Ben Kennedy gave up the adrenaline rush that came with being a NASCAR driver a few years ago. When he transitioned to the commercial side of the sport, Kennedy first experienced the strangeness of being on the track as an official instead of a driver. Right now however, Kennedy has found a neat aspect in his role as NASCAR’s vice president of racing development.
“You might not have that adrenaline rush that you get when you hit the green flag or race side-to-side with other riders,” Kennedy says, “but you still get that competitive aspect of wanting to. (things) to be better, to improve our sport, that it continues to grow.
Kennedy started as General Manager of the Camping World Truck Series in 2018. Last year he was promoted to his current title, which includes overseeing strategic racing development initiatives for all three series.
Part of Kennedy’s responsibilities focuses on scheduling and international expansion. With 2021 schedules completed and announced, Kennedy is working on other schedules. This means planning scenarios for this season and looking to 2022. On the international side, it’s about continuing to engage and develop NASCAR’s presence with its series in Canada, Mexico and Europe. On the original 2020 calendar, NASCAR was to have raced in 10 different countries.
“It’s pretty cool to see the footprint we have and our existing territories, just the number of fans and the growth over the last few years,” Kennedy said. “You go to Brands Hatch (UK) and some of those tracks, and you have 40,000 to 50,000 fans showing up for a NASCAR race. So, it’s definitely good to see the fan base expanding beyond America’s borders. “
But it does mean thinking about future plans for international expansion. Kennedy believes automotive culture is global, and it has already been mentioned that NASCAR sees China as the next potential stop. Brazil, the Middle East and Africa could also be destinations to explore opportunities for a new fan base.
As the great-grandson of NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., sport is in Kennedy’s blood, and he has always been committed to its activities. But these days, he admits it’s fair to say he’s even more engaged, involved and focused because of his role. He also learned a lot about its ins and outs, such as managing chairmen and track operators.
“I think I felt like I understood a lot about our sport when I was on the racing side, but the last few years have opened my eyes to the extent and number of different areas that our sport touches, ”Kennedy said. “It makes it difficult, but fun at the same time. “
Kennedy reports directly to NASCAR President Steve Phelps, but works closely with Steve O’Donnell and others. O’Donnell, executive vice president and director of race development, has been a great role model and mentor, Kennedy admits. And O’Donnell’s review of Kennedy’s performance presents a big boost.
“I think it’s more seeing its growth,” says O’Donnell. “If you go back to when Ben started out, we were looking for a good entry-level role around something he was familiar with, and we chose to put him in charge of helping on the Truck series. When we first met, we talked about Ilmor engines, and we wanted to hear from all of the owners on the team. It was like a Tuesday, and we said okay, let’s go out and talk to some of them, and we’ll meet up on Thursday.
“So on Thursday, Ben had visited, I think, 15 stores, met with every team owner, had a full report, and it was kind of a ‘wow’ moment that he was going to go do things. the first time he worked alongside the people in the R&D center, from there he was someone who came into a somewhat shy meeting to give his opinion, a very good listener, really a hard worker. As he has evolved over the past year, he has kind of taken charge of the timeline project, is not afraid to speak up and be exposed to all stakeholders, and we’ve seen him grow up and gain a lot more confidence in himself.
As a former driver, Kennedy is used to media obligations and being in front of the camera. Not much has changed now that he’s on the other side of the fence except that Kennedy addresses the media on behalf of the sport regarding the special announcements and explains the decisions. His voice is now that of authority.
This means he has to do the research to find out what he’s talking about and be prepared to deal with whatever curveballs come his way.
“He’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know and isn’t afraid to ask questions,” says O’Donnell.
Another anecdote O’Donnell shares about Kennedy was from last season. The COVID-19 pandemic has required a lot of conversations and back and forth with racetracks. It went from O’Donnell, Kennedy, and someone else on calls for Kennedy to reach out and handle things independently.
“When we merged two companies (NASCAR and ISC), he knew all about the game and wasn’t afraid to approach people and get answers quickly,” says O’Donnell. “I think the next step is to keep doing it outside of NASCAR, and he’s started doing it a lot with the tracks.”
Being a former driver also gives Kennedy a perspective of what it’s like inside the garage. Not only is this a strength he brings to his job, but O’Donnell also believes it adds credibility when Kennedy speaks to drivers. Owning regionally with Ben Kennedy Racing in the ARCA Menards series and running a late model helps him understand the cost perspective and the importance of sponsorships and partners.
When it comes to national levels, “it’s the same issues, but on a larger scale, the ability to run these businesses and make sure they’re sustainable,” says O’Donnell. “He has a lot of that past; the key is for him to keep getting out of NASCAR, to develop those relationships with the industry. They all respect him, he has a great style, so that doesn’t worry me at all.
“The most important thing for him is to surround himself with good people but people who are not afraid to disagree with him and have an opinion, and he’s a smart enough guy to take any this information and finally make a call. “
Kennedy feels more comfortable speaking on the competitive side. Considering his last name, many probably felt it was mandatory to listen to Kennedy’s comments, but after a few years of working, Kennedy feels like an equal because of what he can bring to the table. . O’Donnell never saw Kennedy use his last name as a way to harness power.
“You wouldn’t know who he is, and I think that’s something that really needs to be respected,” says O’Donnell.
O’Donnell describes Kennedy as balanced – but says make no mistake about someone who isn’t passionate – while those at the R&D center will say Kennedy is humble and hardworking.
A recent and new agenda item Kennedy brought up is about NASCAR strategy and what that will look like in the future. Working alongside Phelps and all of the executive vice-presidents of the sport, the short-term goal is how to get through the next six to 12 months and what the protocols will look like for fans and competitors. What Kennedy is excited and eagerly awaiting is a five, 10 and 15 year plan for the sport.
“The next-gen car and the schedule for 21 and start thinking about 22,” says Kennedy. “The experience of new generation fans. Really working with all the different project managers in this area and trying to be a good resource and a backbone to really tie everything together at the end of the day and what our sport is like in the future.
“It’s definitely a fun time to be on this side and in this position in our sport.”