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Austin Theriault Reflects on NASCAR Past Ahead of 2024 U.S. House Run

Austin Theriault is a former NASCAR driver from Fort Kent, Maine, who made 21 combined starts between the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck series from 2014 to 2019.

His most successful season in the national levels of stock car racing came in 2017, when he won seven races and the ARCA Menards Series championship with Ken Scrader Racing. Theriault, now 30 years old, has spent the 2020s decade pursuing a career in politics. He was elected to the first district of the Maine House of Representatives in December 2022, and he is running for office in Maine’s second district of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2024.

Over the offseason, Frontstretch‘s Stephen Stumpf conducted a phone interview with Theriault to talk about his NASCAR past along with his present and future endeavors.

Stumpf: From 2014 to 2016, you were part time between [the NASCAR ranks], most notably with JR Motorsports and Brad Keselowski Racing. In 2017, you had that full-time season with Ken Schrader Racing, where you guys had a breakout year and won the ARCA championship. How did that deal come together?

Theriault: I met Kenny Schrader at the PRI (the Performance Racing Industry show) at the end of 2016, and I tapped him on the back in middle of the one of the halls and introduced myself to him. And he said, ‘Hey, I know a little bit about you. Come by the shop and we’ll sit down. We don’t have a driver for next year.’

Things like that is what I tell young drivers when they call me, I say you can’t be afraid to introduce yourself to people that you don’t know. You never know what doors people can open up. […] We sat down and talked about what each of our goals were for the year. I said if I I’m going to do this, I think we need to shoot for winning a championship.

I had been racing higher levels than that before, so I felt like I had a perfect amount of experience going into the year. And with that experience that I brought to the table, there wasn’t any reason that we couldn’t be competing for wins. And not only did we compete for wins, but we walked away with a championship.

Stumpf: You won the title with seven wins and top 10s in all but one race. Unfortunately, due to the sponsorship, you guys didn’t return in 2018. How disappointing was being on the sidelines after having such a career year?

Theriault: You look at it a few different ways. I think for Schrader Racing, accomplishing a huge feat like we did allowed Kenny to reevaluate his program, and it wasn’t a couple years after that he shut down the program. I think that that was a lifelong goal for him and Ann to be able to win that championship.

The business or the sport moves very quickly, and it would have been nice to run another year. I was personally trying to move up, and the sport is very much about timing. Chase Briscoe went and won the ARCA championship in 2016, right? And in 2017, he had a ride for Brad Keselowski.

For us, coming off of a really outstanding year, the opportunities were a little drier. 2018 was a rough year, but I was very much used to scratching and clawing for every opportunity, and so is any driver that wants to be successful in the sport. I think we can name names of drivers who really just work hard every single year [and] didn’t always know, like Josh Berry or Briscoe; folks like that who just wait and claw for every opportunity, and then sometimes they get one.

I did some coaching; I did a lot of driver coaching and spotting. A lot of folks wanted to hire me to help their teams, sort of elevate their program to the next level. And a lot of those drivers and teams were in the ARCA series, so I worked with MDM Motorsports that year, did some stuff with Chase Purdy, did some stuff with Zane Smith. That was when MDM was still was still around, and they obviously shut their doors too.

It was a rough couple of years in the motorsports industry, a lot of moving parts and stuff. But 2019 was a better year, and I spent a lot of 2018 sort of laying the groundwork and planting the seeds for what 2019 eventually became, which was a huge opportunity.

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Stumpf: You made a couple of Trucks starts in 2019, but more importantly, you made your Cup debut with five races for Rick Ware Racing and raced at your home track of New Hampshire Motor Speedway. How much of an accomplishment was it to make it to the pinnacle of NASCAR, and at your home track, no less?

Theriault: It was extremely special. I mean, I had tears in my eyes during the playing of the national anthem and during the flyover. […] It was a huge, huge opportunity.

We had great partners that year, things were really looking up. […] I was always very gracious because it seemed like doors would open up out of nowhere. And when I say out of nowhere, it wasn’t that we weren’t putting the work in behind the scenes to make it happen. But sometimes the seeds that you planted and the doors that you knocked on three or two years before take a while to basically come to fruition, and it was like that in 2019 as well.

Through difficulties come opportunity, and that’s always been the theme for me. It’s not easy, coming from the Northeast into an area like NASCAR that’s dominated by people who have heritage in the sport, or people who have connections or know people. I’m a big believer that if you want to make stuff happen, you have to be the one to create your own destiny.

Stumpf: I think everyone that’s racing, whether they’re in NASCAR or the ranks below, has the aspirations to get to Cup full time. Was there ever a moment post-2019 where there was a difficulty in having to leave that behind?

Theriault: Yeah, it wasn’t a smooth transition for me, I think between [COVID-19] and the economic calamity that occurred as well as my injury at Talladega, which took me out for the rest of the year. Because we had multiple races lined up. And in addition to that, we also were working for 2020. Many people will tell you that a lot of what they were working on in 2019 went upside down. But a combination of that and the injury certainly made it difficult for me.

Fortunately, because I had already started doing some driver coaching and driver mentoring previous to that in 2018. I was able to transition into that full time. As I’m recovering from these injuries in 2019, obviously I’m out and about and at the racetrack, and it was great. I’m not new to having challenges, and everybody that at least followed a little bit of my career knows that. When I raced for Keselowski in 2015, that was a great opportunity. We were in a great spot in the mid-to-later part of the year, and I was going to finish out the season. And then, I ended up breaking my back at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the rest is history there.

A friend of mine, Austin Cindric, ended up replacing me and then he came in [at] a graceful time that you’re after. It’s been a challenge, but I’ve learned a lot through those challenges, and it’s made me much more of a fighter and a stronger person with a stronger character. [It’s given me] a better understanding of how to deal with challenges that life throws at you.

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Stumpf: You first ran for the state legislator of Maine in 2022. You won. Was going into politics always a goal of yours, or was it something that came about after the end of your NASCAR tenure in 2019?

Theriault: That’s a good question. Ever since high school, I was always paying attention to what was going on. I felt like it was all of our responsibility to be a concerned citizen and an active citizen. I didn’t have a lot of time for that when I was traveling the country, but I always stayed involved with Maine to the best of my ability. […]

The state itself has always had a special place in my heart. And with what happened during COVID, I felt kind of frustrated and felt like it was time to start getting more actively and more vocally involved in politics. I felt like it really was everybody’s responsibility, especially with what happened in COVID, to do that. It was the right time, the right place. For me to come back and serve the community that I was born in and the community that taught me so much as a kid, […] it’s been a joy for me to be able to represent the community and the people.

You realize very quickly that despite the challenges that we have, there are many, many opportunities for us to work together to make our communities better and to make the state better. So living in a very political environment right now, it’s actually an opportunity for us to have discussions and have conversations with people about issues and try to find common ground. And that’s what I’ve been really good at. I’ve been able to work with everybody, regardless of their personal beliefs. And I always feel like we come out of those conversations having understood the issue a lot better than then we did going into it.

Stumpf: In NASCAR, teamwork has always been a formula for success. Were there any skills teamwork-wise in NASCAR that helped you translate to a career in office?

Theriault: I’m very proud of the ability to bring people together and to set teams up and to create organizations that work in business or politics or in NASCAR or in racing or whatever thing you want to talk about; [in] very few instances can one person do it at all. I’ve always felt like it’s important to have smart people around you and create situations where you’ve got smart people who come together to create solutions that work even better, and I’m very proud of that. I think that’s one of the strengths that I’m able to bring to the table.

Growing up in my family business was an important part of my upbringing as well. I come from a four- or five-generation family who worked in the farming industry as well as the logging and trucking industry, which are very much staple industries up in the northern part of the state of Maine. These industries are extremely hard. Very tough on people, very tough on families, and [it] can be very hard to get ahead in these industries that are traditionally known as very labor intensive, right?

So all of my childhood, I saw how hard folks in my family work, how dedicated you had to be, but at the same time, how important it was to care for your family as well as your community. That’s been a huge asset for me to be able to sort of recreate that with what I’m doing now.

Stumpf: You’ve been in the state legislature for Maine for a year. You’re now going to be running for the U.S. House in Maine’s Second District. How will next year look in terms of campaigning but also balancing your duties in the Maine State House?

Theriault: I’ve been focused on transportation issues as well as energy issues, as well as mental health and drug abuse prevention and treatment. That’s what I’ve spent a lot of time on in the House working on. […] A lot of folks that I know personally are being affected by addiction and in overdoses, and people are losing family members.

I don’t want to get too political because I understand this is sort of an overview. I think that there’s three or four very important issues that affect not only the people back here but really anybody who’s going to read this article.

Cost of living is two or three times higher than it was just before COVID or even a few years ago. That’s affecting people’s ability to go out, and even racing and the short track racing community, how much more expensive is it for folks that used to enjoy going to the racetrack to be able to do the same thing now. And the movement to electrify has also been a conversation that’s come up lately. […] I come from a rural area, and a lot of the state of Maine is rural as well, and you have folks that kind of want to use a one-size-fits-all approach to essentially kind of force people to purchase electric cars or at least push people to buy these electric cars that really aren’t going to work for them. Technology’s not even close to being to the point now where that’s going to work for us.

That’s also affecting the racing in the motorsports community as well. I mean, there are always going to continue to be challenges against the motorsports community. You do have an ever-growing population of people who want to shut down racing. […] And I don’t think common folk and the regular people support that. And that’s going to require people like me, who obviously understand the sport a little bit more, to be able to bring a commonsense perspective to the table.

And so, as we balance all these issues out, it’s amazing how many issues there actually are all at once. But that being said, there’s always three or four really critical issues that people talk about when I’m campaigning, and I kind of hit on them there.

Stumpf: Last question I have to close this out: do you ever envision yourself racing in NASCAR or racing again, or have you fully made the transition to being in office?

Theriault: I ran the Oxford 250 this year, and we raised about $27,000 for Travis Mills, who’s a friend of mine. He runs the Travis Mills Foundation here in the state of Maine. He’s a quadruple amputee who hit a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. Examples like that, I’m all for getting back behind the wheel. I just want to make sure when I do it, that it’s for good reason and for a good cause.

I really find myself having to dedicate more time to this undertaking for serving the public and serving the people. […] I always have a love for racing, and I stayed in touch with a lot of friends who I’ve built relationships with over the years in racing, and many of them are still racing at the highest levels. So yeah, you never count it out, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I did at some point. But I have my priorities right now, and [racing] is not one of them.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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