Unlike his time in national NASCAR competition, Austin Theriault’s month of October could include a championship trophy. That’s because 2017 is Theriault’s first opportunity to race full-time for a series title, doing so in the ARCA Racing Series for Ken Schrader Racing.
After the opening eight races, the 23-year-old holds a 135-point lead over the competition, scoring two wins and six top fives. And though the No. 52 is a strong team improving weekly, experience from the cockpit has benefited the entry. Theriault raced in the NASCAR XFINITY Series in 2014 for JR Motorsports before starting three races for Rick Ware in 2016.
Additionally, he ran a part-time deal with Brad Keselowski Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, which may have been best known for his back-breaking Las Vegas crash in October 2015, but also saw two top-five and four top-10 finishes in 10 starts.
With those experiences in his back pocket, Theriault sat down with Frontstretch at Pocono Raceway to discuss his career to this point, how the struggles have led him to now and if he is happier in ARCA.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: Let’s start with this season. 2017 is off to a good start for you. Recap these opening few weeks.
Austin Theriault: It’s been a really good situation for us from Daytona until now. We’ve had some really good runs and we’ve had a few we figured we need to work on a few things. Toledo was one of them. That taught us a lot about what we need to work on. It was really cool to go from Toledo to Elko and win on a short track.
We focused on our short track program and it is better. We know toward the end of the season when the championship gets closer, the 1.5-mile track are going to be more important than short tracks.
Catanzareti: How did you get this deal together? It’s been a while since you’ve been in a full-time ride.
Theriault: I have been fortunate to run part time for a lot of good teams the past couple years. That also presented a challenge because it wasn’t a full-time opportunity so it was hard to get momentum. When you’re full time, you can build a lot more chemistry with the team, you can work off the momentum week to week. I always seem to run better in that situation.
I met Schrader at the PRI show last year. It was a very quick initial conversation because he was going somewhere and it was in the middle of a hall, a lot of people. A lot of different things had to come into play; a couple people made this happen because they knew Schrader and knew he was looking for someone. It was a culmination of events that led us around December to where we put the deal together to run full season.
Catanzareti: Is that what was missing in NASCAR for you? You never got that full-time deal.
Theriault: I don’t like to use the word ‘missing’ because it is important to say that any opportunity you get is probably good because not many get to even run part time in any equipment like that. You have to be racing a lot to be good.
That could sometimes be a piece of the puzzle that people either have the opportunity or don’t. I think it’s very helpful to have that.
Catanzareti: In your career, you’ve worked with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Rick Ware, now Ken Schrader. When you look back on those days, it’s been a few months, what comes to your mind? How has it worked out up until now?
Theriault: It’s been a lot of good learning experiences for me. Having those challenges earlier in your career maybe makes you better suited for the new part of your career when you do start getting these potential opportunities and you’re better prepared to take them on. You’re not going to make the same mistakes again.
Catanzareti: Do you think your Las Vegas crash affected your career? You were out for a bit, and it was such a critical time because you’re running part time and you lost some of that time.
Theriault: In a way, yes. But I don’t know anything beyond that as far as what may or may not have happened.
I only recognize that maybe your question is right but that’s about as far as I’ll go because that’s one thing I’ve also learned. Things happen and we don’t always know why but you have to move with how life goes. And wherever it takes you, you have to go. you have to go with it.
Theriault: Things don’t always work out the way you want them to. I try not to look at it black and white like that because I think it is too simple of an answer. I think the answer is more complicated. It’s a variety of different factors we have to take into account. By no means am I quitting. I’m actually feeling pretty positive about things.
Catanzareti: A lot of drivers aren’t happy unless they’re in the national NASCAR series. You’ve been on that stage but here you are in ARCA. Are you one who doesn’t matter what series you’re in, you just want to win?
Theriault: Yeah, I like to win and I like to be successful. The other thing I like seeing is seeing the progression of things. Everybody working together and learning and seeing the improvements of the cars, the people, myself. We’re in a good opportunity to do that this year. Right now, I want to be with people I can win with.
Catanzareti: Frank Kimmel is someone who fits that mold perfectly. He never really jumped up, he made a living off this series. When you look at him or Chase Briscoe, who won the title last year and is now in NASCAR, do people like that make is more worth it to you?
Theriault: ARCA seems to be a good indicator as far as talent. Like you said, Briscoe is a good example of it. He’s around a year younger than me. We’ll see what happens. I don’t like jumping that far ahead because we don’t know the future and it’s so hard to predict what’s going to happen next week let alone next year.
Catanzareti: When was the last time you spoke to Keselowski? Dale Jr., guys you have worked with. Have you kept close connections with them?
Theriault: I have a lot of respect for those guys who race week to week in a series that is so busy with the schedule and everything. From time to time, I have tried to stay up to speed with all that and caught up with them. Junior more so back then because that was 2014 and a lot can change in three years as you know. I still have lots of good friends up at Brad’s organization, they still mentor me.
The thing that is really cool about this sport is that situations change but a lot of times friendships remain. That’s really good because you can always trust and go back to guys you used to work with and just ask questions.
Catanzareti: This is the generation of young drivers. Are there any feelings there when you see drivers 16, 17 and they’re jumping right into a truck?
Theriault: It takes all kinds of drivers, all kinds of situations to make a series successful. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about somebody who is coming into this sport. I’d say the more people who are racing and able to support teams and are able to get on the track, I don’t think that is a bad thing. I think it will actually create more opportunities for guys like myself.
Catanzareti: Is NASCAR still on your radar?
Theriault: Yeah, it is. But I’m happy where I’m at this year because it’s a potential to build and excel and maybe springboard into something else next year. If that is NASCAR, then great.
Catanzareti: We’ve talked about character with young drivers. You’ve been through really tough times, troubles with sponsorships, part-time stuff and you seem to be building yourself up. A lot of people respect that. How important is it to have character to work your way up the hard way?
Theriault: What is that old verbiage… ‘Any experience you have that builds your character, even if it’s bad, is a good thing.’ Even if you have to go through a little physical pain to get there. I don’t know if I’m fortunate enough to be in that classification, but definitely I’m learning everyday that there are more important things in life. You have to make sure that when you go through all this, you are still OK with yourself and you’re making decisions that you’re not going to regret. I feel that way right now.
Catanzareti: You feel like you’ve handled everything right?
Theriault: Well, to the best of my knowledge. We always make mistakes and we’re always going to continue to make mistakes but you just have to be OK with where you are at and happy. I think the rest takes care of itself.
(Below is a video capture of our conversation with Austin Theriault)