Ben Kennedy making his way
Everyone knew who the 12-year-old was, the one running roughshod over the console with the racing video game. It was Ben Kennedy, son of International Speedway Corp. CEO Lesa France Kennedy, nephew of NASCAR chairman Brian France and great-grandson of series founder Bill France.
In a tent erected in the infield of Talladega Superspeedway, circa 2004, drivers, series officials and sponsor affiliates had gathered for an event sponsored by EA Sports at the launch of its latest NASCAR video game. In turn, the kid dispatched all comers.
The prevailing thought: He'll be ruling this sport for real one day.
And he might.
But for now, the 22-year-old Kennedy's interests continue to skew toward dispatching foes on the track, not in the boardrooms that have made his family some of the most influential and wealthy players in North American sports.
In the process, he's allowed his mother to step outside her corporate boundaries and, for a few weekends a year, become a fan again.
She loves it. Mostly.
"I'm nervous until the race starts," she said. "And then I get pretty competitive."
The journey of the mother and son continues Friday when Kennedy undertakes his third race of the season as a rookie in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series at Kansas Speedway.
"It's cool," he said. "She comes to a race, and she doesn't have to worry about anything when she comes. She hangs out with me at the hauler and walks on pit road. She gets so excited about it, even the small things. It's cool for her.
"She'll listen on the radio, on the scanner, and she just gets excited about it. She's like any other mom on race day."
But Kennedy could never be like just any other kid hoping to be a professional driver, not when he first began racing Late Models at New Smyrna Speedway for Mark Martin Performance, not when he began his own team with equipment bought from Hendrick Motorsports and overseen by former Sprint Cup crew chief and NASCAR research and development director Gary Nelson.
When he began amassing top-5s in the K&N East Series and ultimately won twice and finished fourth in points last season, his lineage and the benefits it provided were parsed. Even, he said, with his family attempting to be "real down-to-earth and quiet when we go to the racetrack" and his last name providing some momentary anonymity.
"Maybe [there's] an extra spotlight on you, maybe a little bit of criticism," he said, "but everyone is entitled to their own opinion."
Lesa France Kennedy was surprised by her son's interest in racing, although she knew how much he admired drivers as a kid.
She has been in the family business long enough to know the dark -- read, dangerous -- aspect of racing cars and to form her opinions about the sanity of her son's undertaking. Though her expressions sometimes betray her, she has managed to remain encouraging.
"I try not to ask her, because every time it comes up in conversation, it's kind of uncomfortable," Ben Kennedy said. "She's getting better with it. I know it was tough for her in the beginning on short tracks and Late Models and getting in wrecks and her sort of witnessing that the first couple times.
"But I think it's kind of grown on her. I think it's cool how she's sort of progressed. Coming in, neither of us knew a whole lot about the competition side of the sport, and now she is pushing me to do better and she's really getting involved and she's getting into it. She's pushing me even harder."
Lesa France Kennedy stole away from her ISC office near Daytona International Speedway in January to nervously watch her son's truck test, in which he became the first member of the France family to log an official lap on the high-banked, 2.5-mile oval.
He eventually led the test in his No. 31 Turner Motorsports Chevrolet and went on to win the pole for the season opener there. He finished 15th but was third at Martinsville to improve to sixth in points heading into the third race of the season this weekend.
Kennedy, who graduated last week from the University of Florida with a degree in sports management, doesn't discount a possible future in the family business that Brian France predicts. His mother said his time as a driver has offered unique insight already.
"He's so focused on his racing right now. I don't know where that will lead," she said. "He's been around the racetrack and around NASCAR a long time, and he has his own perspective. He sees some things I might not see, which is always fun."
But for now, a firesuit fits Kennedy's ambitions better than a business suit.
"I will have to see when the time comes," he said. "I am going to give this racing stuff a valiant effort, and if it works out, great. I would love to make it to the Sprint Cup Series one day and be a part of the Chase. But if not, that definitely may be an option. Either way, I would love to have some involvement in the sport and with the growth of the sport.
"I think it's cool to see the competition side like I'm doing and the business side, as well, with my mother."
Lesa France Kennedy finds it rewarding to have a child take an interest in the family business, albeit not the way she expected. Either way, she's proud.
"He's having so much fun, and he has so much passion for the sport," she said. "I've said this many times: I'm as proud of what Ben does off the track as what he does on."