Column: Kennedy takes bold risks with NASCAR family business
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Ben Kennedy may someday be the head of NASCAR.
If it happens, it won’t be a case of nepotism. Yes, he is the the great-grandson of NASCAR’s founder, but the 31-year-old graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in sports management and has spent his entire life learning the family business.
Once a little boy tagging alongside his grandfather to the hidden hot dog stand Bill France Jr. installed inside Daytona International Speedway, Kennedy grew up and eventually had to staff that snack shack. He’s sold programs, parked cars, drove the truck that empties the waste from motorhomes and worked in the signage shops.
Kennedy gave it a go as a driver and entered 90 races at NASCAR’s national level. He scored a victory in the Truck Series race at Bristol in 2016, the year he ran a full season and finished seventh in the standings.
But he’s also seen as the future leader of NASCAR, which this year is celebrating its 75th season. NASCAR is currently run by his 78-year-old uncle, chairman Jim France, and his mother, Lesa France Kennedy, the executive vice chairman.
Once he turned in his firesuit, Kennedy moved into the operations side of NASCAR and is presently the senior vice president of racing development and strategy. He is young, progressive, unafraid to take gambles and returns this weekend to what will forever be a milestone moment in his young career.
It was Kennedy who devised the idea to take NASCAR’s unofficial season-opening exhibition race to Los Angeles, where the iconic Coliseum is transformed into a temporary short track for a stock car race. It could have been a disaster of terrible racing, poor track conditions or a snoozefest for an LA audience with no shortage of entertainment options.
But it was a success and Kennedy, primarily the architect of NASCAR’s most recent season-long schedules, put the Clash back at the Coliseum this Sunday for a repeat performance. Actor Rob Lowe is the grand marshal, Cypress Hill will play a pre-race concert and Wiz Khalifa will perform at halftime.
“The Coliseum, for us, was a huge, huge risk. And there were so many questions, and so much uncertainty, and frankly I was uncertain,” Kennedy said in an interview with The Associated Press at NASCAR headquarters overlooking Daytona International Speedway. “We knew as much as we possibly could, but we didn’t know what the race was going to be like until we put cars on a temporary circuit inside a football stadium.”
Kennedy has a dream list of places he’d like to take NASCAR. For now, he is content returning to the Coliseum as a warm-up for the Feb. 19 season-opening Daytona 500.
“I think on many metrics last year was a a big success. So for us, it was very difficult to say ‘Hey, this was a really big success and now we’re going to go do something else,’” Kennedy said. “I think this year will be really kind of telling because last year it was new and different, and there were a lot of novel concepts that had a lot of people talking.
“I think it’s it’s on us, NASCAR, to make it so that when the fans come out, or they tune in on TV, that this year is just as good, if not better than what it was last year.”
Kennedy didn’t exactly need to prove himself to NASCAR’s Board of Directors, but after pulling off the Clash plans rapidly moved forward on staging a Cup Series race on the streets of downtown Chicago. The once outlandish idea is now scheduled for July 2 for a series that has traditionally stuck to oval tracks with banked turns.
“I would say a lot of the Chicago conversations really started picking up steam after the Clash,” said Kennedy, dismissing speculation that the race will fall through and noting excellent relationships with the mayor’s office and other city agencies.
“What we’ve continued to focus on is this is brand new for NASCAR. This is brand new for the city of Chicago, and we’re really trying to help everyone understand what this will look like,” he said. “We want this to be successful for NASCAR, but even more so successful for Chicago and something that Chicagoans can look forward to.”
It seems inevitable that Kennedy will soon be running the entire show. Steve Phelps is the current president of NASCAR and only the third non-France family member to hold the position in 75 years; Steve O’Donnell currently runs competition.
Kennedy does not believe his future is pre-determined.
“I don’t think it’s inevitable for for me and I tell Steve and Steve and my family this all the time: ‘I want to earn my stripes along the way. The last thing that I want to do is be put in a position that isn’t for the betterment of the company and the people around us are being put in a position that I’m not competent for,’” Kennedy said. “I want to centrally deserve whatever that position or promotion might look like. It’s really important to me. I think it earns me a bit of respect. It makes it that much more meaningful.
“Do I end up there? I have no idea. But I have to do a good job to earn that right.”
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