ST. HELENA, Calif. and MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Story by Race Chaser Online Special Contributor Thomas Michael — TeeJay Crawford photo —
Rico Abreu is no stranger to victory lane.
The 22-year-old hotshoe made 26 trips to victory lane in 2014 — with his most recent trip under the checkers having more meaning than all the rest.
That win was the Chili Bowl; the greatest spectacle of midget racing. It’s a win that is finally starting to set in for the rising superstar.
“Saturday was a big night for me just because of all the coverage that the Chili Bowl has gotten and the people that have attended that event Saturday night,” Abreu said during a national teleconference on Tuesday. “I was watching the race in the infield of the track, and I look over and see Roger Penske. It was his first time at the event, and he came and introduced himself, and I asked him what he thought and he said this is unbelievable. And Kurt Busch was there and Danica, and all these people were so intrigued.”
“But (it started sinking in) probably Sunday morning on the way to the airport when I got to the airport and all these fans were wanting pictures and autographs right before we got on the plane. Then I got on the plane and flew to Chicago, and when we landed they announced on the plane that the Chili Bowl National winner is on this flight, Rico Abreu, they actually said Rich ab Roe, and then they came back and said Rico Abreu,” Abreu laughed.
Asked if he thought this point in his career would come, Abreu was quick to respond with a negative.
“I never thought this day would come, but now that I think about it, it’s so cool to win the Chili Bowl because there are not too many drivers that have,” Abreu said. He becomes just the 19th different driver to win the Chili Bowl in its 29-year-history.
“The race has been put on for 29 years in a row, and there have only been 18 (now 19) different drivers to win it. So it’s pretty cool the car count they get and the fan base they’ve built and the build up around the event, and then let alone (to) win it is unbelievable. It’s definitely one of the biggest wins in my career and one I’ll never forget about.”
With the win came Rico making the announcement on Tuesday that he would be heading to the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East to race for HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks for a full 2015 season on pavement, taking the dirt world by storm.
The move is one that Abreu circles as the biggest step in his career to date.
“I think it’s a big step, really,” Abreu emphasized. “Just because I come from the open wheel world where everyone knows everyone. And there are so many more NASCAR fans that don’t follow dirt racing and don’t know what I do, so I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t know. I think the fans will react a lot differently than the average driver — average-looking driver coming to NASCAR. I’m excited to see how it goes. I think it’s going to be just fine.”
While the season is only a 14-race slate and not a 36-race NASCAR national series season, it still will be a different challenge for Abreu after racing dirt his whole life.
However, Abreu will have the guidance of Kyle Larson and Tony Stewart along the way and is excited to see what 2015 will bring him.
“Yeah, I really got to know Tony through one of my best friends Kyle Larson. Kyle has made a really big impression in the sport over the last year just with all the success he’s had. I’ve known Kyle for the last six years, and I consider him a brother,” Abreu said of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year. “His parents really could be my mom and dad just how close we are or how close I am to his family and him.”
“So Kyle is definitely the one I really look up to and the one I can go to for anything just because our close friendship and relationship we have together. Then the people I’ve met through Kyle like Tony and Kasey (Kahne), and there are so many other drivers I feel I can go to for support and that will support me. My confidence is so high I’m just really looking forward to it. I don’t think I’m going to have too many problems to deal with.”
NASCAR fans who never have seen Rico or heard from him may be taken by surprise at how quickly he expects to adapt to the new challenge. While his height might outwardly appear to be a challenge to other people — he is still fully capable of driving a stock car with a few minor modifications that NASCAR has already approved.
“All the modifications are really simple. Nothing is way off the radar that they did and it’s really safe,” Abreu expressed. “Everyone agreed with every decision and every modification they made. So I’m really excited and really comfortable sitting in a car that I haven’t even raced yet.”
“There’s not a big spacer, but there is a decent sized spacer behind my seat to get me closer to the steering wheel. Because NASCAR has so many rules where you can’t be too far away from the seat — the tubing on the frame of the car. The pedals are mounted right under the dashboard and the dashboard is moved up closer to me where I can reach all the electronics. Everything is correct, and nothing is way far off, like I said, the radar that they did. If you look in my cockpit, it’s hard to tell there is a difference. The only difference is I’m sitting a lot closer and the pedals are closer to me, but the adjustments aren’t that bad.”
Abreu went on to explain a few of the differences between his sprint car and the stock car he will be driving this year.
“The sprint car is a lot different because you sit down like you sit in a chair when you sit in a sprint car. So your legs are underneath you,” Abreu explained. “My sprint car, the pedal location, there are foot blocks that allow my feet to reach the pedals. Then the seat is pushed forward about six inches. So it’s a little different than the stock car where you’re more sat down and your legs are in front of you and the pedals are moved toward you like you sit in a vehicle you drive daily.”
When Abreu was asked what this meant for his dirt racing career he said for this year he still plans on running upwards of 100 dirt sprint and midget races.
“It won’t impact my sprint car schedule at all. The K&N schedule is going to be my priority, and then I’ll race sprint car races and midget races around it. I’m planning on racing 120 times this year, and as many as I can get in.”
To some that plan might seem like a logistical nightmare, but thanks to the support of three-time Cup champion Stewart, Abreu says he will have nothing to worry about.
“I was talking to Tony at the Chili Bowl, and I told him there is a conflict where the K&N guys are at Dover, and there are three sprint car races at Williams Grove, and he said don’t worry about that, I’ll get you there. So it’s pretty cool that I have Tony behind me on all this and Kyle. It just allows me to race even more than I was already planning on.”
For now, however, the biggest thing for Abreu will be adjusting his driving styles from open wheel to stock cars — which begins with his first race on Saturday, the Pete Orr Memorial 100 at New Smyrna Speedway.
Abreu says his main goal will be simple: get used to the car and then go from there.
“[Monday] I just drove it around the parking lot for the first time, a late model. So my whole goal on going to New Smyrna is just getting laps in and making sure I’m comfortable in the race car,” Abreu said. “I started reading a book yesterday that Ross Bentley has wrote, and he says in it the most important thing is being comfortable in your race car and that is so right. So that’s my whole goal about this weekend is getting comfortable and making sure that everything is right just so I don’t run into problems down the road where I’m not comfortable.”
And as far as down the road? Abreu knows that the path he is on is the same one that took the likes of Jeff Gordon, Stewart and Larson to stardom. He just never imagined it would be his road potentially as well.
“Until I had all my success (in 2014), I set goals last year that I never thought I would achieve and I achieved them,” Abreu said. “So the end of last year the discussion came up and the opportunity was there, and I said why don’t we give it a shot? Because I can always come back to sprint car racing if NASCAR doesn’t work out or if something happens where I can’t race or you’re not competitive. Which I don’t feel — I feel I will be competitive just with all the experience I’ve already gained racing a hundred times a year.”
“You know, I’m on the same path as a lot of these NASCAR standouts were on. So I’m pretty confident about all of it, and I’m really excited to see what happens in the next few months.”
The NASCAR K&N Pro Series East schedule opens for Abreu on Feb. 15, also at Florida’s New Smyrna Speedway.