St. Helena native Rico Abreu finds his niche in sprint car racing

The notions of “good things come in small packages” and “bigger isn’t always better” are commonly uttered phrases in reference to those who are small in stature but tower over their competitors.

Rico Abreu, who races sprint cars, has plenty of reason to be held in high esteem.

The 2011 St. Helena High graduate spent much of his youth playing Carpy Gang football and St. Helena Little League baseball, and wrestling for Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School. However, when one stands 4 feet, 5 inches, their shelf life in the aforementioned sports will have its ceiling.

Though people in Abreu’s position have been referred to in the past as midgets or dwarfs, Abreu simply uses the term “little person” in reference to himself. Size, however, has not prevented Abreu from achieving a bevy of success.

In 2014, Abreu has amassed 11 first-place finishes in 45 races — including a June 21 triumph at Calistoga Speedway. He has also had 22 Top 5 finishes, and 30 in the Top 10.

Since Abreu began racing competitively in 2009, he has competed in the go-kart series, Midget Sprint Cars and Winged Sprint Cars. His racing career has taken him all over California and throughout the United States, including but not limited to Indiana, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Illinois.

By his own admission, however, Abreu said winning in Calistoga was especially satisfying.

“It was great to do it in front of a crowd of people and in front of my family as well as all of my friends,” he said. “It was a very special weekend. It was great to see Kyle Larson as well, since he is so busy into NASCAR he doesn’t get to many of these dirt races. It was also great to see Jeff Gordon.”

Larson and Gordon were present to see Abreu’s aforementioned win at Calistoga Speedway, which has been a second home for Abreu.

“I watched races at Calistoga back in 1999,” Abreu said. “I really fell in love when I saw the World of Outlaws. I was very comfortable in the race car. I really didn’t know how good I was going to be, but you never know until you try. My goal the last few years has been to finish all my races and win every time I’m on the track.”

The Upvalley region is no stranger to watching locals compete and have success. Jeff Griffin of St. Helena, Jeff Parady of St. Helena (and later Pope Valley) and Mike Benson of Calistoga are competitors Abreu grew up watching. He considers all three influential on some level, especially Griffin.

“Jeff Griffin was my biggest influence when I first started getting into racing,” Abreu said. “I was with his family watching races when he competed, and then he moved into the ranks of sprint cars. It was great watching his success before I even started racing. I started falling in love with the sport. Then I got a go-kart and started racing. Now that I am having success, it is great that they support me as well.”

Though the race is the event spectators witness, Abreu said maintenance on the vehicle throughout the week is also paramount to success. To that end, he gives effusive gratitude to pit crew members Paul Silva and Trevor Canales. The importance in their role to Abreu’s success is like the offensive line on a football team, in that their work might not be seen but is vital nonetheless.

“All I have to do is race,” Abreu said. “I’m with them all the time either inside of racing or outside of racing. Our friendship goes farther than just being at the race track. The maintenance is done at a very high level. Paul Silva is a huge part of the package deal we have put together. He’s very smart and experienced. He’s a self-made guy. To race for him is an honor.

“During the week I’m with these guys. It takes about two days for maintenance on the whole car. There’s a day of traveling. The week gets filled up very quickly. I’m privileged to go back and forth in California and back to Indiana. I’ve read many books about the sport of open wheel racing and the history behind it.”

Abreu, meanwhile, is establishing his own legacy, one that stands tall.