“I actually started racing kind of because my dad (Gene Rhodes) was friends with Bobby Labonte and they used to drive Harley-Davidsons with each other back in the day and I went to school with his son, Tyler,” Rhodes told NBC Sports. “Tyler was racing quarter midgets at the time. It was kind of one of those deals where I went and watched Tyler down in Florida one time and man, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. So long story short, Bobby let me drive Tyler’s quarter midget there at their little shop they had and we ended up getting in a car at our first race in Columbus, Ohio, at an indoor track.”
After getting his start at 10, Rhodes is now 24 and one of three drivers for JD Motorsports, driving the No. 01 Chevrolet in his fifth year of Xfinity competition.
During the last few years Rhodes has also been busy working away at a back-up plan, just in case racing doesn’t work out. He graduated in December from North Carolina State University with a major in business entrepreneurship and a minor in graphic communications.
“I graduated, and now I’m trying to make the race car thing work as long as I can,” Rhodes said. “Trying to get out here and keep trying to find sponsors and keep running well. You can’t do one or the other, you’ve got to do both pretty well in this sport to keep progressing forward.”
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: You have 73 Xfinity starts, do you feel like you’ve made it in NASCAR?
Rhodes: I don’t know. I don’t guess you never feel like you’ve made it. I definitely don’t take what I have for granted, but on the other hand my goal is not to be trying to get a top 20 every week, you know? Eventually I want to go out there and be competitive, trying to win races. I think I’ve made it to the point to where I’m racing in NASCAR, that’s a huge milestone. How many people can say they’re racing in NASCAR? To kind of put it in perspective, my first race ever when I ran at Phoenix (in 2013), Mike Wallace came up to me and I hadn’t qualified very well and I was a little bit down with it being my first start, was wanting to impress some people. He came up to me and he told me, ‘Don’t worry about it, go out here and run a clean race and just remember you’re one of 40 people that are getting to do this today.’
He kind of put it into perspective just how fortunate I am to be where I’m at. I’m getting to do what I love for a living at the current moment. But obviously my goal is to keep working forward and to eventually be in a car that can win races. I think it would be cool to get a victory for (owner) Johnny (Davis) in one of his cars. I think we might have a chance at a superspeedway or something like that. We’re just going to keep working hard.
NBC Sports: Which was a bigger deal for you, getting a top 10 at Daytona (twice) or graduating college from N.C. State?
Rhodes: I don’t know. There wasn’t no luck in graduating college, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of time and effort put into that, a lot of studying, long hours and a lot of trips to Raleigh. Whereas, at Daytona I had a decent car I guess. As far as raw speed I think we were 36th quick, so it’s not like I had a blazing fast car for that race, got the right breaks. I think I’ve become a decent speedway racer. Being able to read different situations, learn to draft a little bit better and be smart. Obviously, I don’t have it all figured out, but I definitely think I’m getting the hang of it a little bit. That was a cool race, we were able to get some breaks, missed a bunch of wrecks. Man, I missed a bunch of wrecks. I got lucky as far as that goes. It’s always good to have a good showing at Daytona.
NBC Sports: Why did you choose business entrepreneurship as a major and graphic communications as a minor?
Rhodes: I was actually going to do engineering at N.C. State. I got kind of into the deeper classes with the math and the physics and all that stuff and just realized there was no way I was going to be able to do that and race. I had to miss a lot of class to race on the weekends. So I was like, ‘this is not going to work. This is going to be a one or the other thing.’ So racing took the priority on that. But I’ve always had ideas of maybe starting my own business someday or doing some small stuff. Obviously, my dad owns his own business (two Chik-fil-A stores in High Point, North Carolina) and a lot of my family does as well. It’s always been something that’s been instilled in me, and I have a lot of experience from watching my family run businesses.
It was kind of the next best thing. I’ve really enjoyed it and it’s helped me a lot as far as being in these sponsorship meetings and going to these big corporate companies and knowing what I’m talking about and pitching new ideas and new ways of doing things. Then on the graphics side I do all of my own social media art work and I design my hero cards and do all that stuff. I’ve always liked doing the graphics stuff on my computer and tinkering around. It was cool to get that minor. It’s really transferred to what I do every day.
NBC Sports: You’ll be in Bristol this weekend. If you were in the Cup race, what would be your intro song?
Rhodes: It’s kind of funny, I probably listen to every single style of music except for screamo and stuff like that. I’m not a big fan of that. Probably some cool rock song. Maybe like Metallica or something. Something to get me pumped up, get the fans pumped up. “Enter Sandman” or something. There was always a pitcher for the (New York) Yankees that always had that song coming out (Mariano Rivera). I remember seeing him one time come out to that song and I thought it was the coolest thing.
NBC Sports: What was your first car?
Rhodes: Technically my first car that I owned is the car I drive now, a 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS. But the first car I drove when I was 16, that was my dad’s car at the time, a Mini Cooper. A Clubman Mini Cooper. So like a supercharged Mini Cooper. That’s probably the first thing I drove around. … It was a pretty cool car. It was pretty fast for what it was and it drove really good. It was pretty sporty looking. I got tired of people telling me my car was ‘cute.’ So I was like, ‘you know what? I’m over it.’ We traded it in for a truck and I drove it for a while and then we got the Camaro.
NBC Sports: Have you ever named a street car or race car?
Rhodes: My Camaro I have, it’s blacked out. So I named it the ‘Black Knight.’
NBC Sports: If you have an obligation-free day, how do you spend it?
Rhodes: If I had nothing to do and just a day to kill, I’m probably going to the lake to hang out there riding my jet ski some or something. Just go surfing.
NBC Sports: When it comes to the surfing and wake boarding stuff what’s the worst wipeout you’ve had?
Rhodes: Oh man, I’ve had some. I don’t do it anymore really as much. I used to wake board quite a bit. I got to the point where I was trying some 360s and some back flips and some cool stuff like that. I got to the point, dude, I face planted so hard a couple of times. I was like, ‘you know what? This. Is. Stupid.’ I’ve taken harder hits on a wake board hitting the water than I have in a race car. I’ve had concussions from it about five, six years go. I was like, ‘This hurts. I’m done with this. I’m going to stick to the surfing where you go 10 mph and it doesn’t hurt when you fall.’ When you’re going 23 mph straight and then you’re also cutting across the waves, so it’s a combined 40-something mph and you literally go face-first in the water and don’t stop and go 45 to zero, it hurts.
NBC Sports: What’s the hardest decision you’ve ever had to make in your career?
Rhodes: Sometimes choosing a team is a difficult situation. Probably the most difficult decision I ever made was after the 2015 season, leaving JD Motorsports to go race for (Obaika Racing). That was a really hard decision. If I could redo it again I would not have made that same decision. I would have stayed with JD Motorsports, but hindsight is 20-20, so you live and you learn. I’m very fortunate Johnny has allowed me to come back and race for him. That was probably the most difficult/stupid decision I’ve ever made in racing.
NBC Sports: Why did you make that decision?
Rhodes: At the time, the team I was going to race for in 2016 made a lot of promises and made it sound like they were really going all out for that season and have really great equipment and it was going to be this big thing and then none of it ended up happening. It was kind of one of those deals where we decided part ways and I started racing for Rick Ware and Carl Long throughout the season afterwards.
NBC Sports: What’s the best criticism/advice you’ve received about your career to this point?
Rhodes: That’s a difficult one, because as far as driving goes you don’t necessarily get a ton of driving advice at this level. You’ll sometimes get things from here or there from drivers that if you need something you can ask. I can’t really think of the best advice I’ve gotten. I think the best advice I could give somebody is to get really good at marketing and to really get out there early and meet a lot of people and try to get a good sponsor behind you. Because really, you can see on social media it’s no secret that to be in a car that’s capable of winning you’re going to have to bring $6 million in this series. It doesn’t necessarily matter how great you are of a race car driver, that you got to have the money behind you. I think that’s the thing. It’s a little difficult to swallow at times because you feel you’re better than other people that may be in a ride. But it’s so demanded by money. I’d say that would be my biggest piece of advice to get somebody really good at marketing. The advice I give to myself all the time is to not give up on it. You get a lot ‘no’s’ and you can get discouraged at times, but to just get back on the horse, go out there and don’t let it get you down. If you want to be in a car, you have to work hard and find the money to do it.
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