He felt like the schoolboy he still is, sitting down to a final exam. Austin Theriault had studied and done his homework. He thought he knew more than enough to pass.

Then he saw the first questions. It’s a terrible feeling when you realize you don’t have the answers.

“You can never be too confident, and I was. Then, in the first lap of the heat race, I’m heading for the back.”

All the optimism of youth couldn’t compensate for his lack of experience. Theriault was trying to qualify for his first TD Bank 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway last summer, the historic stock car race that can turn boys into men quickly.

“I was so pumped up,” said Theriault. “We had a good practice (the day before). Sunday, things just turned around. The car wasn’t doing what it should have been doing and we didn’t figure out why in time.”

He is 17 years old. In another month or so he’ll sit down to classes at Fort Kent High for his senior year. He was vice president of his junior class and a top wrestler in his sophomore season. This weekend, he’s one of dozens of drivers trying to qualify his car to race in the TD Bank 250. For each of the 39 starting spots, one driver goes home.

“I learned about the pressure you’re under on that day. I thought I was ready for it.”

That’s not saying he wasn’t. High school wrestling is about self-control and controlling your opponent on the mat. It doesn’t get any simpler. Auto racing can’t get any more complicated. With all the moving parts of your race car and those of drivers around you, it’s difficult to imagine you’re in control.

Throw in track conditions. A cloudy sky and air temperature can affect how a car handles on a short track like Oxford Plains, not to mention the buildup of tire rubber. That’s when track experience becomes very valuable.

Still, for every racing grandfather like Ralph Nason or Mike Rowe, kids can win and have. Jeremie Whorff of West Bath was 22 when he outlasted NASCAR star Kyle Busch for the victory in 2006. Tom Rosati of Agawam, Mass., was only 19 when he won in 1979. Joey Kourafas, from Randolph, Mass., was 20 when he won the first race in 1974. Then, the race lasted 200 laps.

Theriault is a year younger than Brad Babb of Windham, who also is learning quickly. “What did I learn from last year? To be a little more aggressive,” said Theriault. “But not too aggressive. I’ve got to find the middle ground, with patience.

“Drivers will take what they can get on the track and I was treated like a rookie. That was expected.”

Theriault had two more rounds of qualifying races last year and failed. “I watched the (TD Bank 250) from the infield. That’s always hard, but you’ve got to look at the bright side. I was learning.”

He raced dirt bikes and snowmobiles when he was younger. His grandfather introduced him to Sprint Cup racing and Theriault was bitten by that bug. When he was old enough, he started racing at Spud Speedway in Caribou.

The top four drivers from the first round of 15-lap qualifying heats this afternoon will advance to the TD Bank 250 in the early evening. If you don’t qualify after the first set of heats, you’ve got two more rounds of qualifying races. A bit of desperation becomes part of the action. Win the TD Bank 250 and you earn a minimum of $25,000. Every green flag lap led is an extra $100.

Last place is worth $1,000. That’s not bad money for a high school student, or a driver with a day job and a family. Although for Theriault, the money is secondary. He is racing for the second straight year on the American-Canadian Tour. He finished seventh in the series standings last year. This season he got picked up by Rick Paya’s RPM team out of Georgia, Vt. Theriault’s teammate is Brian Hoar of Williston, Vt., a proven winner.

Qualifying for the TD Bank 250 for the first time is a rite of passage for drivers. Finishing all 250 laps is one more step to proving you belong. Dick McCabe of Kennebunkport, the former Busch North champion and 1988 TD Bank 250 winner, would pay the ultimate compliment to a competitor when he’d say he could race beside him all day.

“He should watch his nose,” said Jeff White of Winthrop. He was referring to the front of the car. “Get out of line, and the other drivers will come down on you. Save your tires and be patient with the track. It can be finicky. I’m still learning how to drive it.”

White is 44.

Trust and respect is earned in the TD Bank 250. It’s never assumed. Austin Theriault has learned that, too. 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]