By Christian Koelle, Staff Writer
What do Ron Hornaday Jr., Austin Theriault, and the ARCA Menards Series have in common?
Landen Lewis is that common ground.
Lewis, a 15-year old, made his ARCA Menards Series debut two weeks with Rette Jones Racing at Springfield. Though the seventh-place finish was just the latest step in his staircase, Kickin’ the Tires caught up with Lewis to talk about his debut, his relationship with Ron Hornaday Jr., and just racing in general.
Lewis, who seems to be an old soul in a young body, has been racing since he was four years old. Just recently though, Lewis was able to combine chasing his lifelong dream of racing a stock car with working with NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. The Hornaday family took a chance with Lewis and so far it has paid off.
“It all started when my family came together and made this happen,” said Lewis. “They have been very supportive and behind me since I first started and they continue to be supportive. Now, I have Ron Hornaday Jr. behind me, just helping me learn as a driver and develop into a driver like he was. I have Ken Schrader helping me at the track, coaching me, and helping me with wise words that are much needed and I can look forward to when I get older. I can’t thank Candice Hornaday enough, she’s made all of this happen. She’s been really dedicated to my career and that has meant a lot.
“And when I first met Ron, my dad was calling Candice and wanted to get one of Ron’s modifieds that he builds, ” said Lewis. “I went up to the shop and the first time I saw him it was a pinch-me moment as I was standing in front of a NASCAR Hall of Famer. It was just so cool to hear some of his stories about him and Dale Earnhardt Sr. and when I met him we got together and started running modifieds a lot and I guess I just opened his eye a bit and he came on board and wanted to help me grow as a driver. Ever since then he has been behind me. When I went to Springfield, I rode up all the way with him and we camped out. We would eat every night and just sit and talk about racing. That was huge and I hear all of these great stories he has and I just soak it in.”
The young kid from Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina has grown up around racing and has the goal any other kid that is currently involved in racing has… becoming a full-time driver in the NASCAR Cup Series. Making small splashes in the ARCA Menards Series became just second nature for Lewis, who has tons of experience on dirt. Making his second start Sunday at DuQuoin, Lewis does feel like it gives him a slight advantage entering his second career ARCA race, which just so happens to be on dirt.
“My overall goal is to become a full-time Cup Series driver,” said Lewis. “We decided to go with the ARCA Series because the deal came up and we figured it would be the perfect opportunity to get experience and run bigger cars. People have always said these cars run like boats and I’ve always wondered why and I went and drove one and I now understand why they say that.
Also, I have dirt experience, and taking that to Springfield and DuQuoin is huge,” added Lewis. “I think the big thing is knowing what the track is doing. That is one thing that a lot of asphalt drivers don’t really have to go through to the extent that dirt does. The track changes for sure on dirt and you’ve gotta make sure you know what the track is doing and what it will do in the future and that is something I feel gives me a slight advantage.”
Making his ARCA Menards Series debut at Springfield was an eye-opening experience and put into perspective a lot of things that he had only heard about including the saying “these cars drive like boats”.
“We went to Springfield and our goal was just to finish in one piece,” said Lewis. “We did that and we also got a solid finish out of it too. I think that opened a lot of people’s eyes not only in my hometown but in the national scene as well. As a result, we picked up a new sponsor for DuQuoin in the form of 19th Green. They came on and wanted to help me make my dream come true and I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes.
I think the biggest thing is just knowing how big the car is,” said Lewis. “I learned a lot in the last race just knowing what’s around me and how close I can get to things. That was big and at these big 1-mile race tracks you have to ride the bottom and I now know how close I can get to things and have just that little bit more of experience than I had. There are definitely some positives and there are some negatives. I think the biggest thing taking into Springfield is just being more able to send out feedback. I needed to learn the cars and give better feedback and I feel like I will be able to bring that into DuQuoin. The bond of the team has grown to be very important and I feel like we’ve got that now headed to DuQuoin.”
Despite only Springfield and DuQuoin being the only announced races of the season, Lewis hopes to put together some more races but as always, it depends on that mighty $. With his age, Lewis would be limited to what he could race in the main ARCA Series but wouldn’t complain if he had to run a partial schedule or even the full ARCA East Series schedule if the opportunity came knocking.
“Hopefully we can put a few more races together,” said Lewis. “Go and run some more races and get some more experience in general. Hopefully, we can run a lot more and finish the season off. If the right person comes along and helps me out then of course a full-time ARCA East Series season would be a great opportunity. We are mostly going for a part-time schedule just with the money and stuff like that. If someone was to come along and help, that would be huge.”
It helps to have someone around you and though Ron Hornaday Jr. is majority invested in Lewis, he also has the support from 2017 ARCA Menards Series champion Austin Theriault. Theriault has been behind Lewis and even joined him on the zoom call interview we had.
“Having Austin (Theriault) behind me has been massive,” said Lewis. “Before I even went to Springfield we sat down and he taught me so much about the ARCA cars and how to drive them in general. He’s raced in the Cup Series and I knew that I could trust him. He’s helped me so much in learning racing in general and not even in the perspective of the seat but the ways of sponsorship and all of those other logistics that go into it before you get in the seat.”
Theriault has five Cup Series, six Xfinity Series, 13 Truck Series, and 22 ARCA Menards Series starts to his credit. He’s run for some of the biggest teams in NASCAR including Brad Keselowski Racing, Ken Schrader Racing, and JR Motorsports. Despite not being in the car with multiple career setbacks, Theriault has found a way to be involved in the racing world and leave a positive impact including working with Lewis.
“With me not driving basically, at all, right now,” said Austin Theriault. “Just with different career setbacks that I have had, I have had a lot of great moments and stuff but with some injuries and what not over the last couple of years has opened my eyes to different opportunities there are. Also with like Landon (Lewis) and others with talent that are trying to come up and showcase their talent to the whole world, I think the thing that makes me interested in helping these drivers is number one, the dedication if I see they have the dedication and willingness to put an effort into it. I remember when I was Landon’s age, I was setting up my own late models and I was working on them in the shop. I was absorbing the information and that is what impresses me with Landon in particular is that he spends a lot of his time and he’s been around Ron. Ron told me one time that if you are a driver, you have to understand your car.”
As noted, Theriault hasn’t been in a car since Talladega in 2019 but has been very involved in many young drivers’ careers. Theriault has been there, bought the t-shirt, won the championship, and has the knowledge that it takes for a driver to learn from. He’s been in Landon’s shoes but sees similarities to himself in Lewis. He’s also an old-school attitude and that is something that is rather rare when it comes to the racing world at this time.
“I have to remind myself that it took me many lessons, many hardships, and hills that made it to where I feel like I have the knowledge now. So if I put myself, 15-year old Austin, and I race Springfield, I don’t think I would’ve been able to do as good as Landon. Obviously now its different but we have to remember that we’re dealing with all kinds of different drivers. Some have tons of experience and some have little and I think for Landon the fact that he started when he was four and I started racing when I was 13. If you look at Erik Jones and William Byron, I share more of a background with them and you look at other drivers that started a long time ago, they bring a lot more to the table. I feel that’s where Landon will have a little bit of an advantage. He seems to be willing to listen and if not Ron is there to back all of us up because Ron knows what its like, sometimes you have to have hard conversations and Ron is very direct and if he feels like he needs to say something, he will say it. I feel like that will really help Landon in the future because he has grown up around it. If Landon needs to learn something, he’ll learn it at the moment. We aren’t going to sugar coat it and I think that is what makes people like Ron and people of his generation so successful. is they don’t sugar coat it. When you do something good you talk about it and when you do something you can learn from and talk about it either way.”
Photo: Daylon Barr Photography