July 8, 2017 Schrader Nation: Talented young driver, hard-working team produce ARCA results for NASCAR veteran
Written by: Henry Hutton, Independent Tribune
Photo credit: James Nix, Independent Tribune
Tucked just off Stough Road in Concord, there’s a race shop that houses a lot of history.
The Ken Schrader Racing headquarters holds some of the longtime NASCAR driver’s many cars and the trophies he accumulated over his 29-year career.
But also in the building, there may be a driver and a car that’s even more impressive, and a team around him that is helping him make his own history.
Austin Theriault has been nothing short of dominant on the ARCA Series circuit through the first nine races of the season, as he has won three times.
It’s not a shock then that the 23-year-old driver currently holds the points lead with 11 races to go, but what may be a bit surprising is the background which produced such talent.
Theriault was born and raised in Fort Kent, Maine, a town which shares its northern border with Canada. It’s not exactly known as a hotbed of stock car racing talent, but with a little help from his family, Theriault might be changing that.
“My family, in general, was always involved in motorsports,” Theriault said. “My grandfather (Richard) was an avid NASCAR fan. I spent a lot of time with him as a kid, and I think he brought me to my first NASCAR race.”
Theriault’s grandfather would take him to nearly every race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, which, despite the seven-hour drive, was the closest track to his Maine home.
This newfound passion for racing would finally manifest itself in 2007, when Theriault was 13 years old, and his grandfather purchased him his first race car, somewhat “out of the blue” so the aspiring driver could race on a local short track.
“It was pretty much a junk car. It wasn’t anything special,” Theriault explained.
Despite a late start and somewhat limited opportunities in his part of the country, Theriault experienced his share of success in racing and moved to Concord after graduating high school in 2012 to chase what he called “the NASCAR dream.”
A fellow Maine native and racer introduced him to some influential names on the late model racing scene, and Theriault quickly signed to race a car for Monster Energy driver and champion Brad Keselowski.
After a year and a half on the late model circuit, Theriault was offered a ride in Kannapolis native’s Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Xfinity Series car, and he made three starts in the 2014 season.
“A lot people may not realize how big of a jump that is,” Theriault explained with a laugh. “You’re talking at the Xfinity level, one step underneath Cup, and it’s definitely a challenge for anybody to basically jump from late models to that.”
After this opportunity, Theriault found more solid ground, as he rejoined Brad Keselowski to run a steadier schedule in the Craftsman Truck Series in 2015.
“The Xfinity experience helped me a little bit, but it was still a huge learning experience,” Theriault said, explaining that it took him a while to get going in the truck series but that the team picked it up after a handful of races.
Unfortunately, his blossoming career took a hard hit in that season when he suffered a compression fracture in his back after a violent wreck at Las Vegas.
“I was fortunate to be able to walk away from that accident,” he explained. “The results were getting better, and the momentum was going up in a positive way. But it all came down to a crashing halt, literally.
“Your career is possibly coming to an end, so there’s a lot of thoughts that go through your head as to, ‘What am I going to do now with my life?’”
After a year of mixing and matching races, a stroke of luck got Theriault’s career back on track when he ran into Schrader in a hallway at the annual Performance Racing Industry’s Trade Show in Indianapolis.
“They hadn’t figured out what they were doing, and I hadn’t figured out what I was doing,” said Theriault, who was weighing an Xfinity offer that didn’t have the resources to truly compete.
“I told myself, ‘I think I’d be way more successful in good equipment, being able to be competitive and stuff.”
Schrader was excited to add Theriault, saying, “I knew of Austin’s career. I knew he was running very, very competitive in the truck series when he got hurt, and I knew Austin would really be a key link to helping our program.”
Theriault took the checkered flag in three of the first nine races in the ARCA season, including his debut at Daytona, making him the only multi-race winner of 2017 and giving him a significant lead in the points standings.
Heading into Saturday’s Fans With Benefits 150 at the Iowa Speedway, Theriault holds a commanding 175-point lead over second place driver Dalton Sargeant.
“I definitely expected to be one of the guys and one of the teams,” Schrader said. “When you’ve won three of the first nine, I can’t say I expected that.”
Theriault has been dominant so far this season used his experience at higher levels to help him outdo his competition. But the driver is far from the main factor in this winning effort.
The Ken Schrader Racing operation could most aptly be described as lean.
With just one true race team centered around Theriault, the group consists of his crew chief, Donnie Richeson, and just five other members.
However, Theriault believes this combination has been great for him, especially considering some of the experience of the veteran crew.
“It’s a good mix of people that are at the peak of their career and people that are trying to come in and learn as much as possible,” Theriault explained.
A pair of Concord natives exemplifies this perfectly, as 20-year racing veteran Phil Drye brings lots of expertise. But Heath Gleaton, a 21-year-old former state wrestling champion for Central Cabarrus, brings a youthful energy to the team.
But more than any of these, Richeson has been essential to the success, as he has used his 14 years of time with Ken Schrader to nearly perfect his craft and help the young driver get off to a blazing start.
Schrader credits much of the success to his longtime friend, saying, “He’s the backbone.”
Richeson shares in the admiration, saying, “You won’t find anybody better to work for and anybody who truly understands the sport more at all levels.
“When I ended up here, I knew it was just like you were part of the family. Kenny and (his wife) Ann treat you that way, and Kenny is just like my best friend, my brother.”
With these two firing on all cylinders for more than a decade, Theriault was the perfect addition for a team ready for an ARCA breakthrough.
“The chemistry part with the rest of the team has been really good,” Richeson explained.
According to the veteran crew chief, his current driver reminds him of another he had the chance to work with long ago.
“When I was a young kid, I was fortunate enough to work for some good drivers, and one of them was Alan Kulwicki,” said Richeson, referring to the champion driver who died in a plane crash in 1993.
“And (Theriault) reminds me so much of him.”
With about half the schedule behind them, Richeson believes the No. 52 Federated Auto ARCA car has a great chance to add a championship to the Ken Schrader name, assuming they can avoid trouble.
A championship would mean a lot to Schrader, who’s ultimately responsible for most of the success of the team as a whole, according to both Richeson and Theriault.
“He’s really good on the career, business, personal stuff,” Theriault said. “And on the racing stuff, he lets me and Donnie and the guys in the shop basically do whatever we want to do.”
Part of the reason the team has so much autonomy is that Schrader still races during the summer. He had to be interviewed over the phone for this story because a day earlier, he won a dirt race outside Chicago, Illinois.
“Unlike a lot of other people that have been in his shoes, when they retire, they retire, and you don’t hear from them again,” Theriault said. “But Ken is still racing more than us actually. He can’t get that racing stuff out of his blood.”
Theriault has the racing bug, too, and he will soon be looking for his next step, which Schrader thinks may not be the ARCA Series.
“A lot of people use it as a jump series to gain some experience and hopefully to move up a level,” said Schrader. A lot of young drivers have. ARCA’s also been home to a lot of drivers, so it kind of depends what you’re looking for.”
A return to NASCAR seems eminent, but Theriault is not overly concerned about that just yet.
“Whatever the future brings, and I don’t know exactly what it will bring, but if we keep being successful and winning races, that’s always a huge positive in this sport,” Theriault said.