Bobby Hodges started driving well before other kids his age. In fact, he was just 11 years old when he really started putting the pedal to the metal.
But then, while other kids were at the age when they would be putting away their toy plastic racecars, Hodges was behind the wheel of a real little racecar, careening down the track and beating his competition.
After growing up watching his father race at the local track in their hometown of Carson City, Nev., Hodges decided to start out racing Bandoleros, small cars made for young drivers with about 30 horsepower that can go up to 70 mph.
He soon won the Bandolero Car division at Champion Speedway in 2002 and again in 2003. He then moved up to the larger Legends Car division and was Rookie of the Year in 2004 and Most Improved Driver in 2005.
By age 16, Hodges had moved up to a late model stock car and became the youngest driver to start a main event in the history of NASCAR’s WestCar series.
He is currently ranked No. 359 out of approximately 3,000 drivers with just five starts, when most drivers have 18.
“It’s almost shocking – he’s been very, very good,” said Steven Blakesley, media relations director for Altamont Motorsports Park in Tracy. “When (Hodges) first started, he couldn’t push the car as hard but now he’s pretty impressive. When the right opportunity is there, he always takes it and he has really, really good car control.”
Now Hodges has two late model cars that he races in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Late Model division, which he plans to keep doing when he comes to Cal Poly as a freshman this fall to major in mechanical engineering.
“When you’re racing, that’s all you think about,” Hodges said. “When you’re in the car, there’s nothing else. You’re out there, you’re focused, you don’t think about your grades or anything like that. You’ve just got to figure out what you’ve got to do and do it. It’s a freedom from the stresses and worries of life. Plus, it’s really fast and that’s always fun.”
Hodges’ father Henry stopped racing once his son got deeply involved in order to be the crew chief of Hodges’ team, which also consists of a spotter and two crew members.
Henry said it took some getting used to watching his young son race in speeds up to 140 mph.
“I would race in my division and he would race in his and, quite honestly, it was much easier for me to race than to watch him race,” Henry said. “He was pretty good right out of the box but being on the sidelines having to watch him race was and still is very nerve-wracking.”
And there have been a few times that Henry’s anxious feelings have had merit.
Hodges has had a few major crashes, the first when he was just 12 and another car hit him, causing him to roll over and destroying the car. Hodges was uninjured but when he was 16, his car did a triple barrel roll into the wall, giving him a concussion and cutting his wrist. Most recently, he ran into a dirt berm to avoid another driver, destroying his car.
But for all the races he’s been in, Hodges has been fortunate as far as accidents go, something he credits to his driving style.
“I’ve taken on a persona of being really conservative and it’s really effective,” he said. “I basically wave people by if they’re faster than me and I save my car for the end and then I charge back toward the front. When you do that, you earn respect and everybody likes you.”
Blakesley said Hodges is one of the most careful drivers he has seen.
“From what I see on the racetrack, he seems to be very smooth and patient,” he said. “A lot of the guys, you see them go straight to the front right away, but with Bobby, he runs really consistent laps the whole way through and saves his equipment until the end. You have to be there at the end to be able to win, and he always is there.”
Henry added that despite the occasionally stressful moments that come with watching his son race, he has really enjoyed watching him learn.
“Racing, now, to be successful at this level, is very technical,” Henry said. “In a 100-lap race, you have to make decisions at lap 15 or 20 that then influence the outcome at lap 75 or 80, so seeing him make those decisions (to) understand the capabilities of his competitors and then utilize that information to be successful at the end of the race is great.”
And Hodges has never for a minute considered giving up racing. In fact, he hopes to get noticed by NASCAR – which has already shown interest – while getting the kind of degree that can only help his sports pursuits. In fact, he chose Cal Poly over Carnegie Mellon and Tufts because of its hands-on approach.
“The technology that goes into race cars is at the highest level,” Henry said. “You’ve got to be able to understand and communicate the dynamics, the performance of the various components and how to optimize all of that as a package to be competitive, so it’s really critical to be able to understand and work with the engineering principles.”
Hodges already has had a head start in knowing how cars work; he’s been working 40 hours a week as a foreman of Nevada Fabrication Advanced Specialties Technologies, a fabrication shop where he works on racecars as well as restoring classic old cars.
“Some drivers these days that are my age, none of them work on the cars,” he said. “They just show up at the track on Saturday and just jump in and drive. I think you learn a lot more and you’re a better part of the team if you’re working on it during the week.”
Hodges said he plans to call the shop every day while at Cal Poly and work when he has a break. He will also be racing Sept. 20 and Oct. 4-5 at the raceway at Altamont Motorsports Park.
He plans to get involved with Cal Poly’s Formula SAE team, in which students build a racecar and compete with it.
“At the current NASCAR level, there’s only a handful of drivers who have a college degree and they got there because they had a college degree,” Hodges said. “Once you’re in the car, you tell your crew chief and your team what’s going on in a more effective manner because all the crew chiefs have degrees. So if you can talk to them on that level, then you can relay information a lot more effectively.”
In the Big Dog Invitational this year, Hodges was speeding along in lap 25 of a 100-lap race when another driver took him out, smashing into the front end of his car. Although he was upset, Hodges managed to keep going after his crew fixed the car and worked his way from 28th to second place in an unusually large field of 39 cars.
“As soon as I got out of the car I felt so physically and emotionally drained,” Hodges said. “And all these really big-name guys, guys I really look up to, were coming up to me and saying what a great job we did getting back out there. When I leave the racetrack and everybody thinks really highly of the team, it really makes it all worth it.”