A decade after being a hot prospect in NASCAR, Austin Theriault is becoming a community leader in the motorsport – and in his home state of Maine.
The path to becoming a leader has had its ups and downs
A run of seven solid NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races with Brad Keselowski in 2015 took a literal head-on hit in the fall at Las Vegas. Theriault suffered a career-altering compression fracture injury and sat out several races.
After getting one start with BKR in 2016, Theriault dominated the ARCA Menards Series and won the 2017 title. His title defense ended before it began but he then landed some Cup Series starts with Rick Ware Racing in 2019.
30 laps after leading his first lap in Cup Series competition, at Talladega in the fall, Theriault was involved in a hard, double-side impact wreck.
That was Theriault’s last race. NASCAR didn’t medically clear him for the final five races.
This also started his shift toward community leadership.
“Before I stopped driving in 2019, I had a mentor program that I was doing. I was doing some coaching and spotting and whatnot. When I realized it was time to move on from the professional grind of racing every week, I felt the calling to get involved in state politics and Maine is where I have all my roots. It’s where my family is and the opportunity came up to fill an open seat,” Theriault said.
Theriault now represents his hometown of Fort Kent, Maine, in the state House. He also works with NASCAR drivers such as Howie DiSavino III and Landen Lewis, who he compares to working-class Cup Series driver Chase Briscoe.
“I think these veterans [in NASCAR] want to see these young drivers be different, right? Not just buy the way into the sport. We need to see more of these stories of hardship and dedication but also the people overcoming the challenges. If it’s too easy, then everybody would do it,” Theriault said.
Theriault has faced and overcome challenges posed by injuries. He admits, though, “I wore a race uniform but never a uniform on behalf of the country and I think it says a lot.”
While serving in Afghanistan in April 2012, an IED attack left Travis Mills with portions of all four of his limbs blown off.
Mills survived, becoming one of only five quadruple amputees from the War on Terror to survive.
The 19-month recovery at Walter Reed Hospital, inspired Mills and his wife to give back to veterans. They donated $5,000 and started sending care packages overseas under the Travis Mills Foundation.
“Then, it went so well that we decided to see if we can help families like ours. After two years doing proof of concept, we found a kind of rundown property. It’s Elizabeth Arden’s old estate she built in 1929 . We went ahead and bought it did a lot of rehab on it,” Mills explained.
In 2017, the foundation opened its doors and became one of the top veteran’s service organizations in the U.S. – helping other post-9/11 veterans like him.
“A lot of people will say, ‘Oh, you’re one of those wounded guys.’ To me, I’m like, I was wounded but now I’m not. I’ve healed up,” Mills explained.
“If anything, I’m recalibrated – so I say recalibrated veteran.”
The foundation connects recalibrating veterans to recreational programs with their families. They also connected them to programs helping them turn post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic growth.
“And I think it helps people change the mindset of like, ‘this is our new normal and we have to go about our lives like we would any other day,'” Mills said.
Just as Austin Theriault was finding his new normal in 2019, he learned about Mills’ mission. They met at Homestead-Miami Speedway when the foundation was on Josh Bilicki’s car.
“It was great awareness for the foundation to be on a NASCAR car and to have it on the track and be showcased. So the fact that Austin hit us up again, with this idea to do another fundraiser at the Oxford 250, was definitely something that we were excited about again,” Mills said.
Bar Harbor Bank and Trust is fully funding Theriault. As he tries to finally win one of the biggest short track races in the U.S. , he could and earn some big incentives for the Travis Mills Foundation.
If Theriault finishes every lap, they’ll get a $25,000 bonus. If he finishes in the top-5, the foundation will get another $25,000 bonus.
The goal is to to raise enough money to sponsor a full week of families retreating for the rest and relaxation the foundation offers to veterans.
“I’ve had a great career in NASCAR at some of the highest levels, and I’ve been able to see different parts of the country and meet a lot of different people. Now, at the point where I’m slowing down, being able to bridge those connections means a lot to me. It’s certainly the least I could do,” Theriault explained.
“It’s a sport that I grew up on. To get people involved in what we do but also to come out support Austin in his career is cool. He is a heck of a good driver,” Travis Mills said. “That helps bring awareness to the mission that we have and helps us propel ourselves forward to keep giving back to these veterans and their families to keep showing them to live life to the fullest and not be on the sidelines watching it pass you by.”
If you’d like to donate support the foundation and the partnership’s mission this weekend, click here.
The Oxford 250 race weekend begins Friday, with the main event Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on Racing America.