Austin Theriault of Fort Kent (center) alongside team owner Ken Schrader (left) and ARCA Racing Series owner Ron Drager after winning the ARCA championship in 2017. Credit: Courtesy photo | BDN

Austin Theriault often spent childhood Sundays in front of the television with his grandfather, Richard Theriault, watching NASCAR Cup races, and the family also traveled to New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon to see them live.

The Fort Kent family is heading back to Loudon on Sunday to watch the now 25-year-old Theriault make his Monster Energy Cup Series debut in the No. 52 Bangor Savings Bank Chevrolet for car owner Rick Ware at the Foxwoods Casino 301.

Race time is 3 p.m.

Theriault will start 36th after Friday’s qualifying run. Brad Keselowski, Theriault’s former boss, won the pole.

Theriault will be the first Maine driver in the Cup series since Newburgh’s Ricky Craven’s 278-race career ended in 2004.

“When he was 8 or 10, I asked him what he wanted to do for a living someday,” said his father, Steve. “He told me he wanted to be a race car driver. I chuckled.”

The personable Theriault, whose racing idol was former Cup star Mark Martin, got his start at Spud Speedway in Caribou. He figures he was 12 or 13 years old.

He chatted with his grandfather about getting into racing and the family bought him an old race car that had been run on a dirt track in St. Agatha.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Theriault said.

Another local racer, Rick Saucier, helped him get started and told him “people take this very seriously.”

It didn’t take Theriault long to realize that he needed a good car to be competitive so he and his family went to southern Maine where they purchased a Dodge Neon that had been raced at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway.

“I had a much better chance in that car. I got better finishes,” Theriault said.

His interest in the sport bloomed after that season when he and a friend found a Ford Mustang at a junkyard and converted it into a race car.

“That’s when I began to take it seriously. Who is going to spend that much time building a race car?,” Theriault said. “That made me a better race car driver and person and taught me to respect my equipment.”

By 2009 he and his father were searching for a Late Model car.

Steve Theriault owns TNT Road Company, a trucking firm in Fort Kent, and a friend who builds his trucks’ engines, Steve Benner, put him in touch with Mitch Green at Crazy Horse Racing in South Paris.

Green had a friend selling a Late Model car so the Theriaults drove to a parking lot in Augusta,, purchased the car and hauled it back to Fort Kent.

Less than a week later, he made his Late Model debut and won the 2009 Spud 150.

Frenchville racer Shawn Martin, who used to drive at Spud Speedway and now races Late Models at Oxford Plains Speedway, knew Theriault was special.

“From day one, you saw the natural talent in him. I remember talking to Tom Curley, who ran the ACT (American-Canadian Tour), and telling him this kid was going to make it. He obviously did,” Martin said.

“He works harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” said Mainely Motorsports founder and host Steve Perry.

“He is very motivated and driven and he has always persevered,” said his mother, Terry.

“He’s tenacious,” added father Steven

Theriault continued to move up the ranks and had a breakthrough year in 2012. He scored his first ACT victory at Beech Ridge, finished third at the TD Bank Oxford 250 and won a Maine Motorsports Young Guns competition that landed him a ride in a Go Green Racing car owned by Old Orchard Beach’s Archie St. Hilaire for the K&N Pro Series East race at Loudon — his first NASCAR-sanctioned event.

He capped off the season by winning the final 150-lap Pro All-Stars Super Late Model North race at Oxford Plains Speedway in October.

Theriault soon realized that if he was going to achieve his dream of racing in the Cup series, he needed to move to the hub of NASCAR — North Carolina. With the support of his family and friends, the former wrestling standout at Fort Kent Community High School made that move south so after graduation in 2012.

He landed a Super Late Model deal with Brad Keselowski Racing in 2012 and 2013 and had three top-five finishes in seven races.

He ran three Xfinity Series races for JR Motorsports and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014 and 2016 and landed a 13-race deal in the Truck series with Keselowski in 2015, but a terrible wreck at Las Vegas Motor Speedway sidelined him for four races with a broken back and an elbow injury.

Theriault went through rehab and physical therapy and soon returned to racing, finished the season with two top-fives and four top-10s in nine races.

He had six top-fives in 11 races in the K&N Pro Series East Series in 2016 and had a memorable 2017 with Ken Schrader Racing, capturing the ARCA championship with a series-leading seven wins and 16 top-five finishes in 20 races.

Theriault has been unable to land a full-time ride in a higher-level series since then.

“He is the right driver in the wrong era,” Martin said. “Today it’s more about how much money you can bring and less about talent. If it was 30 years ago, Austin would be driving for one of the top-notch teams in [the Cup series].”

Theriault has also worked to learn the off-track side of racing, and Sunday’s race is a reward.

“He has gotten this [Cup] ride on his own,” Steve Theriault said. “He went out and solicited sponsors and a team, he has handled marketing and promotions. He has made public appearances. He lives and breathes the sport and its challenges. It’s an amazing story.”

Austin Theriault understands that NASCAR Cup racing not only is a major sport, but big business.

“There is a lot of work behind the scenes but I feel it makes it much more rewarding when you get out on the track,” he said. “I feel like I have two MBAs under my belt already.

“It has been a challenge but it’s one I want to pursue. When you realize how hard it is to get to the highest level, it makes you want to work harder. You have to work harder than people realize.”

Theriault is unlikely to compete for a victory Sunday given that he will be driving for a team with much less funding than the leading NASCAR Cup teams, but he will give it everything he has.

“I want to have a solid finish and bring the car home in one piece,” he said. “I will be respectful of the other drivers. At the end of the day, it’s still a big race and the fact we’re in it is something nobody can take away from us.”