It wasn’t long ago that Rico Abreu burst onto the motorsports scene and rose through the ranks, landing in NASCAR after developing into one of dirt racing’s favorite characters.

Abreu was a late bloomer, arriving on the racing scene a week prior to his 17th birthday. However, it didn’t take long to transition from karts to sprint cars and midgets to stock cars. Abreu spent part of the 2015 season competing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East and he became a full-time NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series competitor  in 2016.

A year later, Abreu was out of NASCAR and competing full time at dirt ovals around the country.

“I tried it,” he said. “It’s just not for me. I feel like it’s a different style of racing and different atmosphere. I’m just not interested in stock car racing. I didn’t capitalize in the moments I needed to and that was kind of the setback. I wasn’t going to dump my family’s hard-earned money into trying to support my racing career. I just didn’t feel like it was fair to my family to have to flip a bill like that for me to keep trying to succeed. Everyone had more fun racing sprint cars. For $3 million I can race for 10 years (in sprint cars).”

Abreu, who won the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Midget Nationals in 2015 and ’16, was at a crossroads in 2017 when a lack of sponsorship money dried up his NASCAR opportunity. It wasn’t a difficult decision to return to his roots, Abreu noted.

Rico Abreu hard at work in his No. 24 sprint car. (Matt Hill Photo)
Rico Abreu hard at work in his No. 24 sprint car. (Matt Hill Photo)

“I’m so happy racing sprint cars with my family and racing (midgets) with Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby,” he said. “You watch these (NASCAR) races and they ride around for three hours and then decide to race the last 10 laps. I’m not bashing the sport. It just doesn’t fit me.

“I started from dirt racing,” Abreu added. “I went to race stock cars. It just didn’t work out and I came back to what I truly love doing. It’s not about the money for me. I’m not chasing dollar signs. I’m chasing a dream I found when I was 16 years old and I realized I could race sprint cars. Money gets you a lot of great things, but I’m not going to let it justify my happiness.”

Abreu has embraced not only dirt-track racing but its fan base as the 27-year-old has morphed into one of the most fan-friendly drivers in all of motorsports, particularly with social media.

“In the last year, I’ve just really made a big push with it all,” he said. “It’s a key tool to brand building. I have such a great fan base. I wasn’t doing a good enough job making my fans feel special. I want them to experience all the opportunities I’m getting and experiencing. It’s really cool to get to interact with them on social media.

“I just have fun with it. People make smartass comments,” he continued. “You turn a negative into a positive. That’s the problem with our world. There’s too much negative rather than positive. Not everyone is positive, but you can also turn a negative person positive just by a handshake or a hello. It’s important that you still interact with those people.”

The interaction has been pivotal in helping boost Abreu’s resurgence in sprint car racing. He purchased a merchandise van that he and longtime girlfriend, Meagan Droud, operate. They drive it to and from each track and when Abreu is busy in the pits, Droud is selling merchandise.

“It’s easy for me to drive,” Abreu said. “I don’t have to worry about towing a trailer. I can pull it into a spot in a hotel. I can drive it through drive-thrus. It’s really convenient for me and my girlfriend to drive. We do everything. She and I are on both ends of it. I have to be very disciplined with it not taking away from my racing and the team.”

One of the unique pieces of merchandise debuted at this year’s Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals.

“I created a mullet hat,” he said. “It’s just a hat with some hair on it. I thought it’d be really fun to put something together at the Chili Bowl. A friend of mine and I worked on something to get these hats done. We got them just in time for the Chili Bowl. The mullet thing was taking off.

“I’ve been pushing this mullet lifestyle,” he said. “Not a crazy lifestyle, but everyone is starting to do mullets. You see (Ryan) Blaney and Erik Jones doing it just to have fun. I thought it’d be cool to have fans experience it. They get to have fun at the races.”

Abreu, who has rocked a real-life mullet in recent years, had a hair-like material stitched onto the hats to make his mullet hat appear like anyone wearing the hat was donning a mullet underneath.

“I got Tony (Stewart) to make a video with me,” Abreu said. “That really set it all off. I got some photos with Keith (Kunz) and some of my close friends. Tony was the biggest one. I think he had fun with it, too. It drove a lot of traffic to the hat and got people talking about it. I tried getting his hair going. For a while it was getting pretty sporty. He had some business events to go to and didn’t want to have a mullet.”