Ricky Craven, driver of the No. 32 Tide Taurus, is returning home for the New England 300 this weekend. Craven, a native of Newburgh, Maine, qualified 20th for Sunday's NASCAR Winston Cup race. He held a question and answer session...
Ricky Craven, driver of the No. 32 Tide Taurus, is returning home for the New England 300 this weekend. Craven, a native of Newburgh, Maine, qualified 20th for Sunday's NASCAR Winston Cup race. He held a question and answer session Saturday morning to discuss a variety of topics.
RICKY CRAVEN --32-- Tide Taurus
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE HOME?
"It's obviously good to be home. You may not understand if you're not a New England boy or a girl, but the cool nights, the 60-degree water on the lakes, the Dunkin' Donuts coffee. These things mean a lot to me and then there's New Hampshire International Speedway -- a place I watched emerge when it was being constructed with the anticipation of this hopefully being my catalyst to Winston Cup racing and, in fact, it has been. It's been very rewarding for me, so I always come here with very high expectations. Yesterday I fell short on that, but tomorrow could be our day. If it is, then it's gonna be one hell of a celebration."
HAVE THE 96 PROBLEMS BEEN A DISTRACTION?
"The challenge for me every week is to focus on driving the Tide Ford and eliminate distraction. That comes in all shapes and forms. Sometimes it's personal and sometimes it's professional. In this case it's business. Sure, it's in the back of your mind, but my allegiance is with Cal Wells and most of you understand why. I was on the outside looking in and he scooped me off the free agent list or the unemployment list or whatever you want to call it, and we've had a very productive year. As a result, Tide renewed my contract for next year and I couldn't be happier. So, everything in my world is great and nothing has been affected on the Tide racing program, nor do I anticipate anything changing. We've operated like a first-class race team. We're doing a lot of things to build towards the future and none of those things have changed."
WHAT ABOUT THE ANNOUCEMENT OF YOUR EXTENSION?
"It's something we had discussed the last 30 days and this seemed like the appropriate timing. Coming back is always a treat for me, just for personal reasons. There will be a lot of fans and friends and family in the grandstands tomorrow that I get to see twice a year, and the race track is a facility that I have unlimited confidence. There are other place I wish I had this kind of confidence and ultimately need to to be successful at this level, but this is more of a been there done that type of thing. I have a great understanding of the race track, so as long as they don't change the race track it's like 'I know where my left side tires need to be. I know where I need to get off the gas' and we can just work on the car. The last couple of years have been tough for me because 95, 96 and 97 were so productive and then it was like a leave of absence. I ran a partial schedule, but, boy, it's been a challenge for me this year going back to places like Pocono and Sears Point, where I haven't seen for three or four years. That won't reflect on how I run here this weekend, but that sure has an affect on the overall point standings and that's where we'll get better the second half of the year and we'll also be a lot better in 2002. But coming here, it fits like a comfortable shoe. It's just perfect."
HAS EVERYTHING THAT WAS PROMISED TO YOU BEEN FULFILLED WITH THIS TEAM?
"I think it's important that you be realistic, meaning me, that whatever your job is that you be reasonable and realistic. No, it's not perfect. Of course it's not and there's some disappointment, and then there are some surprises where you say, 'Wow, that's really generous or that's really wonderful.' I've got a group of people on this Tide team that I wouldn't trade for anything. I see that as a priority, so then you focus your attention on the equipment. Absolutely phenomenal engines. Robert Yates has done a great job for us and there are times I have been very dependent on him. And then the cars are part of the evolution of PPI, where we're building our own cars. That's paid off at time and that's been a challenge at times, so, if I were to evaluate us now I would give us a B because I think we've run very, very well. As it compares to last year being their first year and this being their second year, we've run in the top five in nine of the first 18 races. That's the good news and in that, we've proven to be fast which is the priority in this business. You've got to find speed and we've done that. The bad news is we haven't always finished the job. In the second half, we have to capitalize on the good runs.
"We were able to do that at Rockingham. We did that at Dover, but a lot of them we left on the table. In Atlanta we had a very legitimate shot to win the race and we just gave it away -- a lot of different things. And then there are places where I just have to get better -- that I haven't been to. I challenged myself before I went to Sears Point because I had only been there I think one other time and I used a provisional and ran like a cab driver. But when I went back this year, I qualified ninth and got a flat tire under green that cost us, but we still finished 16th. That's not utopia, but it's a hell of an improvement over what I had. I think everything is right on track. Every race team is gonna some adversity in one form or another. This team has got some adversity, but I think what's really key for us is that we're all communicating well. We get along very well and Procter and Gamble is behind us 100 percent and that's as it relates to the Tide team. In all fairness to me, I have very little to do with McDonald's and know very little about it. Cal would be a much better interview (on that topic)."
WHAT ABOUT BEING ON A TEAM THAT IS TRYING TO SURVIVE VERSUS BUILDING ONE FOR THE FUTURE?
"There's no question that last year it was absolutely agonizing at times because you were doing things for the wrong reason. In this situation, we're building towards something -- the ultimate dream. What motivates us as racers is that we're all competitive. We want the World Series or the Super Bowl or, in this case, we want the Winston Cup trophy. That wasn't even in the picture last year. Our whole objective was to get in the race and, in some cases, we worked so hard to get in the race that once we got there we said, 'Now what in the hell are we gonna do?' And that's just not fun, to be honest with you. I mean, I came here last year and led 65 or 70 laps and I'll be damned if we didn't have to make a pit stop. Now in no way am I being disrespectful to Hal Hicks. I want to make it clear that I owe an awful lot to him because he gave me the chance to keep racing, which, in this business, if you're out of sight you're done. If you're not visible, then you're not a candidate. I really thank Hal Hicks. He's a friend and I'd do anything to help him, and I have during the course of this year whenever they've needed something, but I wouldn't want to race like that again. In fact, at this point in my career, I won't do that again. I've put all of my eggs in one basket. This thing here is gonna work and that's my attitude. I'm 35 and the next five years will be the best racing of my career. They'll be the most productive. I'm a much better racer today than I was five years ago. I'm not as careless. No, maybe there won't be as many poles, but there are gonna be more wins eventually because I'm a much smarter racer, much more predictable, more calculated, and I've got experience. You go through the garage area and lets take five prospects, young guys that you say 'this is the next Jeff Gordon.' Three of them are never gonna survive because they won't clear that three year hurdle of just absorbing race tracks and information and experience. Without that experience, they'll use a provisional at a place like Pocono or they'll miss a race at a place like Bristol. That's why I love this sport because every week we go to a completely different environment and the race track might be a half-mile flat oval and then the next week we're on a 2.66-mile restrictor plate, 205 mile and hour superspeedway. Because of that, you're gonna see a lot of homegrown talent. It's gonna be very difficult to see talent from other leagues enter into this because these cars are very, very difficult to drive. So, that's a really long answer to your question, but, in essence, the experience I've got having run Busch Grand National and Winston Cup, I think, is paying off. We were a very real candidate to win at Dover and I think I contributed to that. I think that experience has finally started to pay off for me and I'm starting to use my head."
HOW MUCH CONTROL DO YOU HAVE AS FAR AS DECISIONS?
"I absolutely don't participate in personnel, unless there's something we need and that's sort of a part of recruiting. My dialogue with Cal is an A-plus. We have some good conversations at anytime of the day and night. Mike (Beam) is very open-minded. If there are things that I feel I need, I don't have to jump up and down and hold my breath. It's no problem.
"It's important for me at this point to get out of the mode I was in last year, where I thought about springs and shocks and all that, and this year I'm just focussing on driving. I'm a participant as it relates to the chassis or whatever we need to do, but that's somebody's job."
IS IT BETTER THIS WAY? "Oh gosh, I'm gonna tell you something, when you consider all of the things that make up a Winston Cup driver's schedule, the race track is only part of the equation, but when we get to the garage area it's like a breath of fresh air. It's like, 'Wow, all that just to get here.' And to be more specific, flying across the country and doing the autograph sessions and even the interviews. When we're done here, I'll have just a few minutes to get my uniform on, hop in the seat, and sort of debrief with Mike. 'Where are we at' and he'll already have the race setup in the car."
HOW MUCH DO THOSE KIND OF THINGS TAKE AWAY FROM PERFORMANCE ON THE TRACK?
"I think that there's a correlation between drivers winning a Winston Cup championship for the first time and then struggling the year after. I think Bobby Labonte is a good example of that. His schedule changed just like that and he probably spent the next 60 days after the checkered flag dropped in Atlanta flying from place to place to place. You lose that quality time at the shop and there's just no substitute for that. A percentage of your life has to be spent at the shop. It has to be spent with your crew. It has to be spent taking them to lunch or just hanging out at the shop and making sure the seat is perfect, it's comfortable. When you get here, if you're struggling with the intangibles like the seat not being comfortable or the mirror isn't right, that just detracts you from practice. You lose 20 minutes here or 15 minutes there. I'll guarantee you that Dale Jarrett will tell you that after his championship a few years ago, that there are a lot of distractions. That's our challenge as racers. We have to balance that and you have to be good at it. For me, the one thing I won't sacrifice is time with my kids. Although I contradict myself and say that I do make sacrifices, I'll find ways to spend time with the kids because it's just real important to me. It's also a good balance. We end up taking things so serious. With racing you're just so serious. And then you spend 10 minutes with Richard Everett and all of the world's problems are solved. There are no problems. I flew in at 2 o'clock in the morning Wednesday from Indianapolis and he was bouncing on the bed at seven. He said, 'What are we gonna do today?' And I said, 'I'm gonna sleep.' And he said, 'Why?' And I said, 'Because I'm old.' And he said, 'But I'm new.' And I woke up and said, 'That's great. That's a good point.' Any of you guys with kids know, I mean it's just priceless. I'm having the time of my life. I've got the best sponsor in the business. It's unbelievable. I've got a personal relationship with these folks now. A lot of the executives at Procter and Gamble are my age or my wife's age and have families. We spend quality time. They've introduced me to Give Kids the World, which is just a phenomenal program in Florida. The racing is good. It's not great, but it's gonna be great. I've got two beautiful kids and I'm at New Hampshire. Things couldn't be better. I'm as comfortable as I've ever been in my career. There's always been this urgency when you're around me. 'I've got to go,' and just pushing, pushing, pushing. You don't see things when you're younger. As you get older you're supposed to get wiser and I got a little bit of that. I've realized, 'Man, you've got to relax.' It'll come but not because you wished for it or not because you demand it, but because you earn it and you've got to work for it. That's what we've got. This is a very, very good opportunity."
WHAT ABOUT THE QUALIFYING LAP SITUATION?
"They were concerned about the surface. One lap would force everybody to push the issue, so you sort of had a throwaway lap. You could run moderate the first lap and get after it the second lap. I think when we ran harder the second lap, most of the field messed up and the first lap ended up being your best. That's the characteristic of this track. I mean, this is a very, very difficult race track. That's why some people leave here bitter. 'Oh, this is a tough place.' So you've got to get tough right back. At the end of the day the guy who wins just made up his mind, 'I'm gonna go after this place.' You can't predict what this surface is gonna be like.
"It's appropriate that it's here because it's exactly like New England weather -- you don't have a clue as to what it's gonna be. Right now the surface is great, but I can assure you it's gonna change tomorrow. It will be different."
DID IT EVER GET TO THE POINT WHERE YOU WERE CONCERNED THAT YOUR RACING DAYS WERE OVER AND YOU WERE GOING TO HAVE TO GET A REAL JOB?
"A real job scared me. Yes. Sometimes, like I said earlier, things make more sense as you get older and you reflect on them. I think the thing that was most difficult was people's opinions or the perception of you. I'll be up front with you guys, the only way I was gonna get back here was to perform. That's the world we live in. You perform. Whether it's here or Wall Street or down the road in retail. You perform or you're gonna be replaced, so you've gotta just accept that. When I was released from Hendrick, I struggled because I've always overachieved so that's my mentality. I had to accept the fact that I'm not the first guy to get fired. I lost my job and that took me a long, long time. In between losing the Bud ride and getting this opportunity, let's just say it was two years, the perception was that I was still hurt and it really made me mad. It's like, 'I'm not any healthier today than I was when I got back in that car at New Hampshire,' which by the way we won the pole. If you're gonna judge me based on performance, that's pretty good performance. Jeff Gordon was the man at that time and he was on the outside pole. I thought, 'There, I've silenced the world. Now let's move on.' And it just never went away and it didn't go away because I didn't perform in the races. Then I came back and drove Ernie Irvan's car and we ran like a bat out of hell. I mean, we had a legitimate shot to win Daytona and had a flat tire late in the race with maybe 10 laps to go, but still came back to finish in the top 10. I ran very strong at Rockingham, but it still didn't go away. 'He's still hurt.' At that point I really felt like I may be a marked man and when you're fighting something you can't see, you're almost defenseless. That's always been my philosophy. I've always believed that the only thing you fear are things you can't see and don't know, so I've worked hard to educate myself. I'm very fortunate that I've married a brilliant wife, a brilliant woman, because, I mean, had it not been for here I would have never gotten where I'm at. Just having someone to talk to and work through these things. That's why my allegiance is with Cal Wells. Let the record show -- he's a survivor and I'm gonna battle all the way through this deal with him and we're gonna have a lot of wonderful races. We're gonna have success because he took a chance when a few of these guys in the garage didn't. I'll tell you because what do I have to lose, I'm bitter at a few of these guys in the garage. I come from New England, where you call a spade a spade. That's all you've got. That's the way the whole world should be, but it's not that way. If you tell somebody something, that's the way it is. If not, you've got no credibility and if you've got no credibility, you're done. I learned that from guys like Bob Bahre. You don't have to have a contract, just shake hands. There are a few guys in the garage that told me wonderful things and I got close to an opportunity and I didn't hear back from them. I thought that's very unusual or the word got back to me, 'We're really concerned that you're still hurt.' So at that point it was like, this close to surrendering. Like uncle, I give up. But Cal Wells and I got together in December. We sat down at a restaurant and I'm frustrated. I said, 'Hey, it's nice to meet you, here's what we're gonna do. If you're interested in me driving your car, we're gonna do whatever you ask medically starting tomorrow morning -- whatever you require because we're gonna get through this. It's gonna come up.' Even if he would have said no I would have demanded it because that's the business that we live in. This is a performance business and the common reaction from people, and me included, I'm as guilty as the next guy, the first time you have a bad race you start to speculate. What are you gonna speculate on? The first thing you're gonna speculate on is, is he healthy? So I went through stuff I would never want to go through again, I mean from A to Z physically -- everything -- and when we were done I think his quote was, 'He could be a fighter pilot.' And that's where it ended. He's never brought it up. He never will bring it up. It doesn't exist.
"Thank God I haven't bounced off the wall in the last three years and I'm hoping that I don't get beat up again, but my knees aren't gonna knock together worrying about it. Every one of us, when we start the race, is exposed to an element of danger. If you think about it, you're in big trouble. I don't think about. I love what I do. I have a passion for what I do and, by gosh, I have a great opportunity. Again, that's a long answer to your question but it's a great question because there was a time not too long ago where I came really close to surrendering just because of that perception."
WHAT DO YOU HAVE ON YOUR CAR TO PREVENT A THROTTLE FROM STICKING?
"I think we're the only team here that has a cable instead of a linkage. It's a cable that goes through the firewall and it completely seals the firewall - the engine compartment from the driver. You push it, but it's on a lever so it pulls from the top. It was something that was incorporated for the Indy cars and we implemented it here in the cars. I think it's great. I really like it. I like the concept of it. We've also got the kill switch that you can activate with your toe, and the button on the steering wheel. This is the most safety-conscious team I've ever been around and Cal has exposed me to aspects of safety that I hadn't really considered. My attitude was, and it's a bad attitude, but my attitude used to be 'if you're gonna get hurt, you're gonna get hurt.' When, in reality, you probably need to do everything you can to be safe, but not at the expense of competition. You just can't lose sight of what we do. You've got to accept that it is a dangerous business, so you can't live in a world where you're trying to protect yourself at the expense of competing. But Cal has brought a good balance. We've incorporated things that are really, really nice and they don't affect us from a competitive standpoint."
HAVE YOU EVER USED THAT DEVICE?
"No, but I actually had a problem here at the beginning of practice where my foot got caught and I had the option of just pulling back on that switch, which I did. It's all a matter of just becoming comfortable with things. If you have to think about something, it's not gonna help you, but if you can just react to it -- that's the case with my cars now. I've got everything so comfortable that I can just do it and just react to it."