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Rico Abreu eager to make next step

Rico Abreu is getting the chance to race at the NASCAR level this season. Courtesy Rico Abreu Racing

Rico Abreu is officially following in the footsteps of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and best friend Kyle Larson, making the jump from the dirt of sprint car racing to the asphalt of NASCAR in 2015.

On Tuesday, the winner of Saturday night's prestigious Chili Bowl Nationals in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will announce a deal with HScott Motorsports with Justin Marks to drive the full 2015 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East schedule, a feeder series to NASCAR racing's highest levels.

His venture into stock car racing will begin this weekend with the NASCAR-sanctioned Pete Orr Memorial Super Late Model 100 at the New Smyrna Speedway in Florida, followed by his K&N debut at the same track on Feb. 15.

Sources tell ESPN The Magazine that these races will serve as the first stages of a driver development agreement with Chip Ganassi Racing, whom Larson drives for in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Ganassi did little to keep the secret on Saturday night, following the Chili Bowl finish by excitedly posting in his second-ever (and since deleted) tweet: "There's a name you'll be hearing more of. Stay Tuned!"

Also among the most notable post-Chili Bowl congratulatory tweets was one from NASCAR VP of Racing Operations Steve O'Donnell: "Congrats @Rico_Abreu looking forward to seeing you in #nascar."

"It's a little mind-blowing considering that I really just started racing big cars full time, what, three years ago?" Abreu said. "I'm excited. But this is a pretty big step." Then he added, laughing, "This is where I'm supposed to make a joke about every step being a big step for me, right?"

Little person, heavy foot

Abreu isn't just a little person, he's a "little person." At 22 years old, he stands 4-foot-4 and weighs 95 pounds. He was born with the condition of achondroplasia, a genetic disorder of bone growth and the most common cause of dwarfism. That means he and his team have to make alterations to his racing machines, but surprisingly few. Pedals and the steering column are extended and his racing seat uses less room behind it, but that's it.

In November, while in Charlotte for the World of Outlaws World Finals, he held meetings with NASCAR's competition department and spent time at the HScott Motorsports race shop, being fitted for a racing seat to go into his 3,300-pound K&N East car. Shortly thereafter, he and the race team received full approval from the sanctioning body to compete together in 2015.

"In my sprint car, every part was the same as it was for everyone else," Abreu explained. "If you look into the cockpit, there's what looks like a shoebox in between the drivelines and everything is moved up six inches. That's it. Same with the A frame; it's moved up six inches.

"That's it. If anything I feel like I'm safer than most because there's so much more room between me and the frame of the car."

In his stock cars, only the steering column, pedals and minimal movement to key switches on the instrument panel are moved, all well within the driver preference rules that exist for all drivers. Everything else, including the position of his seat, stays the same.

The changes to his K&N ride will be similar to that in his sprint cars, and he certainly hopes the results will be. In 2014, he ran 105 events and won 25, with victories across a half-dozen sprint car series, wins from Indiana to New Zealand, and a USAC Nationals Midget championship, a title previously won by the likes of Stewart and Gordon, who also count themselves among Abreu's biggest fans.

"He's just fast," said Gordon, who befriended Abreu last year and always has been among the fastest to text his congrats after every Abreu win. "If you prove you are fast and that you can win and you can win the right way, other racers don't care where you come from or what you look like or how big you are. A racer is a racer. And Rico is a racer."

Level playing field

Like Gordon, Abreu (pronounced like "hey-brew") hails from California wine country, born, raised and still residing in St. Helena. That town of less than 6,000 people unknowingly did Abreu the greatest possible favor in preparing him for the outside world.

"No one ever treated me any different just because I was a little person," he recalls. "It just never came up. No teasing, nothing. I was always just another kid."

He played football and baseball. He went to school. He played with his friends. That was it. It wasn't until he became a teenager and others started to outgrow him that he realized he would need another outlet to soothe his competitive nature.

As a youngster, he'd messed around with dirt bikes, but it was as a young teenager that he moved into shifter karts and then winged Outlaw Karts. As a kid he visited the local legendary short track, the Calistoga Speedway, and loved the world of racing. But once he slipped behind the wheel, it became more than fandom.

"The fit and feel of a kart was perfect for me," he said. "The steering wheel was close. The weight of it, the feel of it, it just worked. And I learned real quick that a race car doesn't care who you are or how big you are, you can either drive it or you can't."

His father, David, a vineyards manager, identified both the excitement his son showed for racing and the opportunity to compete for a kid who wasn't built for dunking or tackling. So he built an eighth-mile asphalt oval in the backyard for Rico to race.

"That's just how my parents are with all of us," Abreu explained, speaking of his younger brother and sister; no one else in the family is a little person. "My brother is a great athlete. My sister shows animals, like we all did growing up in farm country. Whatever we've chosen to do, my parents are all in."

Kyle and Rico

In 2009, local hero Kyle Larson, already earmarked for racing greatness at the age of 17, stopped by the Abreu backyard oval for a charity karting event. He and Rico immediately hit it off. Their friendship led to introductions into the sprint car world and in 2011, Abreu had a sprint car ride himself.

Rung by rung, he's followed Larson's path up the motorsports ladder, from Outlaw Karts to sprint car racing with venerable team owner Keith Kunz. That includes the imminent agreement with Ganassi, with whom Larson won last year's NASCAR Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors.

In 2012, Larson also made his stock car debut in the Orr Memorial at New Smyrna. He won the race and soon afterward announced his deal with Ganassi.

"Rico's my best friend, simple as that," Larson said over the weekend, where he raced in the Chili Bowl as a teammate to Abreu. Larson's parents also manage Abreu's schedule, which has consisted of 100-plus races each of the last two seasons and will be even trickier in 2015 as he crisscrosses between the near-nightly world of sprint cars and the 14-race K&N East calendar.

"My whole family is so proud to help him out," Larson said. "But help can only go so far. Everything he has done behind the wheel is all him. He's handled every car at every level and he's also handled all the attention that comes with winning and being a little person."

Abreu admits that with each move up to the next level of racing, he has braced himself for abnormal reactions when people become aware of his size, readily admitting that he expected snickers and whispers.

At the very least, he expected grumbling from rivals that he holds a weight advantage (a lighter race car is a faster race car) or that his uniqueness has created opportunities (read: better rides and bigger sponsor dollars) for him that it didn't for them.

He's still waiting.

"If you show people that you've earned where you are, then they can't argue with that," said Larson, who's dealt with silver spoon and "too young" chatter his entire career. "He flipped completely out of Angell Park (Speedway) in June and broke his collarbone, then came back and won two weeks later. That's just a tough racer."

In October, after a crash at the Thunderbowl Speedway in Tulare, California, Abreu emerged from his wrecked car, sprinted through the mud and dragged driver Tim Kaeding out of the overturned, burning sprint car. When standing, Abreu only comes up to Kaeding's elbows. Saturday night's Chili Bowl win came via pulling off a gutsy pass and then holding off four-time Chili Bowl champion Kevin Swindell.

"He's just one of the guys," Kaeding explained with a shrug, noting that it was his family who gave Abreu his first sprint car ride. "Always has been."

A big deal

"No one at the racetrack treats me any different," Abreu said. "They never have. It's honestly been a lot like it was growing up. It's just not a big deal."

But if everything goes according to plan, it will be. He knows that's inevitable. That's why over the last year he has actively worked to become a better representative for himself and the people that he ultimately will represent.

He's had contact with Little People of America, Inc. as the LPA begins to think about ways they might be able to work with Abreu in the future. Last fall he started making visits to schools located near his races. Those interactions have left him genuinely moved.

"Kids ask the greatest questions," he said. "They see the video and pictures of me racing and then I walk out there and they see me and they can look me eye-to-eye; I think it tells them something about what they can accomplish if they want to, which is whatever they want."

An interesting aspect of Abreu's small-town "regular kid" upbringing is that he never came in contact with another little person throughout the first two decades of his life. That changed when they started showing up to dirt tracks, eager to catch a glimpse and shake the hand of the racer.

"That's when I think I started realizing the real impact that I can have on other people," he said. "My responsibility was going to become more about just me winning races. People coming to see me, whether it's other little people or kids or just regular old grown-ups looking to buy one of my T-shirts, you start to realize real quick that, 'Oh, man, I've got a lot of people interested in what I'm doing now.' "

After Tuesday's announcement and February's NASCAR debut, the number of people will only grow.

"But only if I keep winning races," Abreu grinned and nodded his head. "So ... that's the plan."