By Don Radebaugh, ARCA Racing Series
Ken Schrader Racing Team Manager and Crew Chief Donnie Richeson has worked with some of the best in the business. From Darrell Waltrip to Kenny Bernstein, from Alan Kulwicki to Jeff Burton, from the Bodine brothers to Ken Schrader Racing (KSR), Richeson has been honing his craft for decades. Yet there was always something missing, until 2017 came into full view.
"I've never won a championship in any kind of racing," said Richeson.
That's about to change when the No. 52 KSR car rolls off for practice at Kansas Speedway Oct. 20. It'll be at that moment when driver Austin Theriault will officially clinch the 2017 ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards national championship, and the second car owner title for KSR.
"There's been a lot of firsts this year," Richeson said. "I had never been to Daytona victory lane either. I've never had this many wins in a season. Never won a championship or received any of the awards that come along with that type of season. I really haven't reflected on it yet…we still have a race to go. Even when we've won, we really haven't spent too much time on it. A little celebration in victory lane…we push it back in the trailer and start talking about next week."
Some of the other awards "that come along with that type of season" will include the Sioux Chief Short Track Challenge, the General Tire Superspeedway Challenge and the Bill France 4 Crown.
There's another special award Richeson can look forward to. The Owensboro, Ky. native has clinched the 2017 Cometic Crew Chief of the Year honors, another first. (Disclaimer: Richeson must be in attendance at Kansas to "officially" clinch).
"That's pretty cool but I'm really accepting that award for the whole team. I'm just a figurehead. Racing's a team effort, more so this year than any team I've been with in the past. It's been a complete group effort. Hard work pays off…this is what everybody strives for."
Richeson also knows that the luxury of working with the same driver all season can pay big dividends.
"There were some years we just didn't run full-time, and when we did run full-time there was very few years when we had the same driver all season. It's definitely better to have a program when you're working with one driver. There are a lot more variables that go along with switching drivers week to week. It's quite a challenge for people that have to do that. We've all been there…sometimes that's just the year business model. Some are here just to get experience on bigger tracks or working on their approval ratings to go to a different series. We've had 'em all."
Richeson moved to North Carolina in 1985 to work for Darrell Waltrip. After making the rounds with several NASCAR Xfinity and Cup teams over 20 years, he finally found a home at Ken Schrader Racing in December of 2003.
"I've never been part of an employer-employee relationship quite like the one I'm in. It's been more like family here. Schrader's like a brother…best friend type of thing. As the sport changes you get some other offers here and there, but I'm finally wise enough to realize how fortunate I am to be in the situation I'm in. It's been so good for me."
Typically, folks migrate from ARCA to the bigger leagues. Richeson did just the opposite.
"I love the ARCA Series…love it here. It's not so cut-throat. It's more relaxed, more family oriented. It's business…don't get wrong; but at the end of the day, we're friends with the competitors. There's something to be said for that.
"It feels more like a neighborhood…kinda like playing in the same sandbox. You feel like you have a voice here. I can go to Ron (Drager/ARCA President) and speak to him about anything, ideas, issues, no matter what the subject material is."
While Richeson is grateful for the chorus of good fortune all around, he's also very much in tune with his driver, Fort Kent, Maine's Austin Theriault and the incredible job he did in the driver's chair.
"We talked about this after the Daytona test way back in January…how smart Austin is in the seat. The crystal ball was right…he certainly is that guy. For me, it's like going back 30 years…like living Alan Kulwicki all over again. I've never worked with someone so determined to be the best at his craft. He's (Theriault) like a quarterback in a film room. He's a student of his game. Before we went to the dirt, he sat down and watched…studied Springfield and DuQuoin.
"It's not only that. He's in the shop with us every day. When we're going through the set-up on the car, he's right there with you. We make our decisions together. He not only understands what's going on in the seat, but from the mechanical side. Right from when the cars are being built, he's incorporating something, from the set-ups to the race track. He understands the mechanical side so well because he was there when we started out."
With a national championship on the way, not even Richeson could have predicted the record season at KSR.
"If we would have won three races I would have considered that a really good year. I would have been more than happy with three wins. I mean, seven wins…I would never have been part of that prediction. We've led the points all year and Austin gets us in position to win. I'm really proud of the way this team won the championship and the way Austin handles himself on the race track, and off. Nothing was a fluke…there were no fuel mileage cards and he didn't knock anyone off the race track to win. I'm just really blessed to be a part of this and I'm really excited about this year. I'd even be more excited if we could keep him for next year to defend it."
There's one more new experience awaiting Richeson, and it's going to involve a tuxedo.
"I've never been to an ARCA banquet. I was never going to receive anything…no money, no awards, so there was no reason to go, so I just stayed home and let Kenny (Schrader) handle all that."
Kansas ARCA 150 kicks off Triple-Header Weekend
The Kansas 150 also serves as the show-opener for big triple-header weekend of racing to include the NASCAR Xfinity Series Kansas Lottery 300 Saturday and the Monster Energy Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 Sunday.
The Kansas 150 marks the 17th consecutive ARCA race at Kansas since the series debuted on the 1.5-mile superspeedway in 2001 – Jason Jarrett the inaugural winner. Other ARCA winners at Kansas include Frank Kimmel, Shelby Howard, Ryan Hemphill, Chad Blount, Scott Lagasse, Jr., Scott Speed, Parker Kligerman, Ty Dillon, Alex Bowman, Spencer Gallagher, Mason Mitchell and Chase Briscoe.
Practice for the Kansas 150 is from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Oct. 20, followed by General Tire Pole Qualifying at 2:30 p.m. The 17th Kansas ARCA 150 is scheduled to get the green flag at 7:47 Friday night, with live coverage on FS2. ARCAracing.com will also feature Live Timing and Scoring and Live Chat of all on-track activities.