There are many paths into short track racing these days. Quarter Midgets, Legends, Bandoleros, Karting, Motocross racing and even off-road racing have brought countless young drivers into the sport.
Austin Theriault's driver development program has been a little bit different. It involves logging roads and truck pulling. As the 16-year-old Mainer now works to break into ACT Late Model and PASS North racing though, it appears that his way of getting onto the short tracks is working out just fine.
Theriault's life is one that more closely resembles an episode of “American Loggers” than “Madhouse”. He is from the Northern Maine town of Fort Kent - which is actually several hours north from the town of Millinocket where the History Channel's reality show is based. His family's business involves heavy trucking in the woods of Maine, just like on the television show. Being around the big rigs that haul wood chips is where Theriault got his start behind a steering wheel. After that, it was only natural for him to take on the sport of truck pulling.
“That's pretty much the way it is up there,” said Theriault. “I've been driving the 18-wheelers since I was probably 10 years old. Not on the road, but around the garage and that. Our family was into 4x4 Modified pulling trucks and we have kind of moved away from that. It's quite a thrill, but it only lasts for about 10 seconds. This lasts much longer.
“It's pretty much a completely different set-up with how the clutches work and everything. It's a direct drive set-up with a hand throttle. You just got slowly until there is no more than you keep going until you stop.”
While truck pulling might be worlds apart from stock cars, for most of Theriault's youth, it was about the only form of motorsports around Fort Kent. The nearest active racetrack to Theriault was Speedway 95 in Bangor, Maine - an n eight-hour roundtrip drive away. But in the summer of 2007, Spud Speedway near Caribou reopened after a seven-year hiatus. While not exactly in his backyard, Spud is still close enough to be a hometrack to Theriault.
“We're about an hour further north from Caribou and it's all windy roads,” he said.
The timing of the track's reopening and Theriault's discovery of stock car racing was perfect. In the shortened 2007 season, Theriault hit the track first with a Pontiac Grand-Am and then a Dodge Neon to try out racing. He was hooked.
“We were running the four cylinder class at my home track of Spud,” said Thierault. “It's funny the way it happened because I honestly don't even know how we got into racing. We heard the track was opening up, so we found an old bomber car and started working up from there.”'
Working up meant building a mini stock Mustang over the next winter with his father Terry and rolling that out midway through the 2008 season. Using the Neon and the Mustang, Theriault finished second in the track's Young Guns division. Theriault and the Mustang moved up to the track's four-cylinder division last year and were rewarded with a championship.
Also in 2009, Thierault rolled out a Late Model to try out. He silenced any critics who may have thought that he moved up too quickly by holding off part-time PASS North driver Ricky Morse and winning in his first Late Model start, the Spud 150 open race in late August. Less than two months later, Theriault made his ACT Late Model debut by qualifying for the season finale at Oxford Plains Speedway (ME) and finishing one lap down in the 18th position - two spots higher than Oxford 250 winner Eddie MacDonald.
In 2010, Theriault will run a partial schedule of ACT Late Model events in his family's car along with a limited schedule of PASS North races driving for Steve Perry's Mainely Motorsports team.
“We're going to run as many ACT races and we can,” said Theriault. “We'll run the 250 and hopefully be invited to the ACT (New Hampshire Motor Speedway) Invitational. It will be our own car. We're having one built by Mitch Green and Racebasics. We're going to go test with it before Oxford. We'll run as many as we can there and the five PASS North races with Steve Perry. We'll race some at home when we can too.”
Theriault is just as shocked as anyone at how quickly things are happening in his racing career.
“A couple of years ago, we had no thought of this in our minds,” said Theriault. “We had no plans to do this.”
In his PASS North debut earlier this month at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway (ME), Theriault stayed out of trouble and finished in the 16th position - earning respect from the series veterans that he knew about, but had never really gotten the chance to see on the track before.
“That was pretty much my first time even watching a PASS race, but I had heard all about Mike Rowe, Ben Rowe and Johnny Clark. To race against them now is an honor. I've been talking to Mike a lot. He's a really good guy and it's nice to get some respect from him. I'm anxious to gain more respect from the competitors and the veterans and go from there.”
While those are words that many young drivers preach, the fenders that get ripped off their racecars tell a different story.
“You see a lot of other kids who will go out and wreck cars,” said Theriault. “They don't really care about what they're driving, but someone has to foot the bill and work on them. Just taking the car home in one piece is my goal. Obviously, as you work on and get more experience, I'll set my goals higher. But now I just want to finish and learn.”
With Theriault's background around the family business, you can tell that his respect for equipment is genuine.
“We have off road and on road logging truck hauling wood chips and a lot of things. You see some drivers who take care of their equipment and some drivers who don't. You notice things like that and you learn from it.”
Another things that has helped to flatten out Theriault's learning curve has been the advice from mentor Kirk Thibeau. Also from Fort Kent, Thibeau has run a limited schedule of PASS North races while also scoring victories in open Super Late Model shows over the Canadian border. He was right there with Thireault when the youngster made his winning Late Model debut at Spud and remains an asset.
“We're good friends with him. I called him before the [start of the Beech Ridge PASS North] race even. He's a great guy. He's building a new car and he'll be out racing there soon.”
Theirault will race next in Sunday's ACT Late Model event scheduled at Oxford Plains Speedway (ME).