Austin Theriault still remembers his chance.
He was only hoping to produce a top-20 finish in the 2011 TD Bank 250, but late in the race he found himself among the leaders.
One of the drivers he was dueling down the stretch? Kyle Busch.
“We were up there,” Theriualt, a Fort Kent native, said. “There was a caution that came out. We were right up there with Kyle Busch. We were trying to make it past him. That last restart didn’t go quite well.”
Busch went on to win the race. Theriault finished third. It was still a great achievement, not only reaching the podium but being there with a driver of Busch’s stature.
“It was surreal for a while,”Theriault said. “It brought a lot of publicity for me, standing up there with Kyle. You hope maybe somebody will take notice.”
Eddie MacDonald has his own stories about racing some of the best that NASCAR has to offer. He won back-to-back 250’s and can proudly say he outgunned up-and-coming drivers Brad Keselowski and Steve Wallace, as well as NASCAR veteran Kenny Wallace.
“It’s always exciting to have these guys show up and be able to run against them,” MacDonald said.
Oxford Plains Speedway owner Bill Ryan has been bringing in drivers from NASCAR’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide circuits since 2004. That year, with Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth in the main event, OPS achieved the largest crowd in 250 history. Since then, elite drivers have continued to race in Maine and impact its greatest short track race.
“I think it’s been huge in terms of attracting fans, people that aren’t necessarily short track racing fans,” Ryan said. “It’s brought more people to Oxford Plains Speedway. If a casual sports fan or television race fan hears that Matt Kenseth or Kyle Busch is going to be here, that draws them out to the track. Hopefully, they enjoy themselves. Maybe that gets them to come back and support these (local) guys.”
Ryan had always wondered what might happen if he could bring a little NASCAR star power to the 250. He likens it to Tom Brady suiting up for an Arena League football game or David Ortiz doing a rehab stint with the Portland Sea Dogs.
“We had Antoine Walker playing against us,” said Ryan, a part-owner of the Maine Red Claws D-League basketball team. “Everyone remembers him from the Celtics. We could have doubled the size of our building the first time Antoine came. People like to see these guys from the so-called big leagues get back to their roots.”
When Ryan noticed in 2003 that NASCAR inserted an open weekend to its racing schedule in July, he knew opportunity was knocking. He immediately changed 250 weekend to the open NASCAR date.
“It was an instant decision,” Ryan said. “I put word out right away to all my contacts in the racing world.”
It didn’t take long for Matt Kenseth to express interest. When Kurt Busch heard that Kenseth was racing, he also agreed to race. In front of that invigorated, record-breaking crowd, Kenseth rallied from the 41st start position to place third. Busch finished 13th.
Since that day, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Terry Labonte, Denny Hamlin, Ricky Craven, J.J. Yeley, Kevin LePage have all joined the steady stream of big-name drivers to appear in Oxford.
“It’s one of those things that’s perpetuated itself,” Ryan said. “Guys are talking about it in the pits. Guys want to win. I think Kyle came back because Kevin won, and Kyle had almost won. It’s one of those things that the race has such prestige across the country that people really want to be part of it.”
One thing that defines many in Maine is a dislike of people from “away” encroaching on their turf. So when Ryan began bringing in elite drivers to compete in the 250, there was some inevitable grumbling.
“The feedback has almost always been positive,” Ryan said. “There’s certainly some of those (complaints). Everybody wants to win, but it makes them step up their game. These guys are race fans just like I am. I think they appreciate the chance to race against these guys and if they never go further than Oxford Plains Speedway, they can tell their kids or grandkids that they went door-to-door with Kyle Busch.”
Theriault said he’s heard the complaints about drivers from away getting paid to come in and take potential spots away from local drivers. He understands that line of thinking, but sees it differently.
“I know some guys that don’t like it, but I don’t quite agree with them,” Theriault said. ” Why wouldn’t you want to race and compare yourself with someone like Kyle Busch? Whether or not you can run with them or be as quick as they are, it’s still something to shoot for. You always want to race against the best people.”
In the early going, many of the big-name drivers came in and used cars owned by locals. Harvick and Busch both brought in their own rides and crew and won.
“It’s really good when they put them in local guy’s cars,” MacDonald said. “It makes it a little more equal instead of them using their own cars. It keeps it exciting and leaves it up to just the drivers. They’re all driving the same cars.”
Since 2004, the Cup drivers have averaged a start position of 34th. Kyle Busch started fifth last year and Kevin Harvick started 11th in 2008. All others started well back in the pack.
Busch won in 2011 and Harvick won in 2008. Kenseth took third in 2004 and Kyle Busch finished sixth in 2005. Those were the only top-10 finishes. The average finish of the Cup drivers has been 13th.
“The Cup drivers that have come in here with their own cars built specifically for them to win, were top-notch,” Buckfield’s Tim Brackett said. “Harvick and Kyle, you can’t ask for any better than them two. The ones that came and jumped into someone elses car haven’t really been a factor.”
Though some of the drivers have had an advantage in resources, it hasn’t been a huge benefit for them because of the rules of the race.
“The way the ACT rules work, there’s not a whole lot they can do,”Theriault said. “So, it equals out. If it was an open race, and you had Kyle Busch coming in or technology coming in from North Carolina, it would be different. The way the rules package is now, it limits a lot of money that can come in.”
Worth the investment
Ryan believes that most of the investment in bringing the drivers in comes in his work to attract them here and put them in race cars.
That, he said, has been worth it.
“It’s definitely helped the race in a lot of ways,” Ryan said. “It’s great exposure for the speedway.”
The drivers have truly become marketing tools that have boosted interest and exposure of the 250. The Cup drivers bring marquee names to the event and add a little extra hype to the state’s biggest race. Race fans often have the opportunity to meet, have photos taken and get autographs with some of the Cup drivers in the pit area.
“You’ve got your die hard fans that are there every Saturday night,”Brackett said. “Most of them would probably like to see a Saturday night guy win. All the fans that watch TV but don’t come but once a year are rooting for the Cup guys.”
The added interest in the race and the larger crowds aren’t lost on the local drivers, who also get to watch and learn from the NASCAR talent while networking with people they might not otherwise connect with.
“It’s great to fill the stands and keep the purse up,” Brackett said. “It keeps the excitement up.”
Ryan says that as long as NASCAR maintains that open weekend on its schedule, he’ll attempt to entice some top-level drivers to Maine. The challenge is to find drivers interested in racing in their off-time.
“A lot of the guys that do that, have done it,” said Ryan. “So it’s more and more interesting every year. There’s not as many because we’ve had so many.”