By Steve Craig, Portland Press Herald Staff Writer
Austin Theriault is still only 23 years old, but he has crammed a lot of racing experiences – good and not so good – into the past three seasons.
“In the past three to four years and all the different experiences, I feel like I’ve mentally aged about 10 years,” said Theriault, from Fort Kent." And that’s a positive statement.”
Theriault has won three times this season in nine races on the ARCA Racing Series, with his latest win coming Friday night in Wisconsin.
“It’s not common that you can look at the stats and say you’ve won a third of the races. That’s a good stat,” Theriault said.
Another good stat is Theriault’s 175-point lead in the series standings. Theriault is driving the No. 52 Federated Auto Parts car owned by former NASCAR driver Ken Schrader. Theriault was hired in January for the full season, and the team had immediate success, winning the season opener at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 18. Theriault also won June 3 at the smallest track on the circuit, the 3/8-mile Elko (Minnesota) Speedway.
Friday’s win came at the half-mile Madison International Speedway in Oregon, Wisconsin. Theriault has four other top-five finishes, including a second at Michigan International Speedway, where he won his ARCA debut in 2014. His worst finish is ninth at Pocono.
He has completed 1,385 of 1,387 laps, driving Chevrolets (Daytona), Toyotas (the other two wins) and Fords while working with veteran crew chief Donnie Richeson.
This season has been a big step forward for a career that hit some hard bumps the past two seasons.
The worst of it, at least physically, came Oct. 3, 2015, when Theriault’s F-150 truck slammed into an unpadded section at Las Vegas Motor Speedway during a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event. It was the third of what was supposed to be eight straight starts driving for Brad Keselowski Racing, with the hope that strong, consistent finishes could propel his career forward. Instead, Theriault suffered compression of two vertebrae, had to be airlifted to a hospital, missed four races and struggled to find a ride for 2016.
Eventually, he hooked up with Shigeaki Hattori’s NASCAR K&N Pro Series East team. It was a step down the racing ladder, but at least it was a full 14-race season and would allow him time to work out side deals to make three NASCAR Xfinity Series starts and two in the NASCAR truck series.
After a slow start, Theriault had the Hattori K&N car up to third in the standings after 11 races.
But then he found himself out of the driver’s seat for the final three races.
“The team had some financial difficulties and they had to bring in basically a driver that had some sponsorship to finish the season,” Theriault said.
Hattori’s team faltered and finished 13th. And Theriault was back hitting the circuit to try to line up a ride for 2017.
Indirectly, that led him to Schrader, a regular on NASCAR’s top circuit from 1985-2006. Schrader won four Cup races, finished in the top five in the points standings three times and was the series Rookie of the Year in 1985. He also has 18 career ARCA wins in limited starts and still races at marquee dirt-track events.
Theriault introduced himself to Schrader at a large motorsports exposition, then called in some support from a few shared connections, and the two worked out a deal for a full-time ride.
“With all the struggles that had happened, I wanted to see if I could get another opportunity to run full time,” Theriault said. “I had some good opportunities to run part time the last three, four years, but nothing that allowed the chemistry and momentum to build and give me that first real opportunity to put everything together I had learned in the major NASCAR racing series.”
The ARCA series doesn’t get the same exposure as NASCAR, but it is an old, established circuit. Several of the 20 races are companion events for major NASCAR weekends, meaning ARCA drivers can show their skill on tracks like Daytona, Talladega, Pocono, Michigan, Chicagoland, Kentucky and Kansas in front of NASCAR teams.
The schedule is filled out with short-track venues in the Midwest. There are even two dirt-track races coming up, a style that will be new to Theriault.
Returning to the NASCAR ranks is Theriault’s long-term goal. So far, the 2017 ARCA season is proving that he can compete at a high level.
“This is turning out to be a great building year after some adversity that I feel like has made me stronger,” Theriault said.