Circumstances allow Austin Theriault to seize opportunities in racing

FORT KENT, Maine — Austin Theriault remembers with a laugh his first spin behind the wheel of a stock car.

“It was the ‘Young Guns’ class,” the 16-year-old high school sophomore recalls. “What I remember was how those guys took racing so seriously. They were going circles around me. My left front tire was 4 inches up off the ground.”

What Theriault has learned since that firsthand introduction to the sport was that soon he would take a racing career just as seriously. Just 12 months ago, Theriault never imagined anything more than running in the weekly 4-cylinder division at Spud Speedway in Caribou. Fast-forward to 2010, though, and Theriault plans to run the complete ACT Late Model Tour slate and select PASS North Series events.

“Looking back just a year ago, it all happened pretty quick,” Theriault said. “The biggest thing is just the good people I’ve been meeting along the way… I’ve gone from a little 4-cylinder car a couple years ago to Super Late Models, and it’s just the right people we’ve been lucky enough to have met, I guess.

“Another thing that’s been good for us, really, is just the changes that have happened — I haven’t been at a certain level long enough to get used to a certain type of car or track. I think that allows me to adapt better and use my seat time more effectively.”

But the fact that Theriault gets behind the wheel of his family-owned No. 57 Varney Insurance/Hogan Tire/Daigle & Houghton Ford Fusion on race day is all about adapting — and taking chances. Theriault likened it to a puzzle coming together on a table in a family den, where none of the pieces produce a finished result without the others first falling into place themselves.

In 2007, Spud Speedway reopened under then-owner Greg Veinotte, after years of sitting dormant. That same year, Theriault’s grandparents bought him a Pontiac Grand Am (a “bomber,” Theriault called it) to race at Spud. Following his sister’s move to Portland to attend college that fall, his father — with free time of his own to kill in Portland — found a flyer advertising Saturday night races at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough. He went to the track and left with a car on a trailer — a converted Dodge Neon for Theriault to race at Spud.

Even though that was the start of his racing career, moving up New England’s racing ranks took another few pieces fitting together. When Theriault entered the Spud 150 last summer after buying his first Late Model from Doug Coombs, Mainely Motorsports owner Steve Perry happened to be at the track gathering footage for his television show that weekend.

Perry also owns a Super Late Model that competes part-time in the PASS North Series, and he and Theriault forged a working relationship that ended with Theriault in Perry’s car this season.

The rest, as they say, is history. Or, Theriault hopes, the start of history.

“I learn something every week that I race,” he said. “This year, I know I’m going to learn a lot in terms of the distances of the races and saving equipment and that kind of stuff. Pretty much all the tracks on the ACT tour, I’ve never been to before. I know it’s going to be tough, but we’ll learn and go from there.

“My goals go from as simple as qualifying for all the races to maybe getting invited to New Hampshire (for the ACT Invitational at NH Motor Speedway in September). That probably would be highlight of the year, just getting into a race like that. Right now, though, it’s about getting into every race and trying to get the ACT Rookie of the Year.”

While waiting for his new car to be finished being built, Theriault sat out the first ACT race of the year at Thunder Road International Speedbowl in Barre, Vt., but he shook off any rust at Oxford Plains Speedway in mid-May. During that race, Theriault started up front and led a bunch of laps in the early going before running into handling woes.

He’s turned in strong efforts on the PASS North Series, too, running to the finish at both Beech Ridge and White Mountain Motorsports Park for a team he’d never worked with — at two tracks he’d never seen before.

“At some point you know you’ll start doubting yourself,” said Theriault, who last week returned to Spud Speedway and won the season-opening Late Model feature there. “I haven’t gotten there yet, but I know there will be good times and bad times and you just have to work through the bad times and not get frustrated. I’ve only been to a couple races so far, so I still have (high) expectations.

“I’ve probably pulled the most from the other competitors. A lot of competitors that are competitive on the track will still help you out with advice. Mike Rowe, Ben Rowe — they’re not scared to give you a couple of tips and try and help you get better.”

He’ll try to get better on his own, too. This week — an off week for both ACT and PASS — he’s heading to Lee USA Speedway to run in the track’s NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Model feature. One week later, he’ll return to Lee with the ACT Late Model Tour for the NH Governor’s Cup 150.

It’s just another piece to the puzzle that Theriault is putting together.

“I’m learning,” he said. “I’m learning a lot, and I’m having a good time doing it. It’s been a fun year so far, and it’s really just started.”