By Don Radebaugh, ARCA Racing Series
Just before the start of the Kansas 150 Friday at Kansas Speedway, 2017 ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards national champions, driver Austin Theriault and car owner Ken Schrader, shared their thoughts on their success with the media during a press conference in the media center.
It was a 'dream-season' for both…the Concord, North Carolina-based Ken Schrader Racing (KSR) team cleaned up with 7 wins on the season, the General Tire Superspeedway title, the Sioux Chief Short Track Challenge championship and more. It was Schrader's second ARCA car owner championship while it was Theriault's first. Crew Chief Donnie Richeson also earned the Cometic Crew Chief of the Year honors.
While Schrader had "been there, done that," there were a lot of firsts for Theriault.
"I had some of the most fun at Springfield and DuQuoin that I ever had in a racecar," said Theriault, who finished second in his first dirt track start at Springfield and won next time out at DuQuoin. "It goes back to the basics of racing…you just have to make sure you get through the corner without wrecking. I asked a lot of questions about racing on the dirt; but at the end of the day it goes back to the basics. To get a pole and win at the dirt tracks was a high point. Even the mile-and-a-halves…they gave us the most trouble…but we still got a win at Kentucky.
"The road course was interesting. I am by no means a road course expert…I have very little experience on road courses…but we still came out with a win. That was exciting for the whole team. I realized at that point…the fastest car doesn't always win. You just have to be there when I counts."
At that point, Theriault was reminded of some of his other accomplishments.
"It's an honor to be ARCA's Sioux Chief Short Track champion and the General Tire Superspeedway champion. The awards that ARCA puts forth…it's almost like…you look at 'em…you circle 'em. We ran the table and that just shows that’s why we're in the position we are."
Despite the national championship and dominating the majority of the Special Award categories, Theriault believes the team can only get better.
"As long as you can see cars in front of you, you've got work to do. We were respectable everywhere…not always the fastest car; but in position to capitalize on wins. If we can get faster, who knows what we could accomplish."
Theriault's story is not only incredible but inspirational. After winning in his first ARCA start at Michigan in 2014, Theriault got the opportunity to drive for Brad Keselowski Racing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series the following year. Things were progressing right along before Theriault was involved in a horrific crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that left him with a broken back. Through his recovery, Theriault fledged along in 2016 in mediocre rides that produced the typical mediocre results. Then he bumped into Ken and Ann Schrader at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade show in Indianapolis last December, and the rest is history.
"He didn't have a car to drive and I didn't have a driver," said Schrader. "He came up to me at PRI. My wife said, 'hey I like that guy…how good is he?' I just told her that he was someone who can make it happen for us this year."
Schrader also acknowledged some of the other players at KSR who helped make "it happen."
"The guys in the shop beat their brains out all year. Whatever it took…they did it…all nighters…it was all there. Donnie (Richeson/crew chief) hadn't had the chance to run for championship. He always had different drivers in and out of the car. He just hasn't had the chance to run for a championship. I'm proud of all the guys…they earned every bit of this championship. Really happy for Donnie. He's been at this so long, and this is his first championship."
The media soon asked what Schrader thought about his driver.
"He led from the first race on. He never gave up the points lead…that's pretty rare in this business, if ever. We had two bad runs where we were 6th and 9th. That isn't exactly terrible. Knew right off the get-go that the way they ran they were going to be there all year. These guys worked their hearts out. But Austin's ability and experience to keep the fenders on the thing…to pull the all nighters…not to just get to the next race, but to be better at the next race. The way he carried himself on and off the track…just a very impressive young man."
It was no accident that the No. 52 championship car at Kansas was predominantly decked out in Schrader's sponsor's colors -- Federated Auto Parts.
"Our main Federated partners are always on the ARCA car at some level. They were on my dirt car for at least 50 races…the two-seater play cars and more. They just informed me that I'm going to have a job next year. It's going to be our 19th year with Federated, and we certainly want to thank them for continuing to believe in our program."
Theriault was also asked what he learned from Schrader.
After a long pause for thought, Theriault said, "He made me realize to try to be cognizant between the balance of driving the car and trying to fix the car. A driver can make his team run in circles. Kenny comes from the school of just drive the thing. I'm still getting used to that. I’m still always trying to make the car better."
The media also recognized Theriault's accomplishments in regards to the diversity of the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards. Theriault became the first driver in 65 consecutive years of ARCA competition who won on all of ARCA's track types and disciplines in a single season.
"That means a lot to me, I mean a lot. People say I'm a veteran; but I have no more than 5 or 6 Xfinity starts and maybe 8 or 9 Truck starts. It helped me to get to this point. We work hard and try and study these track as much as possible. We're very thankful the way the races turned out so good for us. Winning at all those different tracks makes it even more special."
Theriault opened the season with a win at Daytona (superspeedway). Then he followed with victories at Elko Speedway, Madison Int'l Speedway and Salem Speedway (short paved tracks), DuQuoin State Fairgrounds (dirt track), Road America (road course) and Kentucky Speedway (intermediate speedway).
Theriault, of Fort Kent, Maine, is the first ARCA champion to come from the state of Maine. Through his success in '17, fans from across his home state dominated ARCA's live Chat Board on Timing and Scoring during all the on-track activities.
"There's roughly a million people in Maine. I've been very fortunate to have a huge number of people follow me. When you race at the national level, it takes everything to a new level. I'm proud of all our support from back home. I'm proud to be from Maine…it's helped shape the person I am. That sort of small town respect helped me be the person I am today. I wouldn't be here without the amazing support I get from back home. I wouldn't be here without them. This is their championship too."
Theriault also took time to recognize the General Tires that carried him all season.
"When you sail it down into the corner you can trust the grip and know it's going to stick. Drivers are always trying to maximize the grip and I know I can trust it. We're very fortunate the General Tires have held up so well this year. It means a lot to know you can trust it."
Beyond all the hard work and all-nighters, Theriault also said he never had this much fun.
"My success in ARCA means a lot. I just had a ton of fun in ARCA. I've never had this much fun in a race car. This is always going to be big for me no matter what else may happen. My teammates will be my friends for life. We've all shared a lot…you just don't walk past that. The ARCA cars are a ton of fun to drive…they really suit my driving style. This season really boosted my confidence. I don't know if too confident is a thing, but I had to check it back at times. I just want to thank my team, my sponsors, all the people who followed us from home…everyone who shared in this championship."
As one might expect, the conversation ultimately led to next year. Schrader had the final say.
"If I could have any favorite scenario, it would be to have one of the those really good teams call him from over there (NASCAR). If that doesn't happen, hell yeah I want him back."