Fort Kent’s Austin Theriault expects to race again this season despite suffering a compression fracture in his lower back after hitting the wall head-on during a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“He fully intends to race again this season,” his father, Steve Theriault, said Monday. “He is still extremely sore. But he is in good spirits.”
Theriault said his son will see a doctor on Tuesday in North Carolina and will get a clearer picture of his status and a treatment schedule.
“He is resting today, but he has been walking around,” he said.
The 21-year-old Austin Theriault is wearing a back brace that he was outfitted with at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas. He flew home to North Carolina on Sunday.
The crash occurred just 14 laps into the Rhino Linings 350 when Theriault’s Brad Keselowski Racing teammate, Tyler Reddick, lost control of his truck, slid down the track and hit Theriault, launching him up the track into the concrete wall.
There was no SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barrier in place on that portion of the race track.
NASCAR required the installation of the SAFER barriers at oval tracks three years after the death of racing great Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. Earnhardt was one of five NASCAR drivers to die in a crash within a two-year span. The others were Adam Petty, Blaise Alexander, Kenny Irwin Jr. and Tony Roper.
But track owners are only required to install the SAFER barriers in the corners that are considered the most dangerous part of the track by NASCAR officials and the most common spot for accidents.
Theriault’s accident occurred on a straightaway.
Former Xfinity Series driver and K and N Pro Series East driver Andy Santerre from Cherryfield raced before the implementation of the SAFER barriers and suffered a broken leg in six places when he crashed into a concrete wall at Daytona International Speedway in 1999.
“They have put the SAFER barriers in the corners, but several wrecks are happening on straightaways or when they go into the infield and hit concrete walls,” said Santerre. “In this day and age, with the money spent on racing, there’s no reason not to have the SAFER barriers around the big tracks. The tracks have to make the investment.
“I know a lot of the tracks have done it. For the ones that haven’t, it’s a financial thing,” said Santerre.
A SAFER barrier costs about $500-600 per foot.
NASCAR Sprint Cup star Jeff Gordon was critical of Atlanta Motor Speedway for not having SAFER barriers when he spun out and hit a concrete wall earlier on March 1.
He wasn’t injured, but Kyle Busch wasn’t so lucky a week earlier during an Xfinity Race at Daytona International Speedway, suffering a fractured right leg and broken left foot when he hit a concrete wall.
Sprint Cup drivers Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Regan Smith and former Cup driver Jeff Burton all expressed their dismay with the lack of SAFER barriers via Twitter after Busch’s accident.
In the wake of the accident, International Speedway Corp. representatives announced they were installing 54,000 more feet (10.2 miles) of SAFER barriers at 12 tracks by the end of next season.
Former Sprint Cup driver and current ESPN NASCAR analyst Ricky Craven said “there has always been an element of risk associated with being a race car driver,” but he and Santerre agree that the sport is much safer now than it used to be thanks to NASCAR’s emphasis on driver safety.
Items like the HANS (Head and Neck Support) device, seat technology and improvements made to the cars have made racing “10-fold” safer than it was back in 1999, according to Santerre.
Santerre and Craven were both relieved to see Theriault get out of his truck on Saturday night.
“I think a lot of Austin,” said Craven, whose Sprint Cup career included terrible wrecks at Talladega and Texas Motor Speedway that sidelined him. “I’ve followed him very, very closely. That was a serious impact. I was really glad to see him climb out of the truck even though he needed help later.”
Santerre said there could be a silver lining.
“He’ll have to train even harder to get back in the truck, so he will probably be in even better shape than he was in before the accident,” said Santerre, who called Theriault a terrific representative of the state.
Craven and Santerre noted that there will be an adjustment for Theriault when he returns.
“There is adversity associated with climbing back into a race car after suffering a serious wreck,” said Craven.
“I was a little nervous and a little more cautious when I first came back, but I won [an Xfinity race] at Pikes Peak [International Raceway in Colorado] three months later,” said Santerre. “He’ll overcome it pretty quickly. It’ll take a few races to regain his confidence and to get comfortable.”
Theriault will have some time to recuperate as the next Camping World Truck series race isn’t until Oct. 24 at Talladega Superspeedway.
That will be the first of the five races remaining on the schedule.
Reddick and Kyle Busch both tweeted their encouragement to Theriault.
“Austin is one tough guy. I’m glad he’s OK,” tweeted Reddick.
“I sure do hope he is OK,” tweeted Busch. “I know the feeling! My prayers R W [are with] him for being OK and getting back.”
On the Austin Theriault Racing Facebook page, Theriault was described as being “quite sore but anxious to get on the ‘track to recovery.’”