MACON – When he’s in the heat of a feature race, Taylorville’s Curt Rhodes has plenty to hold his attention.
On the tiny dirt oval at Macon Speedway, traffic is tight and cars can brush doors as they bounce through the turns. The slightest bit of driver distraction and a car can end up broken and bent.
But every now and then a glimpse of the No. 11 car catches his attention. For a second or two, Curt Rhodes would like to take his eyes off the track and become a spectator. A fiercely competitive driver but a fiercely proud father as well, that No. 11 car is being piloted by Curt’s son, Zach Rhodes.
And therein lines the dilemma for Curt Rhodes, who just turned 50 and who will begin defending his track championship in the Modified division tonight at Macon Speedway's season opener. On the one hand, he wants to win every race, defend his track championship and bury the competition.
But on the other hand, he wants his son to do well, so much so that in the winter off-season he bought Zach a Modified car that last season was driven by former NASCAR star Ken Schrader.
Ironically, Curt admits Zach had something to do with his 2016 track championship.
“In the past, I wasn’t always there on Saturday night and didn’t really chase the points,” Curt said. “But I wanted to be down there with Zachary and get him some experience. So that put us at the track more regularly.
“They always say if you can race at Macon, you can race anywhere. And that happens to be true.”
Curt Rhodes started racing in 1988 and won a bomber division championship back in the day. He tried racing in a late model stock car but didn’t care for it. But when track co-owner Bob Sargent started to emphasize Modifieds as a more affordable class, Rhodes jumped on board.
“I always said they’d be like late models one day and they are,” he said.
The family racing dynamic changed after Zach got knocked unconscious while racing four-wheel all-terrain vehicles.
“We hooked tires and I started flipping and a couple guys behind me ran me over and knocked me out,” Zach said. “They took me to the hospital and my dad said, ‘No more of that stuff.’”
The concerned father felt his son was much safer in the roll cage of a stock car. So he bought Zach a sportsman car, which he raced for two years before graduating to the Modified class.
Eventually Zach inherited his dad’s old Modified before Curt bought the Schrader car Zach will race this season.
From Zach’s perspective, it has evened the equipment battle and should give him a chance to challenge his dad’s track championship.
“That’s the goal,” said Zach, 27. “I think it’s a realistic goal. Dad won it last year and I want to win it this year. If I don’t have any DNS (did not start) and if I can make the features and run good, I think I have a chance.”
Dad could remind his son that he has yet to win a feature race, but rather than do that, Curt Rhodes will simply concede nothing. Whatever Zach wins, he will have fought for.
That was a lesson taught late last season when Zach led the feature for 18 laps before the finish was delayed due to a caution.
Curt was sizing up the re-start thinking, “If he’s going to win this, he’s going to earn it.” And with that, Curt went to the top side and passed his son to take the checkered flag.
Curt admits his competitive nature won’t allow him to make it easy for his son. And Zach wouldn’t expect it.
But when they speak about the opportunity to race side by side at Macon Speedway, it’s apparent there’s a strong relationship pulling them along.
When it was suggested that dad is pleased with the progress his son is making as a race driver, Zach Rhodes said he hopes that’s true.
“He doesn’t want me to know that,” he said. “But deep down in his heart, I think he’s pretty proud of me.”