In continuation of the column “First Seasons” that highlights the early years of a driver’s career, Speedway Media caught up with dirt track racing star and fan-favorite, Rico Abreu. We discussed what was then, the 2015 NASCAR K&N Pro Series season and parts of his Truck Series career in 2016. During this interview, Abreu talked about what drew his interest to NASCAR, his first-race, first-win, and if he would change anything differently from his early beginnings.
SM: Your first-year in NASCAR was in 2015 driving in what was then the K&N Pro Series. Can you talk about what drew your interest to NASCAR during this time, despite competing in dirt racing full-time?
RA: “The seasons I did and where I really got involved in dirt racing, was ’12, ’13, and ’14,” Abreu said. “Kyle (Larson) and Christopher (Bell) kind of led the first prints to the stock-car world through Keith Kunz development program, where they got to run some USAC stuff. And mainly, not taking the IndyCar path and going to the stock-car world.”
“(The) K&N Cars felt like the next step and I was at the point where we were really successful in the Sprint Cars and Midgets. So, we were ready to make that next step to the K&N Cars. Harry Scott and Justin Marks had just partnered up and took over the previous Turner Scott program. The management group I was with at the time got me some good sponsorship to do that program. So, I was able to continue to race the Sprint Cars, Midgets, and Stock Car.”
SM: During that time, you got connected with Mike Curb to drive the No. 98 car in that season. Was that your pathway to the ThorSport Truck program?
RA: “Yes,” he said. “I wanted to keep my relationship healthy with Mike Curb (Owner of the No. 98 car) and what he had done for my career up to that point. He’s a big supporter of Keith Kunz Motorsports. I was able to get the opportunity to drive the No. 98 Curb car during that time period. He also had an affiliation with Duke and Rhonda Thorson of the No. 98 truck. Johnny Sauter was making a change at the time and it kind of opened the door right up for me to jump in that truck.”
SM: Before the 2015 season started, did you and Mike have a list of expectations like a set win total in mind or a championship? Or was it more, let’s take this race by race and see where we end up at the halfway point.
RA: “Honestly, it was more of an education period for me to adapt to stock-car racing and get around a good team,” Abreu said. “I had a couple of good top-five finishes and I felt like I was really getting the hang of it. Instead of doing another season, which I should have, in order to have a shot at the championship. However, we moved to the Truck Series, but to be honest, it was a bit too soon. We did it, we learned and that was it.”
“I did both, but I didn’t really have the funding and sponsorship behind me to keep going in that series. It just didn’t work out.”
SM: Your first-race as a NASCAR driver was at New Smyrna. You started sixth, but finished 17th, one lap down. What do you remember specifically about that race and what did you and the team do to prepare for the race?
RA: “I ran some late-model races the week before,” he said. “I think I wasn’t experienced and it really showed. I practiced good and qualified decent. I wish I could go back and do it all over again. I had the opportunity and didn’t take advantage of it.”
“The biggest thing I remember is, having a great team behind me and how nice the cars were. I just lacked aggressiveness and corner roll speed. It took me the whole season to kind of figure all that out. Once I figured that out, the last four to five races of the year, I was really good.”
SM: After the New Smyrna race, you achieved your first NASCAR win at Columbus. Is that first win still special to you and have you gone back to re-watch it?
RA: “I mean, yeah,” Abreu said. “It was my one and only NASCAR win. I think it was a last-lap duke out with another driver and it was a lot of fun.”
SM: I want to follow up on that win. Do you view your NASCAR win differently from all your dirt wins?
RA: “They’re all really special to me,” he said regarding his victories. “Obviously, the NASCAR win is right at the top, because you don’t have much time in that series. Any time I win and have success at the racetrack is all really good. After you win, it helps build your confidence and the team’s confidence moving forward.”
SM: So speaking of your wins, is there one, in particular, that means the most to you right now as a driver and why?
RA: “I think they’re all about that same,” Abreu said. “Honestly, I’m just lucky to be in this position to drive racecars. I want to win in front of people that follow my career and show them that this is what I really love to do.”
SM: You mentioned the Truck-Series was kind of a learning curve for you. What more did you need to break through and have that first-win?
RA: “I think another season I would have been really close,” he said. “Every time we showed up to the track, it was something new. There was a new hump to get over. I just lacked a lot of experience. I felt like a lot of those I raced against, did it every weekend and that’s all they did for their career. I could go back and have a better perspective of things, and handle things a bit differently.”
SM: Looking back on those early years, what races come to mind from your NASCAR years that you wish you had another shot at?
RA: “Definitely, (tracks) like Texas and Dover,” Abreu said. “Chicago, I was really good. I was running up front and my pit-crew put my tires on backward. Daytona and Talladega (as well). I really liked running those races. I think if I had another opportunity at them, you would see a major difference in the results.”
SM: What are your favorite memories from your NASCAR career?
RA: “I was around some good people,” he said. “The teams that were structured around me were all good people and I was able to have a lot of fun. That was the biggest thing. Getting to be a part of those iconic teams and getting to race with them. That was fun.”
SM: Overall as a driver, it’s been 13 years since your first start in an Outlaw Sprint Kart at Lakeport Speedway. If you had the ability to time travel, what would a 28-year-old Rico Abreu tell a 17-year-old Rico Abreu? Is there anything you would have done differently?
RA: “I don’t think so, to be honest,” Abreu said. “I think the biggest thing is, make sure to enjoy it. It all goes by really fast when you’re having fun.”
In Rico’s NASCAR career, he has 1-win, four top-fives and eight top-10 finishes along with three pole positions during the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East Series. On the NASCAR Truck Series side, he has 26 starts over three years with two top-fives and five top-10 finishes, earning a best finish of third at Eldora in 2016.