A well-known, Maine-raised basketball coach once told me that natives of our state have an “inherent inferiority complex.”

Being an ideal candidate and guilty as charged, I recoiled in horror at first, or at least rolled my eyes and furrowed my brow in objection.

Then I realized it was said out of deep affection. That it was the kind of thing we could safely say about ourselves, even if only God could help an outsider who uttered those same words.

I also realized that the coach was right. It was said in a sports context, but it applies to most aspirations and ways of life.

Think about it. If the geographical isolation doesn’t get you, the lack of economic resources, relative dearth of opportunity or fickleness of the seasons will. The perception that has stunted our growth for at least two generations is that in order to make it in the real world, you must, a) be independently wealthy; or b) move away.

This is a timely discussion after another of our native sons boarded his latest flight into a different universe. Driving a car owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., 20-year-old Austin Theriault of Fort Kent qualified 17th and finished 15th, finishing on the lead lap in his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut Sunday in Newton, Iowa.

While there are no exact comparisons, if you’re among the motorsports-uninitiated, Nationwide is equivalent to Triple-A baseball, the NBA Developmental League or minor-league hockey. It’s one step away from the big time, where men named Johnson, Gordon and, yes, Earnhardt rake in $20 million or more after endorsements.

Do you care? For every rabid race enthusiast with whom I’ve shared a conversation over the years, there are two or three who tell me they’ve “never understood that ’roundy-‘round stuff.” And in a scattered, bottom-heavy state whose population center is closer to Hartford, Connecticut, than Fort Kent, Maine, perhaps Theriault doesn’t even feel like your neighbor.

Chances still are good that you’ve heard of Oxford Plains and Beech Ridge, the local speedways where Theriault tasted much of his teenage success. And his business partners should ring a bell. Before Earnhardt Jr., Theriault’s boss was Brad Keselowski, 2012 Sprint Cup champion. The kid is a big deal, and not merely “pretty good for Maine,” as that inferiority complex leaves us prone to say.

The three most recent Mainers to make the big move south, shake the correct hands and shatter the window of opportunity were Ricky Craven, Andy Santerre and Joe Bessey. Only Craven made it to the elite division as a driver, and his career was stunted by post-concussion syndrome and shrinking sponsor budgets.

All three made their mark in the 1990s. We were in a recovering economy. Racing was a different game, too. You could be 25 or even 30, win a few regional events with a team of family and friends, and get noticed. Today, the sport is no different than the music industry. None of the prime candidates for a major gig are old enough to sip the victory champagne. Most are advanced because they have the right look, the right name or the right sponsor.

Others from our region — Bob Greeley, Stan Meserve and the late Al Hammond come to mind — dabbled in big-time racing, but you have to dive even deeper into the archives to learn of their exploits.

It just doesn’t happen around here. Either you’ve noticed that in other sports, and other life endeavors, or you haven’t been paying attention.

That’s why we celebrated every time Patrick Dempsey or Judd Nelson popped up on the big or little screen. Jump for joy every time Charlie Furbush or Ryan Flaherty appears in a box score. Hollered every time Tom Knight or Nik Caner-Medley threw down a dunk on ESPN. Can recite every word of the songs (depending upon our age and preferences, of course) that allowed Rick Pinette and Oak or Spose to sniff the Top 40 three decades apart. Sang at the top of our lungs when Seth Wescott stood not once, but twice, atop an Olympic podium.

But then, sometimes, that complex kicks in. A small but audible element among us waits for a high draft pick such as Mark Rogers or Cindy Blodgett or a hot prospect such as Craven to fall shy of expectations so we can be the I-told-you-so police. Or we see Knight and T.J. Caouette sixth or seventh in the rotation at Notre Dame and Villanova and say, “Yeah, but just think if they had gone to Orono.” Yeah, just think if they had passed up a world-class education and the chance to play in Madison Square Garden.

We appear to take as much pleasure in shortcomings as successes. It’s a defense mechanism that is so agonizingly Maine and so despicably wrong. It is how we self-medicate for the failure to chase our own dreams and our inability to overcome some of the disadvantages inherent to the 207.

Race fans or not, I hope we all take advantage of Theriault’s flirtation with the major leagues and overcome that once and for all. Because whether the pride of potato country becomes a Sprint Cup champion, or settles into a comfortable career in Nationwide or the Truck series, or is back racing at OPS on Friday nights five years from now, he will have been a success.

He didn’t sit around waiting for opportunity to bite like so many deer ticks in this part of the world. He followed his first love, made fast friends and put himself in a position to succeed.

Nothing complex about that formula. Simple as it gets, really.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.


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