennedy came to UF already a Gator fan.
“I'm going to college to keep my doors open. Right now, I'm sticking to the competitive side and seeing how that goes,” he says. “If the time comes, I'll try out the business side.
Off the track, Kennedy keeps busy between his 14-credit-hour course load at school and keeping in shape to race. His size-11 Asics are worn and his body is hardened from biking, running and weightlifting 10 times a week.
“It's a good way to unwind from the weekend,” Kennedy says of his workouts. “It gets you ready for the next race weekend or the next test.”
Managing his time is one of his biggest challenges. “I usually have everything laid out for my day whether it's in my head or on paper.”
Last year, he was named Brother of the Year by the Phi Delta Theta fraternity. His friendliness sometimes puts him at a disadvantage in the K&N Series.
“A lot of these drivers are trying to make a name for themselves,” Pit Crew Chief Mike Fritts says. “There's a lot of aggressiveness going on, a lot of people taking chances and a lot of wrecks.”
The crew chief thinks Kennedy's strategy will pay off when he advances to the less hectic Camping World Truck Series tracks.
“He's one of the cleanest and most respected drivers out on the track,” Fritts says. “That will benefit him a lot.”