January 5

Steve Solloway: Fort Kent driver racing to make the big time

Austin Theriault is on the move. The ambitious stock car racer from Fort Kent knows his destination but it’s the getting there that needs more clarity.

click image to enlarge

Austin Theriault, left, a Fort Kent native, will be hoping to show potential sponsors this month that he has the drive and talent to eventually make it to the Sprint Cup circuit.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Which path will lead to a seat in a NASCAR Sprint Cup car? Which road will get him to the starting line sooner rather than later?

Put another way, what’s next for the 19-year-old who has been compared by some to a young Ricky Craven, the Mainer who won two Sprint Cup races in an 11-year career that ended in 2005?

Theriault leaves Maine on Monday for NASCAR’s heartland in the Carolinas. It’s a return trip, actually. He moved to North Carolina last year to race full-time for Brad Keselowski Racing as a development driver in Super Late Model racing. But BKR has discontinued its involvement in that level and Theriault is a free agent. In the next few weeks he’ll meet with the people who search for the next young, talented driver who is particularly attractive to sponsors.

“Everything is in the talking stage,” said Theriault. “I should know more by the end of January.” That dozens, perhaps hundreds of other young drivers are pitching themselves is beside the point.

“Sometimes you do have to ignore the percentages. If you don’t have hope and don’t have a positive attitude you won’t go very far.”

Theriault turns 20 later this month and in his public moments is remarkably mature. He is the opposite of Craven’s glib, golly-gee-whiz personality that masked his resolve at the same age.

“People tell me I have an old soul,” said Theriault. “I guess I do.”

He and his team had success tempered by speed bumps in 2013. Sometimes the equipment let them down. A run of consistency started in mid-June: two victories, seven finishes in the top five and eight in the top 10 at tracks up and down the Eastern seaboard.

In early November at the All-America 400 in Nashville, Tenn., suspension troubles caused Theriault to fall out of the race. The next race was the Snowball Derby at 5 Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Fla. Theriault finished third.

“We didn’t let the mechanical issues affect us. We went back to the shop, found out what was wrong and corrected it. We were a resilient team.”

Theriault was one of the top students in his class at Fort Kent. His analytical mind enjoys breaking down history and politics. He was a top wrestler until racing took more of his time. The best wrestlers can be technicians on the mat and Theriault was that, too.

He has worked at getting his pilot’s license for some 10 years. He now has it, an early 20th birthday present to himself. He spent much of Friday afternoon piloting a plane from Portland to Aroostook County.

“(Flying) is practical transportation and it’s a form of enjoyment for me. When you get up to 5,000 feet you get a different point of view.”

That he mastered the thousands of steps to learning to pilot an airplane also was important.

Racing has taken him far from Fort Kent but he knows how to return home. He still sleeps in his tiny upstairs bedroom in the family home that sits on a hill overlooking downtown Fort Kent. From his house, Theriault can see the St. John River that serves as the boundary with New Brunswick.

He sees challenges or problems as puzzles with the pieces in front of him. Which is why he has faith in himself and his ability to find solutions as a soon-to-be 20-year-old.

Through a Maine team owner, Theriault met Peter Carlisle, the Maine-based Olympics and Action sports managing director for Octagon. The agency, which lists NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson as a client, is handling Theriault’s marketing.

Theriault has talked with Craven, who at 47 has a daughter older than the kid from Fort Kent. It was a different NASCAR when Craven came out of the tiny Maine town of Newburgh to eventually move to North Carolina. Craven’s apprenticeship was with a Nationwide Series team, or Busch South as it was known them.

Today teams headed by Cup drivers like Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champion, look for “development” drivers. What hasn’t changed is the hunger, drive and ambition Craven needed to land a Cup ride. Helping hands who could open doors were necessary, too.

It doesn’t matter, says Theriault, if it’s wrestling, racing, piloting, or starting a trucking business or a bakery. It’s a heart-and-soul commitment that can consume or lift you to new heights.

Even as you keep your feet on the ground.

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

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

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