By Amy Harrop, Chasing the Checkered
What do you do when you go from completely dominating a series one season to being out of a ride the next? To Austin Theriault, the one and only option is to not give up and keep fighting.
In a day and age where racing has become vastly expensive and sponsorship's are a hot topic, the fact that Austin is sitting on the sidelines in 2018 is clearly not due to lack of talent, but lack of funding. With the entire state of Maine cheering him on, the Fort Kent native showed the nation his talent when he sailed away with the 2017 ARCA Series Championship.
In 2017, Ken Schrader Racing opened doors for Austin Theriault, who piloted the #52 car for the full ARCA season. After winning the season opener at Daytona International Speedway, the season only got better from there. Austin went on to win 7 races over the course of the season, tackling a 20-race season that includes 2 dirt tracks, 9 short tracks, 8 super speedways and one road course. Austin dominated on both the pavement and the dirt, which resulted in a 4.2 average finish for the entire season. This was the best average finish for the season in 33 years. How did it all come together for Austin in 2017? It all comes down to great communication and a competitive spirit among Austin and the entire crew.
Austin is equipped with a highly competitive yet grounded mindset. "I like to be competitive and I'll do everything possible to be competitive. We exceeded everyone's expectations last season and I exceeded my own expectations. Communication among the team was really good. With a great team behind me, we made our own luck," he details. In 2017, Austin was out to prove that you didn't need to have top of the line equipment and substantial financial backing to win races. Although he competed for the entire season, a few races still went unsponsored. That didn't stop the team as they continued to dominate the competition. "When you put your mind to something, you can achieve it. It's all about the people you have around you," he says. You can hear the pride in Austin's voice as he talks about last season, but he'd be lying if he said that he wasn't disappointed about not being able to do it all again in 2018.
Just a few short weeks before racing season started, the racing world was in shock upon hearing that Austin wouldn't be back in a full-time ride in 2018. After his completely dominant season last year, fans we're fully expecting Austin to move into the upper divisions of NASCAR or defend his title in the ARCA Series. "It seems easier getting to Victory Lane than it does finding rides in this sport at times," he shared in a recent post on his Facebook page. The driving force behind Austin's inability to get back into a full-time ride in 2018 is the lack of sponsorship's and financial backing, but Austin stresses that those factors are just a small percentage of what has to come together every week to be able to compete. He admits that his road since last season hasn't been easy by any means, but he tries his best not to dwell on the situation and become too negative. "You never know what's going to happen," he says, reminding everyone of his optimistic views for the future.
Austin shares his views on the ever-changing sport of NASCAR, pointing out that work needs to be done at all levels of the sport to keep the fans engaged. He wholeheartedly agrees with NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series driver Kevin Harvick, who recently spoke up to the media about how we need to bring homegrown, short-track racing back into the sport. He thinks that it would be a smart idea to bring short tracks like Iowa Speedway and Fairgrounds Speedway Nashville onto the MENCS schedule. But, the sport and the tracks would have to work on making the tracks accessible and comfortable for such a high volume of race fans. He says that fans live for seeing side-by-side racing, and the sport is missing the mark on that with certain tracks. "Changes are tough, and that's why things take time," he says. Austin also believes that cost-cutting is important in helping teams remain competitive with one another.
When talking about the money of the business, Austin points out that there are huge discrepancies in the top levels of NASCAR between the top-tier teams like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing and low-budget teams like Go Fas Racing. Austin is a fan of the Spec Motor System implemented in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, saying that the program works on cost-cutting and helping teams be more competitive. An even playing field is what he'd like to see, saying that everyone should feel like they have a chance at every track, not just at super speedway's. "I don't really like excuses," he says. He reiterates that there's still a lot of work to be done in the sport between purses, tracks on the schedule, fan interactions and more. In a sport that can be wildly frustrating at times, it can be hard to stay positive. But, remaining positive is key when it comes to being successful.
Austin compares remaining positive to brushing your teeth; it's something that you have to do, without question. "All successful people are positive; you won't get anywhere if you're negative all the time," he shares. He tries to use his positive attitude when it comes to creating healthy relationships with race teams. "When I work with teams, we just get better. I'm good at finding everyone's strength and building off of that," he says. Austin sees racing as a team sport that requires pieces of the puzzle to be put together to create one solid organization. Although he's always trying to create a bigger network down in North Carolina, racing in his home state of Maine is still important to him.
Austin encourages race fans in Maine to "take the scenic route" and visit Spud Speedway, which is his home track in Northern Maine. Before moving down to North Carolina after graduating high school, Austin raced up & down the East Coast and primarily Maine, racing at tracks like Spud Speedway, Oxford Plains Speedway and Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. He made one appearance in Maine towards the end of the 2017 race season, racing on PASS 150 weekend at Oxford Plains Speedway. It was a tough weekend for Austin, who struggled in his PASS car after dominating tracks all over the country in his ARCA ride. "You can't come back to Maine on a whim and expect to run with the big dogs up there," he laughs. Although he has no concrete plans yet to race up in Maine in 2018, he's certainly not ruling it out. He mentions that it would be "phenomenal" to go back up to Spud Speedway to compete in their one PASS-sanctioned race on Tuesday, July 3rd. Austin is regularly searching for his next big opportunity, trying to push a door open that will allow him to further his career.
Austin says that self-care is important to maintain a positive mindset. Although he's not in a position that he'd like to be in right now, he doesn't let that deter him from doing what he loves. Austin loves to travel and visit new tracks. When he's not behind the wheel himself, he enjoys helping other drivers. In Martinsville this weekend, he's spotting for upcoming driver Cory Roper in the Camping World Truck Series. He keeps his fans and supporters up to date as often as he can on Social Media, which is something that's really important to him.
During the 2017 season, Austin received a personal phone call from ARCA. During the phone call, a representative from the series told him that they have never seen so much fan interaction and excitement for a driver than they have for him. "I value my fans really well," he says. He has considered doing a fan-funded racing campaign, but he wants it to be done right in a way where the fans feel valued and appreciated more than ever. He frequently hosts contests on his Facebook page where fans can play fun guessing games to win Austin Theriault merchandise, like championship hats and T-shirts. Fans can interact with Austin on Facebook, but it's a great utilization tool for potential sponsors as well.
Austin says that the easiest way for potential sponsors to reach out to him is to message his official Facebook page. "Making that initial contact is huge," he says. He stresses that no promises have to be made and that he and his team are open to hearing any potential options. He explains that there is no "one size fits all" for sponsors, and they can range from social media sponsors to sponsors that only want to be on merchandise to sponsors that are on the car itself. He explains to me the nature of the business, where some sponsors aren't necessarily interested in selling to the fan, but interested in making connections with other sponsors/businesses in the sport. After making the first initial contact, Austin says that he is more than willing to set up a phone call or set up a meeting to discuss options. "The possibilities are endless," he says. The relationship he has with his fans and sponsors are both vastly important to Austin, but his family are his biggest supporters.
Austin's family is a huge part of his life. When I had the opportunity to talk to him last year after Daytona, he was traveling to his next race track with his grandparents. His parents are also so supportive of his career, always cheering him on at every track. "You always have a small team around you," he says. He says that his parents have never failed in keeping him focused and determined to reach his dreams. He stresses that he wouldn't be living this life if it wasn't for them and he owes them the ultimate gratitude and thanks.
As far as his advice for all of his fans and supporters? "You have to remember to make an investment in yourself," he says. Life's not about trying to make other people see your value, it's about truly knowing your own value. "You have to go where you want to be," he stresses. You shouldn't be afraid to move to pursue what you love. Life's all about connections. He says that sometimes, you have to work for free. Sure, it's not exactly ideal, but it will get your foot in the door and open up a a world of opportunity. He reminds fans to remember that the racing culture is unique and only we get to enjoy these moments and the the exhilaration of racing that others may no ever experience. The racing world is full of change, so we should all embrace it and enjoy the ride.
Austin is not only extremely focused on the future, he is wise beyond his years. With his mentality, heart and optimism, something is sure to come together for the Fort Kent native. With an entire state behind him cheering him on, it's only a matter of time.
Read the article as it was published on Chasing the Checkered here.