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Ken Schrader Racing's Austin Theriault, ARCA's comeback kid returns to Michigan

(Special to arcaracing.com)

TOLEDO, Ohio (June 6, 2017) -- The Corrigan Oil 200 at Michigan Int'l Speedway will mark Austin Theriault's 10th career ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards start. While the majority of the ARCA tracks are new experiences for the Fort Kent, Maine driver, the Corrigan Oil 200 will be the exception to the rule. Theriault, in his career-first ARCA Racing Series start in 2014, drove to Victory Lane at Michigan.

However, Theriault has not been back to Michigan since. What's happened between could fill volumes.

After winning at Michigan, Theriault got the attention of Brad Keselowski who signed the up-and-comer to drive the team's No. 29 Ford in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Theriault responded with two top-5 finishes and four top-10s right out of the gate. With his motorsports career on the fast track and headed in all the right directions, it all came tumbling down at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when a devastating crash left with him with a compression fracture of the lower back.

"That was a tough deal," said Theriault. "You have this amazing opportunity in front of you and can't see it through."

The only thing Theriault could do was lay low, commit himself to physical therapy and give his back time to heal. In the meantime, his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with BKR was disintegrating before his very eyes.

"When you can't perform at the level you need to, it's very frustrating. It can really bring you down, emotionally and physically."

With the off-season behind him and his back finally on the mend, Theriault was seemingly race-ready in 2016, but the opportunities just weren't there. Nobody was banging his door down, so he found himself in mediocre rides with mixed results. As a last resort, he dusted off his own late model car just to keep his name out there.

"I raced in Xfinity with a few teams...raced a mix of K&N stuff and my own late model just trying to stay relevant; but I wasn't running up front. I was running out of options. Toward the end of the year I was getting ready to head home when I thought I might as well try and do some networking at the PRI (Performance Racing Industry) Show before I headed back to Maine. I just went by myself with no clear-cut agenda."

And that's when a chance encounter with an industry icon changed Theriault's world in a major league way.

"I figured I needed to get out there and meet some more people. I met Ken and Ann Schrader at PRI. They were literally coming out of one row and I was going in. We nearly bumped in to one another. We talked, shook hands and agreed to talk some more."

Actually, Theriault had already been working the phones prior to PRI.

"I met with a couple guys at Cunningham's (Motorsports) shop to see if there might be any opportunities. Kerry Scherer and Briggs Cunningham (Cunningham co-owners) seemed interested, and they put in some good words for me with Kenny about the possibility of me getting in his (Schrader) car."

One thing led to the next and before you knew it, Schrader, who clearly liked what he saw in Theriault, signed him to drive full-time on the ARCA tour in 2017.

The deal came together quickly and there was little time to prepare for the season opener at Daytona in mid-February. Surely, it would take some time for the team to gel with their new driver. They were all hopeful but not expecting miracles right out of the gate.

But Theriault came with a plan all his own and put it on display when he sailed into Gatorade Victory Lane at Daytona in his first start for Schrader.

"Kenny knows what it's like to compete at the highest level...he's got balance," Theriault said. "When you're talking with him, it's just like talking to anyone...he's so approachable. He displays a lot of leadership qualities that attracts people. He knows how to get the best out of people."

To prove it wasn't a fluke, Theriault repeated in the win column in early June on the Elko Speedway short track. Next stop on the Theriault tour, Michigan Int'l Speedway, a welcome return trip for 23-year-old racer.

"It won't be my first time at Michigan, but it's different because of the composite bodies. Pocono (one week before Michigan) will be my first time on a big track to run with the composite body. At least I'll get a feel of what they're like, aero-wise, before we go to Michigan...I should have a much better idea of what to expect.

"Michigan (in 2014) was my first really big track experience. We worked our way up through practice. By the end of the race we were the strongest. If I remember anything about the place is that, even though you have multiple grooves to run, there's always a preferred groove. You can definitely run side by side, but clean air is very important there. But that was my experience in the older steel cars. I've never raced a composite car on a mile-and-a-half or more, so I can't give you a true feel on that yet."

No matter what happens from here, Theriault knows he's getting a second chance in the sport he loves.

"I'll never lose sight of that. Second opportunities don't always come Believe me...I wake up every day with a grateful attitude. It's not just a second chance...it's an opportunity to race for an industry icon and to run for a championship in a highly-respected and well-known national tour. It's just a great opportunity to come back stronger than ever."

ARCA Schedule at MIS
The on-track action begins Thursday, June 15 with practice from 1 - 3 p.m. General Tire Pole Qualifying starts at 1:40 p.m. Friday afternoon. The Corrigan Oil 200 is scheduled to get underway Friday at 6 with live coverage on FS1. ARCAracing.com will provide live timing, scoring and chat.

Don Radebaugh

dradebaugh@arcaracing.com