By Matt Petrero
I consider myself a NASCAR fan, but I mostly follow the Sprint Cup Series with any regularity. However, when presented with the opportunity to speak with one of the most rapidly rising stars at any level of stock car racing, I jumped at the chance.
A native of Rutherford, Calif., Rico Abreu has skyrocketed through the ranks of motor sports since he started racing Outlaw Sprint Go-Karts competitively in 2009. His first race was on January 24th, 2009 and eight months later, he made his first trip to victory circle. In 2010, he had nine feature wins in 11 feature races at Cycleland Speedway. On March, 19th 2011, he scored a first place finish at Thunderbowl Speedway, his 1st World of Outlaws Winged Sprint Car Race and soon after, went on his first Australia Sprint Car Tour.
However, all of that paled in comparison to how he started the year. On January 13th, he competed in the prestigious Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in Tulsa, OK. That all adds up to the Taco Bravo 360 Winged Sprint Car Series Rookie of the Year. That’s just the beginning…sort of.
How does a kid from California wine country become interested in auto racing?
“It was probably the early 2000s, I went to some sprint car races in Calistoga Speedway up in Northern California, about 55 miles north of San Francisco,” Abreu said. “It was a World of Outlaw sprint car race. My father took me there and I sat in the grandstands and watched one of the most exciting sports I’ve ever seen.”
To further his interest in driving, many of his friends got into racing and he hung around the track watching…just not for long.
“Through the years, some local friends raced go-karts and I started following them and watching them race.” Abreu said. “I ended up getting a go-kart on my own and started racing competitively in 2008.”
Abreu’s support system has cultivated his growth in motor sports. This was exemplified by his father making it easy for him to work on his craft.
“We have a go-kart track in our back yard. I don’t get out there too much with how busy my schedule is, but when we’re there, we still have some fun.” Abreu said. “My dad’s been very fortunate to have all of the resources to build a great racetrack, let alone build some great vineyards & establish some great wines. It’s fun that I get to be around all of this. It’s a luxury for me and I’m very thankful to be given all of these opportunities.”
It almost seems like Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner’s character plowed under his crop of corn to build a baseball field. In the movie, it seems counter intuitive to waste a single acre on anything other than the crop that pays your bills. Fortunately, this didn’t affect the Abreu family.
“I’m very lucky to have a piece of land that doesn’t have vineyard on it. Vineyards cover everything in the Napa Valley and the land value is so expensive here, so it’s nice to have a little something different than a vineyard here,” Abreu said.
Having a track in the backyard is only part of Abreu’s foundation.
“My parents were very supportive of me, and allowed me to do anything I wanted to do,” Abreu said. “They always pushed me to try things new.”
And it’s that encouragement and support that has helped him ascend through the ranks of motor sports. After his overwhelmingly successful 2011, it was on to bigger and better things. He found the winner’s circle eight times in 2012, with four victories each in midget cars and winged sprint cars. This led to 2012 USAC National Midget Rookie of the Year and 2013 Chili Bowl Midget Nationals A Main Qualifier distinctions. His success continued in 2013 with 12 wins, 46 top 5’s, and 63 top 10’s in 102 races. In 2014, Abreu reached the pinnacle of the USAC circuit in capturing USAC Nationals Midget Championship on the strength of 71 top 10’s in 105 races, including 26 top 5’s and 25 wins.
In 2015, his total numbers were not quite as gaudy as in the previous two years, but you have to admit that the bar was set pretty high. However, it was not only the high bar that cut into his top finishes. His ascension to the K&N Pro Series East cut into his midgets and sprint car schedule. But, as you might guess, it didn’t take long to hit victory lane. On July 4, at Columbus Motor Speedway, Rico scored his first K&N victory. When 2015 came to a close, Abreu had won the 29th Annual Chili Bowl Midget Champion and NASCAR K&N Most Popular Driver. The Chili Bowl is a prestigious race in the world of midget cars. So, needless to say, it is something that Abreu is proud of.
While it takes a great driver to amass such success, he knows that racing is a team sport.
“It was a 20-race schedule and I competed with Keith Kunz. It was my third year competing with him for the national USAAC Midget title,” Abreu said. “It was a great year for them; to be back-to-back national winners with Christopher Bell the year before and myself the year after. I’m fortunate to be able to race for these great teams; from go-karts to USAAC Midgets, Can-Am East Cars, and now the Camping World Truck Series. I’ve been surrounded by some great people who do very well at their jobs, and it just made my job easier.”
Abreu is still working his way through the truck series and its various track configurations.
“There are definitely a lot of different, unique tracks; short tracks, road courses, mile-and-a-halves, super speedways, to slick mile and halves. It’s a little bit of everything and a lot of different variables.”
Those variables are the reason that he recognized the need to spend a little extra time in the K&N Series East.
“It was very important to me to have a full season of K&N Racing and then move onto the Truck Series. At the beginning of last year, I had zero stock car experience. It’s been a huge jump for me from the beginning of last year to where we’re at now.” admitted Rico.
Even though Abreu is only two steps from the highest level of racing, he understands that patience is a virtue.
“You’ve just got to take this one step a time. Some parents might push their kids too fast and they might not mature through their whole career,” he said. “I’ve definitely matured a lot over these past four years; being part of some great race teams and seeing how it’s done.”
Ultimately, his goal is the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. However, he knows that this it can’t be rushed.
“I’d like to be one of those guys that takes his time in getting to the top. You see some of these drivers jump in and move on through all of these series and then they lose that success pattern that they’ve had their whole career. That can really tear someone apart. And then they never see that success again.”
As for his future and a possible run into Indy Car racing?
“I would definitely give Indy Car a shot. I just want the right opportunity. I know that Chip Gnassi has some fast Indy Cars and it would be cool to drive one of his one day.”
And what about the ultimate Memorial Day — racing the Indy 500 and NASCAR’s Coke-A-Cola 600 in the same day, like Tony Stewart?
“Hopefully, one day I can accomplish that,” Abreu said. “That’s a big accomplishment. Like I said, I don’t want to do it too soon where you make a fool of yourself but that is on my bucket list.”
I don’t believe that Abreu has to worry about looking foolish. His combination of patience and success on the track has him primed to be known by one name — Rico.