Little Big Man: Rico Abreu's learning curve begins
His first race in a car with a roof on it is tonight.
SATSUMA, Florida – It was one of the few moments when things were not going according to plan in what arguably must be the best week in the life of Rico Abreu.
Six days after winning the Chili Bowl midget race in Tulsa, Oklahoma, over 325 entries, Abreu is sitting in the trailer of his super late model car in the infield of New Smyrna Speedway, a half-hour south of Daytona.
It is raining. Friday night practice for Saturday’s Pete Orr Memorial has been cut short. Abreu is in the trailer, changing from his driving uniform to his street clothes, shaking his head. “I needed the practice,” he says.
On pit road, the DLP Motorsports team is covering the red and white number 24 car that has been specially modified to fit Abreu’s 4-foot, 4-inch frame. That isn’t the problem: The problem is that Abreu has never raced a car with a roof on it before. “And I’ve only had one race on pavement, in a midget,” he says. His entire career has been spent in karts, midgets and sprint cars, on dirt.
And it has been a notable career, capped off with the Chili Bowl win which launched him from being a West Coast favorite to a nationwide favorite. When he climbed from his Keith Kunz-owned midget after winning the Chili Bowl Saturday night – and make no mistake, he won it, it wasn’t the result of some high-profile crashes or mechanical failures – the crowd chanted, “Rico! Rico! Rico!” in a motorsports moment I’ve only seen in the movies.
And 30 minutes later, in the Tulsa Expo media center, when I asked him what he wanted to be doing in the future, he said he’s be happy to just keep racing midgets and sprint cars, beginning with Speed Weeks in Florida, where Volusia Raceway Park, East Bay Raceway and Bubba Raceway Park will be featuring sprints cars in the weeks leading up to the Daytona 500.
A sudden change of plans
Fate intervened. Abreu has suddenly become the hottest driver in America. Almost overnight a pending NASCAR K&N Series deal was announced, and since the series begins its season at the paved New Smyna Speedway, Abreu’s plans have changed: Yes, he will be spending Speed Weeks in Florida, as planned, but he will spend every night he can at New Smyrna, where the World Series of Asphalt takes place from February 12 to 21.
Friday night, and Saturday if the weather clears, Abreu will be driving a number 24 super late model that looks a lot like a re-numbered Steven Nasse number 51, not surprising since DLP and Nasse have won at New Smyrna. Abreu looked solid in his debut but has a lot of work to do on corner entry and exit.
Especially exit. I’ve raced at New Smyrna, and the recent pavement lets you take a wide, comfortable arc through the corners that suddenly narrows at the exit. Rookie drivers steer left to get away from the wall, the rear gets light, and drama ensues. Once they have a little more confidence, they try to dive low on the straights to pass, and if they try to make that move too early, even more drama ensues. There are not many one-car crashes coming out of turns two and four, the site of, I’d guess, 70 percent of the crashes at the track.
Larson on hand
It’s a familiar track to an interested observer Friday night, and it was also the site of his first big pavement late model race – and it was even the same race, the Pete Orr Memorial, honoring a genuinely nice guy and a heck of a racer taken too soon, that Kyle Larson began his own learning curve.
Larson made the trip down from Daytona to support and help coach Abreu, since he’s in town to co-drive a Chip Ganassi Riley-Ford in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the weekend.
Larson and Abreu are close friends, both coming from the West Coast sprint and midget world. How good is Abreu? “He’s got all the talent he needs,” Larsen says. “He’s definitely capable of running in the NASCAR Cup series for sure. He’s won every race I’ve won – and more, since I’ve never won the Chili Bowl. He could definitely be in the Cup series someday, and I don’t see any reason why he won’t make it there. He’s a heck of a talent, and a really good guy, and he’s going places.”
How hard will the transition be from a dirt open wheel car to a stock car on pavement? “It’ll be tough, Larson says. “He’s doing the same thing I did. The Pete Orr Memorial was my first race in a pavement late mode. It can be tough so I hope he doesn’t get too frustrated at first. I had a little more pavement experience than he does because I ran midgets and Silver Crown cars and sprints cars on paved tracks a few times before I moved to a late model, and he’s just run a midget race on pavement. But he’ll get it figured out and he’ll do great.”
As for Abreu: “I’m getting there. We were running on some really old tires, so it was pretty slick, but I’m getting there. It’s really cool to have an opportunity to do all this. We just have to learn as we go. It’s unfortunate it started raining tonight.”
The last week, he says, “has been unbelievable, really.” Next week, he says, will be dedicated to a little down time: “I have an early flight out Sunday morning. I haven’t been home in two months.”
The Pete Orr Memorial Super Late Model 100 at New Smyrna Speedway starts at 7:30 p.m. If you are coming down from Daytona – like Kyle Larson will, if he can sneak away – head south on Interstate 95, take the Highway 44 exit west, and you can’t miss the track.
If you hear “Rico! Rico! Rico!” coming from the stands, you know you are in the right place.
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