INSIGHT: How Ben Kennedy swapped the cockpit for NASCAR's conference room

Mike Comer/Getty Images via NASCAR

INSIGHT: How Ben Kennedy swapped the cockpit for NASCAR's conference room

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: How Ben Kennedy swapped the cockpit for NASCAR's conference room

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Ben Kennedy gave up the adrenaline rush that comes with being a NASCAR driver a few years ago. When moving to the sport’s business side, Kennedy initially went through the weirdness of being at the racetrack as an official instead of a driver. By now though, Kennedy has found a neat aspect in his role as NASCAR vice president of racing development.

“You may not have that adrenaline rush that you have when you’re coming to the green flag or running side by side with other drivers,” Kennedy says, “but you still get that competitive aspect of wanting (things) to be better, to improve our sport, have it continue to grow.”

Kennedy started as the 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 puts his focus on schedules and international expansion. With the 2021 schedules completed and announced, Kennedy is working on more schedules. That means scenario planning for this season, and looking ahead to 2022. On the international side, it’s about continuing to engage and grow the NASCAR presence with its series in Canada, Mexico, and Europe. On the original 2020 schedule, NASCAR was to have raced in 10 different countries.

“It’s pretty cool to see the footprint that we have and our existing territories, just the number of fans and the growth over the last few years,” Kennedy says. “You go out to Brands Hatch (in the United Kingdom) and some of these tracks, and you have 40 to 50,000 fans showing up for a NASCAR race. So, it’s certainly good to see the fan base has expanded further than the U.S. borders.”

But that means thinking about future international expansion plans. Kennedy believes car culture is worldwide, and it’s already been mentioned that NASCAR is looking at 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., the sport is in Kennedy’s blood, and he’s always been engaged in its goings-on. But these days, he admits it’s fair to say he is even more engaged, involved, and focused because of his role. He’s also learned so much about its ins and outs, like how much track presidents and operators handle.

“I think I felt like I understood a lot about our sport when I was on the racing side, but the past few years has been eye-opening to me in just how broad and how many different areas our sport touches,” Kennedy says. “It makes it challenging, 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, the executive senior vice president and chief racing development officer, has been a great role model and mentor, admits Kennedy. And O’Donnell’s performance review of Kennedy features a big thumbs-up.

Kennedy’s previous life as a Truck racer lends him extra credibility when dealing with drivers in his current role. LePage/Motorsport Images

“I think it’s more in just seeing his growth,” says O’Donnell. “If you go to when Ben started, we were looking for what’s a good entry-level role to come in around something he was familiar, and we chose to put him in charge of helping on the Truck Series. Our first meeting, we talked about Ilmor engines, and we wanted to get perspective from all the team owners. This was like a Tuesday, and we said all right, let’s go out and talk to some of them, and we’ll get back together Thursday.

“So, Thursday, Ben had visited I think 15 shops, met with every single team owner, had a full report, and it was kind of a ‘wow’ moment that he’s going to go and get stuff done. That was our first introduction to him working side by side with folks at the R&D Center. From there, he used to be someone who came into a meeting somewhat shy to offer his opinion, a really good listener, really hard worker. As he’s evolved over the last year, kind of taking on the schedule project, not afraid to speak up and be exposed to every stakeholder, and we’ve seen him grow 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 Kennedy speaks to the media on behalf of the sport regarding special announcements and explaining decisions. His voice is now one of authority.

That means he has to do the research needed to know what he’s talking about, and be ready for whatever curveballs get thrown his way.

“He’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, and is not afraid to ask questions,” says O’Donnell.

Another anecdote O’Donnell shares about Kennedy is from last season. The COVID-19 pandemic required many conversations and work back and forth with the racetracks. It went from O’Donnell, Kennedy, and someone else on the calls to Kennedy reaching out and handling things independently.

“When we merged two companies (NASCAR and ISC), he knows the entire gameboard and isn’t afraid to approach people and get answers quickly,” says O’Donnell. “I think the next step is continuing to do that outside of NASCAR, and he started to do that 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 that a strength he brings to the job, but O’Donnell also believes it adds credibility when Kennedy is talking to drivers. Being an owner at the regional level 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.

Giving up the race suit in favor of a button-down shirt has been a transition, but Kennedy says his role with NASCAR stokes the competitive fires in a different way. Matt Sullivan/Getty Images via NASCAR

When it comes to the national levels, “it’s the same problems, just on a larger scale of being able to run those businesses and make sure they’re sustainable,” explains O’Donnell. “He’s got a lot of that background; the key is for him to continue to get outside of NASCAR, develop those relationships with the industry. They all respect him, he’s got great style, so I’m not worried about that at all.

“The biggest thing for him is to surround himself with good people but people who aren’t afraid to disagree with him and have an opinion, and he’s a smart enough guy to take all that information and ultimately make a call.”

Kennedy feels most comfortable speaking up when it comes to the competition side of things. Considering his last name, many probably felt it an obligation to listen to Kennedy’s input, but after a few years on the job, Kennedy feels like an equal because of what he can bring to the table. O’Donnell has never seen Kennedy use his last name as a way of leveraging power.

“You wouldn’t know who he is, and I think that is something that is really to be respected,” O’Donnell says.

O’Donnell describes Kennedy as even-keeled – but says don’t misunderstand that for someone who isn’t passionate – while those at the R&D Center will say that Kennedy is humble and hardworking.

A recent and new agenda item Kennedy has taken on involves NASCAR strategy and what that will look like going forward. Working alongside Phelps and all the sport’s executive vice presidents, the short-term focus is on how to get through the next six to 12 months and what protocols will look like for both fans and competitors. What Kennedy is excited about and looking forward to, what gives him a rush, is a five, 10, and 15-year plan for the sport.

“The Next Gen car and the schedule for ’21 and starting to think about ’22,” says Kennedy. “The next-gen fan experience. Really working with all the different project leaders in that area and trying to be a good resource and backbone to really tie it all together at the end of the day and what our sport looks like going forward.

“It’s certainly a fun time to be on this side and in this position in our sport.”

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