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Photo: Zach Catanzareti

Beyond the Cockpit: Austin Theriault & the Path to Recovery

A thundering pound, a stream of lambent sparks and an aftermath littered with torn sheet metal and silent air.

Like a tropical storm, Austin Theriault’s grinding crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in October had no shortage of drama, intensity or concern as his No. 29 Ford careened violently into the turn 4 wall of the 1.5-mile track.

The only thing lacking was a SAFER Barrier.

From then on, suffering a 10 percent compression fracture of the lower back, the 21-year-old of Theriault has been on the road to recovery to return to Camping World Truck Series competition.

In the meantime, both NASCAR Nation and his medical staff showcased their tremendous support for Theriault, whether it be in simple messages on social media or complexities like the jobs of his physical therapists.

The 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway was Theriault’s big day. Only 48 days removed from the worst wreck of his young NASCAR career, Theriault strapped into the No. 29 truck in preparation for the Ford EcoBoost 200.

Starting from 18th spot, Theriault was a quite contender throughout the night, battling the likes of Cameron Hayley and Daniel Hemric for a top-10 position. The night ended with a 12th-place finish and a bright spot to finish the 2015 year for Theriault.

We spoke with Theriault while at Homestead to talk about his feelings after the crash, details about his rehabilitation and the mental and physical side of racing.

Zach Catanzareti: So you’re back here at Homestead. How has the week leading up to this weekend been for you?

Austin Theriault: It’s probably an exaggeration to say it’s been a rollercoaster because we knew this day was coming. It was just a matter of time. What we didn’t want is we didn’t want it to be Daytona next year. I wanted to get back in a racecar before the end of the year if that was possible. Obviously, six weeks into it, we felt this weekend was a good choice on getting back in the saddle. Just pairing it all up with the physical part of it, the mental part of it, the health part of it, listening to what the doctors are saying. This was a good weekend [to come back].

Catanzareti: Was it your decision to make this happen or did the team and Brad [Keselowski, team owner] have a big say in it?

Theriault: [It] was probably mainly a medical decision from the doctors. I had a say in it but the approval had to go through NASCAR. So in that case, it was between me, NASCAR and the doctors.

Catanzareti: Over the past month you have been the sidelines healing and watching the races, supporting your team. What have you taken most from that circumstance of seeing it from the other side?

Theriault: It’s always difficult when you get hurt – not only yourself, but when somebody else is down and they cant fulfill their duties or they’re having to take medical leave. Whether it’s a crew chief, guy working over the wall, you never like to see that happen. Most times, it definitely throws us for a loop. I was supposed to run the rest of the season behind the wheel of the truck. We’re fortunate enough, and Brad is fortunate enough, to have a strong company and friends like Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney is in the Penske organization, and then Austin Cindric.

There wasn’t an issue with, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’ It was just more of inserting the backup disc, press play and week in, week out, things were moving without me as I was trying to get better. We were sort of converging on that path and then I was going to be back in. Two different goals. We salvaged what we can in the [No.] 29, Austin [Cindric] is trying to get better, and then we would meet in the middle.

Catanzareti: You tweeted about remembering the first day that you were able to put your socks back on yourself. Mentally, how does something like that affect you, having to go through that rehabilitation?

Theriault: I’m fortunate enough that it was just bone healing, soft tissue healing. It’s not like… I was fortunate enough not to be paralyzed. Unfortunately, some people have injuries that in their spinal column that create problems for them that last a lifetime. So the biggest thing was making sure, from the first week to the second week, it’s a lot of pain control because you don’t feel good, you cant really move too much, you’re stiff. So just trying to keep moving. There was never a point where it’s like, ‘OK, I’m just going to sit and not do anything,’ because that’s not good. That’s not good for your body, and when you do that, that’s when you have longer-term problems. You always want to stay moving, keep your muscles moving as your bones are healing. And that’s what we did.

Catanzareti: You used social media a lot. You posted pictures of your updates. How has the support online been?

Theriault: There was huge support right away. A lot of people were concerned as I much as I was concerned and surprised by how hard the hit was and all that stuff. There was definitely that outreach from the industry, family, friends, racers, team owners and whatnot. Obviously, life goes on and I had my direction to go into. So a lot of that slowed down like it should. But definitely, at first, there was a lot of outpouring. And now, it’s just how can I get back in the truck, get better and now we’re there.

Catanzareti: Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski, they have been big advocates for safety. How has your relationship changed with them? Have you been talking to them a lot?

Theriault: Probably Brad more than Kyle. Obviously, Kyle has his own things going on. But for him to make a statement on what he believed was nice.

Brad is the team owner so I talk to him more – not even really about the injury, we’ve talked a couple times about that. It’s just more of what’s next and what we have to do to do next week. We quickly turned the page from whose fault was it and any of that other stuff. We know NASCAR is studying the crash still; nothing has come from that yet. So there’s a lot of stuff gong on behind the scenes and they made their statements. I’ve definitely turned the page away from that. We’re just focused on this weekend and next year and making sure there are no long-term issues.

Catanzareti: Was there ever a point you thought you may never race again? That the crash could’ve ended your racing career?

Theriault: No, not really. It wasn’t so critical that… you could argue that, if it would’ve been worse, yeah. If the spinal cord, which is a really important part of your body, if something would’ve happened to the spinal cord, yeah.

If the spine had moved more than it did, obviously, I’m not going to get too much into the medical stuff but we were just fortunate for the most part the compression fracture was all there was and there wasn’t anything more that could have happened around it. If it was more severe, then yeah, that would have definitely been a discussion to have.

2014 Loudon I NNS Austin Theriault racing CIA
Theriault got some valuable seat time in the XFINITY Series for JRM in 2014, scoring a best finish of 15th in three starts. (Photo: CIA Stock Photo)

Catanzareti: How are you hoping to lay out things for next year?

Theriault: Well, I always have bigger goals and bigger ideas when we talk about the future next year and whatnot. The fact of the matter is, you do the best you can and you take the best opportunities that you have. We’re plotting that course right now. There is nothing to announce right now. I hope to get things figured out  in the next couple months. Running full-time will always be nice but like I said, the way the sport is laid out, it can sometimes be difficult to make that next progression. You always want to be moving in a good direction but there’s not always the most opportunities.

It’s all on making opportunities, trying to create opportunities and do the best when you have opportunities. I’m thankful for what we did this year and hopefully things work out for next year.

Catanzareti: Would you be looking at an opportunity in the XFINITY Series or are you solely focusing on Trucks?

Theriault: No, Trucks and XFINITY are pretty wide open for me. I think there is things you can do in the Truck Series, things you can learn in XFINITY Series. But that really all depends on what opportunities are there. Right now, we’re just figuring that out. I’m not ready to make a decision on one or the other.

Catanzareti: Who would you say helped you the most during the recuperation process?

Theriault: Probably, from the medical side, the doctors, therapists and all those people that I’ve been able to work with. A lot of times, it’s definitely… if you’re talking to drivers who have been hurt before or in certain situations, from a mental standpoint it’s good to get that information on if you feel bad, how much you can get through.

From the mental aspect, talking to everybody within the industry but from just purely the medical side of it, the doctors, physical therapists and then just me working in a group trying to get better.

Catanzareti: You got into the truck today. What did it feel like getting back into that cockpit again for the first time?

Theriault: It felt good. It felt probably better than I thought it was going to. I’m still walking around kind of the same that I did before I got in the truck. I still kind of expect some soreness tomorrow and the next day. But that’s all manageable and I think that is still a part of where I am at right now in my healing process. So I’m feeling good.

Catanzareti: Going through what you’ve been through in racing, is all of it still worth it for you?

Theriault: Yeah, it’s worth it. It’s something that automatically comes up after you get hurt. It’s like, ‘Man, what are you working towards?’

I see the question. If everything that you’re doing worth the risk and possibility that you could get hurt. But we don’t strap in expecting things like that to happen. There’s always an intrinsic risk and inherent risk, and that’s probably never going to go away. Everybody is trying for the same thing, everybody wants to be successful. And in this sport naturally there is going to be that risk.

I guess it would be a question to ask me five years down the road [laughs]. Depending where everything ends up, it’s natural that there are only a certain amount of spots within the sport so some guys are going to make it, some guys aren’t going to make it. Getting injured along the way, I think that’s just the… fortunately it’s just the path that we’ve all chosen, taking that risk.

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About Zach Catanzareti

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Growing up in Easton, Pa., Zach Catanzareti has grown his auto racing interest from fandom to professional. Joining Frontstretch in 2015, Zach enjoys nothing more than being at the track, having covered his first half-season of 18 races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2017. With experience behind the wheel, behind the camera and in the media center, he thrives on being an all-around reporter.

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