Commentary

Kennedy balancing racing, school

Updated: April 25, 2013, 1:16 PM ET
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Ben KennedyMichael Chang/NASCAR via Getty ImagesBen Kennedy dominated in his No. 96 Chevy at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola on April 13 en route to his first K&N Pro Series East victory.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Ben Kennedy sits in an Uptown Charlotte sports bar, eating lunch, smiling, and describing what it feels like to wheel a stock car around the fabled 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. He seems like just another up-and-coming young racer.

But he's not.

Walking across the campus of the University of Florida, checking his smartphone for Twitter updates en route to one of his sports management classes, Ben Kennedy looks like just another 21-year-old junior.

But he's not.

No, Kennedy is the most recent winner in NASCAR's K&N Pro Series East (think Double-A baseball), leading wire-to-wire, green-to-checkers, at 5 Flags, home of the legendary Snowball Derby. The victory, his first in the series, boosted him to fifth in the championship standings with a pair of top-10 finishes as he heads into Thursday night's fourth race of the season, at Richmond International Raceway.

When he pulled into Victory Lane in Pensacola, he had to put the celebration on pause, asking for a moment to regain composure. After all, this was his first NASCAR win on American soil. After all, it came in his home state of Florida, across the peninsula from his hometown of Daytona Beach. And after all, his family did sort of invent the sport.

"To think about three generations of my family being racers, right there in Florida," he said, beaming during a casual lunch in the shadow of the glistening NASCAR office tower. "To think that I was able to accomplish something on the racetrack that contributes to that history … that's really special to me."

You see, Ben Kennedy is the son of Lesa France Kennedy, CEO of International Speedway Corp. and a NASCAR board member. His uncle Brian France is the current NASCAR chairman, a gig he inherited from Ben's grandfather, Bill France Jr., who had been handed the baton by Ben's great-grandfather, Bill France Sr. On a quiet Tuesday afternoon, he is certainly the only person dining at the restaurant adjacent to the NASCAR Hall of Fame who is related to two men with bronze statues inside.

[+] EnlargeBen Kennedy
Geoff Burke/Getty ImagesBen Kennedy is part of the famed France family, but he's racing his way up the NASCAR ladder while going to college at the University of Florida.

"I love to spend time in the NASCAR Hall of Fame," Kennedy said. "I'm a race fan first and foremost. So that's enough to love it. But obviously, I have a personal connection to so much that you can see in there. It's really a special place."

The Hall's four floors of exhibits meticulously touch upon every single aspect of NASCAR, from history to the business of sponsorships and track management to the actual stars and cars. Kennedy's life does much the same. Like his mother and grandfather before him, he has literally grown up at racetracks, doing every job there is to do in the sport.

"Look at this," he explains as he points to a photo that he keeps on his phone. It's pre-teen Ben, working the hot dog cooker at a racetrack as Bill France Jr. looks on. "I've worked maintenance. Rode in the sewage truck. I worked in the sign shop. And I used to host the fan pit crew experience at Daytona, USA [the museum now known as the Daytona 500 Experience]."

He would demonstrate to visitors how to change tires on the pit stop simulator and then time their efforts. Every now and then a super-wise NASCAR fan would catch his name and ask, "Hey … aren't you a France?"

That's the same question he gets wherever he races, at every level along the way. He's won both a Pro Truck and Super Late Model track championship. He debuted in the K&N East Series one year ago. And in July 2012 he grabbed his first win under the banner of his great-grandfather's brainchild, a victory in the newly NASCAR-sanctioned Euro-Racecar Series.

The win came, naturally, in France.

Along the way, Kennedy has taught himself to tune out the "silver spoon" grumblings from rivals. Have-nots griping about Haves is a controversy that's always been a part of motorsports, but has received renewed attention of late, thanks to Tony Stewart's recent rant against "little rich kid" Joey Logano.

Kennedy's earliest racing came in conjunction with Mark Martin Performance. His East Series efforts have been in equipment purchased from Hendrick Motorsports and with the guidance of former Cup Series champion crew chief and NASCAR exec Gary Nelson. He now drives for his own team, Ben Kennedy Racing. Last year he had a teammate who could relate to such a life: Chase Elliott, son of future Hall of Famer Bill.

"Everywhere I've raced there's always been that, 'Oh, OK, of course he's quick, look who he's related to,'" Kennedy said. "And of course I know that being in the family has led to great opportunities. But I learned very early on that if I just be myself and let the results on the track speak for themselves, then most people get past that stuff pretty quick."

"People like Ben because he's just a good guy," says Robbie Loomis, former longtime Cup Series crew chief and an early Kennedy mentor. "He's so down to earth. And he's always been careful not to advertise who his family is. That's smart.

"If people get to know him as just Ben the race car driver first, then that other stuff won't affect their opinion of him."

In August at Bristol, Kennedy will make his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series debut, driving for Turner Scott Motorsports, with plans to make two more starts before season's end.

If fans keep their eyes peeled, they might catch his mother watching, as she almost always does, sitting in the grandstands. She won't be the annually recognized most powerful woman in sports, she'll just be Mom.

"Someone asked me earlier today if I'd rather one day become NASCAR chairman or be a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver," Kennedy recalls. "Right now I'd say Cup driver. That's always been my dream. When I was a kid my family would be in the garage and everyone would be in their business clothes and I was running around in my Jeff Gordon T-shirt. I just love racing."

The restaurant conversation is interrupted by NASCAR Hall of Fame historian Buz McKim, walking by en route to his own table. "Did you know that Ben has a painting on display in the NASCAR Hall of Fame? It's of his great-grandfather. It really is a genuine tribute."

"It's not great," Kennedy quickly explains, smiling as he once again works to diffuse any hype. "I was 6."

Ryan McGee | email

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