Several hours after winning the biggest race of his life, Rico Abreu realized he’d arrived at the same time his plane did in Chicago.
“When we landed, they announced on the plane that the Chili Bowl Nationals winner is on this flight,” Abreu said Tuesday morning during a conference call with the news media. “They actually said, ‘Rich Abreu’ and then they said, ‘Rico,’ and everyone started laughing.”
Abreu certainly could take it in stride, having emerged over the last 72 hours as the newest sensation in auto racing.
After Abreu wowed an audience filled with NASCAR luminaries Saturday night in becoming the 18th winner of the prestigious Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Okla., the whirlwind continued Tuesday with the announcement that he will run the full K&N Pro Series East Series this season with HScott Motorsports.
He hadn’t sat in a stock car until piloting a Late Model in a parking lot Monday, and he will mark his debut in a Super Late Model race Saturday at New Smyrna (Fla.) Speedway before the K&N Pro Series season opener Feb. 15 at the same track (NBC Sports will broadcast the event).
Though he will be new to NASCAR, Abreu ingratiated himself with several movers and shakers last week in Tulsa.
Among the many well-wishers were Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Roger Penske.
“I never thought this day would come,” Abreu, 22, said. “It’s one of the biggest wins in my career. One I’ll never forget.”
The Rutherford, Calif., native’s story is a memorable one. Standing 4-foot-4 and weighing 95 pounds, Abreu uses foot blocks to reach the accelerator when he runs in sprint and midget series cars.
He has worked closely with NASCAR to ensure similar modifications would be allowed in the car, using spacers behind the seat to position him closer to the steering wheel and pedals.
“All modifications are really simple, nothing way off radar, and it’s really safe,” he said. “My whole goal was going to New Smyrna and getting laps and making sure I’m comfortable in the race car. You have to be 100 percent in these race cars, and you can’t lose concentration about being uncomfortable. That’s my biggest thing this weekend is being in the comfort zone, making sure everything is right and getting as many laps as I can.
“The pedals are mounted right underneath the dashboard, and it’s moved closer to reach electronics. You look at the cockpit, and it’s hard to tell the difference. The only difference is sitting a lot closer, and the pedals are closer. The adjustments aren’t that bad. NASCAR came and said everything looks safe.”
Though the timing of Tuesday’s news was fortuitous, the wheels have been in motion for a few months to bring Abreu to NASCAR after he notched 26 victories across sprint and USAC midget races last year and also won a national championship.
He is following in the footsteps of Chip Ganassi Racing driver and fellow California native Kyle Larson, who also is one of Abreu’s closest friends. It was Larson, who introduced Abreu to Stewart (who already has promised to help shuttle Abreu between Dover, Del., and Mechanicsburg, Pa., in late May so he can race K&N and sprint cars on the same weekend).
“I’ve known Kyle the last six years, and I consider him a brother,” Aberu said. “His parents could be my mom and dad with how close I am to his family and him. Kyle is the one I look up to and go to more than anything because of the close friendship and relationship together. The people I’ve met through Kyle with Tony and Kasey. There’s so many drivers I can go to for support and that will support me. My confidence is so high, and I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t think I’m going to have too many problems to deal with it.”
Besides the 14 K&N races, Abreu plans to fill the rest of his schedule with dirt-track events. “I think I’m more than capable of running 110 to 120” total races, he said, noting that Larson ran 130 times while winning the K&N East title in 2012.
Abreu is a relative newcomer to racing, having begun his career only a few years ago.
“When I grew up, I played sports, wrestled in middle school, then all my friends and classmates outgrew me, and I was limited to what I could do,” he said. “I became a big race fan. I didn’t even think I could race until I did it for the first time let alone be competitive so quickly in my career. It’s just so cool to see that people really believe in you and like to see you achieve.
“A lot of people believe in me, and it gives me a lot of confidence and humbled me. I’m glad people can see who I am. They don’t judge me for what I look like or why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because I’m a racer and love the sport.”