Talking Racing with Austin Theriaultby Kyle Pokrefky April 15, 2015 0 comments
By: Kyle Pokrefky/@KPokrefky
Photo credit: Nigel Kinrade Photography LLC
Fort Kent, Maine’s Austin Theriault is moving on up in the NASCAR world in 2015.
After running three races in the XFINITY Series with JR Motorsports in 2014, Theriault, 21, will take on a schedule of 14 races in the Camping World Truck Series with Brad Keselowski Racing this season.
In this installment of ‘Talking Racing’, Theriault spoke with The Fourth Turn [on two separate occasions due to computer issues on the author’s behalf] on his current deal with BKR and on his unique background in the auto racing world.
Just how did Theriault make it into NASCAR’s national divisions after growing up on a town bordering Canada? Read on to learn his story.
Thinking way back, can you pinpoint the exact moment when you decided that you wanted to become a race car driver?
Looking back, I started racing at a pretty old age – not as young as some of the other drivers that have come up through [the ranks.] 13 was about the time when I started racing, and at that point I really didn’t have that as a goal because I didn’t think it was possible; and I didn’t think it was possible because it really wasn’t something that ever crossed my mind. I’d probably have to look back at the second year of racing late models. At that point, I was racing regionally on the ACT Tour (American Canadian Tour) and that consists of racing in Canada, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
At that point, we were having some pretty good success and I was still in high school and actually had to give up some sports and different activities that I normally enjoyed to continue to pursue racing and I set that as my goal as to continue no matter where it ended or no matter what happened along the way – I was going to give it 100 percent. It was probably 2010-2011, about that time where I figured that this was possible.
Before you actually got behind the wheel of a race car, were you a big racing fan at all?
I was actually a big race fan. I remember really fond memories of going to Loudon and different race tracks with my grandparents. It was more of like a summer thing when we’d get out of school, we’d have summer vacation and there’d be races in July and actually races at September at Loudon and I think – as a kid – I don’t remember it might have been just once or twice, but I don’t ever remember missing those races at Loudon. I had a lot of fun and there was a huge bonding time for me and my grandparents and I think actually there was a lot of times where it wasn’t just me, my other cousins would come up and we would make it a weekly affair. We’d go out five-six days before the race, camp out and have a good time.
I was a big race fan and not only that but growing up, my father also had a pull truck. There’s different pulling series across the country – tractor and truck pulling. He did a lot of pulling in Maine and New Hampshire so as a kid I kind of grew up around that more so than actually stock cars. There was a point in 2007 when I was 13 that we kind of transitioned over to racing at the short track level. Before then, it was all tractor and truck pulling.
Who were your racing heroes growing up?
I had a few. It’s kind of interesting when you look at somebody from Maine or when you look in the history of drivers that come from Maine – there’s very few. Probably Ricky Craven. He was the last person from the state to really break into the sport and have a fair amount of success doing it. As a kid, you look to the heroes that are closest to you. Obviously, Ricky Craven and for what he brought to the state as far as the publicity and the fact that he proved to a lot of people, young and old, that if you try hard and you have luck and other things happen, you can be successful.
Sitting at Loudon watching races for years and years with my grandparents, I took a liking to Mark Martin. That kind of stayed with me until he retired pretty much. I know he had gone on-and-off for a few years with his retirement tour and whatnot. I remember, I think, the first time he announced his retirement was pretty sad because you’re thinking ‘well, who am I going to root for next?’ But, he ended up racing on and off for the next couple years and at that point, I began racing and I started moving up the ladder.
At that point, it was like ‘okay, now I need to focus on myself and try to get better personally’ so it kind of transitioned from rooting on somebody else to focusing on what I’m doing. Obviously there’s still going to be times where I look up to somebody and ask them questions and the veterans and people that have more experience. From that standpoint, it just became a different idea when you say ‘fan’ and then all of a sudden you start competing against these guys. It just changes things.
Typically when you think of hometowns for stock car drivers, you think of the southeast or the southwest. But, you come from Fort Kent, Maine, a border town right on the Canadian border. Did that make for any difficulties in getting into racing?
It did, it did because obviously as far as traveling is concerned, unless you have an airplane or have a private jet, it’s kind of out of the way for a lot of tracks. We’re fortunate compared to some of the other cities that we have some really cool short tracks, but for me to leave my hometown – which was Fort Kent which, like you said, is on the border of Canada – and travel to one or both of the biggest tracks in Maine which were probably Oxford Plains Speedway and Beach Ridge Motor Speedway, that’s a six-hour trip by car. That made it tough once I transitioned to the regional touring late model stuff like the ACT Tour and the PASS Tour.
But, fortunately the track that I consider my home track – which would be Spud Speedway, and that’s Caribou, Maine – it’s actually, at the time in the 70s and 80s, that was a really popular track because it was next to an Air Force base in Limestone. But, when that closed down, that presented a lot of challenges. … had a hard time supporting the level that little of racing, so it closed down and opened up on several different occasions … in the summer of 2007 when I started, it opened up for the first time in 10 years. Without that happening, without that chain of events occurring, there’s probably no way that I’d be where I’m at today.
You’re most well-known to NASCAR fans as a driver for JR Motorsports’s No. 5 XFINITY car in three races last year. How did that deal come together?
Being from Maine and a small community that it is even … for the amount of people that there are, it’s very small compared to the amount of land that there is. The people that I’ve been introduced to and the people that I’ve met and the friends that have come up around that have been a huge part of my career. A friend of mine that races up there, Scott Mulkern, he’s in his 50s now and he’s been racing a lot up there for the past 20-30 years – before I was born and before I actually knew who he was.
A guy who helps him on his race car is friends with L.W. Miller at JR Motorsports. L.W. is in charge of the racing operations and whatnot. L.W. used to race modifieds and used to race himself. I think the last time he raced was a couple of years ago. The introduction was made to him and I think that was really early or late-2013, probably more early-2014. It really started from there and I was really grateful for the opportunity to be with them and the organization at that point, at that time. Early-2014 they were really on fire – Chase was going on winning those races and Kevin was winning those races. It’s a great organization and I learned a lot from them.
Currently you race for Brad Keselowski Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, but your relationship with the organization dates back to 2012, how did you become involved with BKR?
That’s a really interesting story. I’m fortunate that this all happened and I’m racing for them in the Truck Series now but back in 2012 like you said, I became pretty good friends with a friend of mine that races. He’s well known in Maine for his success in late model short track racing. Scott Mulkern is his name. I became good friends with him and his family, and the person that managed and continues even to this day to sort of manage his late model program is Gary Crooks. At that time, Gary Crooks was also managing the short track program/the development program for Brad Keselowski Racing, that was back in 2012.
Long story short, Gary made the introduction and through … some different players over at BKR. That’s how the introduction was made and I guess that’s history at that point. I had some success with them in 2012 racing part-time and 2013 was the year that I graduated high school and moved down here full-time to work in the shop. We laid out a full schedule of racing back in 2013 and had some success winning some PASS races.
At the end of that year, Brad shut down the late model program to focus primarily on the Truck program – which has really paid off now as you can see. At that point, we went our separate ways because I continued to race late models and I thought that was going to be part of my development, I still had to work on a few things as a driver. We sort of parted ways but at the end of the day, we still remained friends and I still remain friends with a lot of guys that work in the Truck shop.
Everything was good and then obviously at the end of 2014 a couple of things came together and now I’m in the No. 29 truck.
How would you say Brad is as a team owner?
It’s really cool to have somebody in charge, and when I say ‘in charge’ I mean the person that everybody looks up to. Obviously, that’s Brad and his company. I guess he’s what you want out of a leader because good leaders have people they bring up and … they’re just smart in that they can hire and bring up the right people to do the job that’s needed. Brad doesn’t micromanage his business from what I can tell. That’s always good because everybody plays a certain role and everybody’s got the skills and experience and the knowledge that it takes to run every part of the company, whether it’s the crew chiefs and their experience and their knowledge, the managers and even the drivers.
I know Brad plays a part in who he brings in and whatnot, but once a decision gets made, there are certain protocols and certain people that take over from that point. Brad is really good at playing a part when he needs to, but when it comes time for us to actually go through and do it on a week-to-week basis for the day-to-day operation, he gives us the space that we need…
Are you currently a Team Penske development driver? If not, are you working towards making a deal to become one?
It’s really cool that somebody like Ryan Blaney got that opportunity a few years ago. It wasn’t very long ago, I think it was in 2011 or 2012 – when I first started racing for BKR in the late model program. At that point, it was like ‘man, it’d really be a cool opportunity for someone like myself or anybody.’ That’s why I guess I looked up to Ryan back then even though we were the same age and had come from similar backgrounds and disciplines in the late model series, asphalt late model series, super late models and whatnot.
Right now, obviously for me to do my best and for me to gain experience and be successful, that would help in all avenues whether it’s getting a development deal through Ford. Right now there isn’t any development deal. You never want to turn anything away If people believe in you and that future deal is something they want to put together, it’s always something that you have to consider. Right now, we’re focused on 2015 and wherever that takes me, who knows? It’s only been a year and I’ve only had one race at Daytona so we’ve got 13 more to go.
It would be an awesome opportunity to be in development in the Penske organization. Everyone knows that Mr. Penske is a great guy, great business guy and an awesome team owner. He’s built a really strong organization at Penske this year racing. It would be an honor to be involved with them, but we’ll see how 2015 turns out.
Of the remaining races in the truck this year for you, which race are you looking forward to the most?
My NASCAR record book has only been four races. For me to say ‘okay, I’m really looking forward to this track or that track’ would be tough because a lot of these tracks I’m going to be visiting for the first time. From my point of view, the next race is my next shot to be successful and to win and have solid finish. Kansas is coming up on May 8th – that’s my next race and the race after that [is] Texas and the race after that [is] Gateway. Until I go out and absolutely fall in love with a race track, right now it’s the next race coming up.
Outside of the Camping World Truck Series, what are your racing plans looking like this year?
I really enjoy – and I’ve done it the past couple years – I’ve transitioned from primarily the late model stuff that I grew up on over to the NASCAR side because I haven’t run a lot of races on the NASCAR and I’ve really … super late model races when I’m not racing, I do that. Last year, I think I did six or seven races and a majority of them were actually up north in Maine and at tracks like Oxford Plains Speedway and Beech Ridge Motor Speedway. This year I don’t think you’ll see me behind the wheel as much in that stuff. I still have my race cars and I still work on them from time to time as a way to just have fun and that doesn’t keep me busy – but it’s always cool to have your buddies who have worked on the truck or have helped you out through your career and sort of bringing them all back together – the new and the old – and having success.
You may see me two or three times perhaps one race back up north and the rest down here in a super late model. Right now, it’s really important for me to take this opportunity here with Brad and his organization and not really dilute it and put too much time into something that wouldn’t provide the result that I’m looking for…
…something that we decide a month out and we’ll work 100-percent to get in the car and bring the team together. It’ll be something that we’ll do for fun, it’ll be something that we absolutely have to do for fun because at that point it’s just not worth doing if you’re going out there and getting stressed out and really not taking in the experience for something that you’re grateful for. When you step back and do something that you come from, it’s always important to just cherish that moment.