Where are they Now? - Ricky Craven still moving forward
Although injuries sidelined him at times, Ricky Craven didn't let that stop him from pursuing his dreams of winning in NASCAR for over two decades.
NASCAR was born in the southeastern United States and for decades was known and thought of as a Southern sport. While the majority of the early stars of NASCAR came from that region, there have been others who haven’t yet still left an impression on race fans.
This week, Motorsport.com features one of the most popular drivers to ever come from New England for the latest edition of ‘Where are they now? – Newburgh, Maine, native Ricky Craven.
Craven enjoyed a racing career that spanned over two decades winning at every level and today he’s become one of the most respected commentators on television through his work on ESPN.
Starting young in a small town
Craven grew up watching his dad race at Speedway 95 in Bangor, Maine, and always noticed an old Chevelle on Star Hope Farm Road on his way home from school.
“That Chevelle had a roll cage and much of nothing else and I think my dad bought that for me when I was 13 just to keep me busy,” Craven said. “I worked on that car and finally got it finished when I was 15."
Craven took his race car to nearby Unity Raceway and quickly won a race in just his second start in front of some famous company – Bobby Allison.
“After I won the race he came up to me and said ‘You’ll never forget your first win’ and gave me his hat,” Craven said. “I thought was pretty cool for him to say that to me and give me something."
While Craven enjoyed quick success on the race track, he still had a lot to learn about how to race as he rubbed up against many of his competitor’s cars.
“Bob Young and Dwayne Seekins were two drivers I raced against when I won my first race,” Craven said. “They came up to me and shook my hand and congratulated me on the win and said, ‘If you ever drive like that again, we’ll get you.’ So needless to say I still had to learn how to race against them instead of just beating and banging my way to the front.”
Getting help along the way in Maine
Stan Merserve and Ralph Nason were two successful businessmen in Newburgh and they encouraged and supported Craven early in his career.
“Stan built a house car to run in the ACT Tour and along with him,” said Craven. “A very successful lobsterman from Cundies Harbor named Louis Stuart supplied me engines and between he and Stan I was able to compete in that tour.”
While Craven has enjoyed the bright lights and television cameras that featured him during his NASCAR career, it’s those people that he thinks about at 50 years of age.
“I’ve been so blessed to have a lot of great memories or people who helped me throughout my career,” he added. “As I get older I found myself still thinking about all of those people that helped me get my start back home in Maine when I was so young.”
Busch North Series breakthrough
After tasting success in the ACT Tour, Craven moved on to the Busch North Series (now known as K&N Pro Series East) full-time in 1990 after making a total of three starts between 1987 and 1989. Craven picked up a pair of wins in 1990 and scored 11 top-10 finishes in 16 starts. His performance also netted him Rookie of the Year honors.
The next season Craven would show the NASCAR world what kind of talent he had by winning a still series record 10 times in 1991 and recording the championship.
“We had an unbelievable year in 1991 winning 10 races and the championship and that was a great feeling,” said Craven. “All wins are special, but winning the Chevy Dealers of New England 250 and beating drivers such as Harry Gant, Chuck Bown, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton and Robert Pressley really got me noticed.”
Craven also scored another win at New Hampshire as well as tracks in his native New England such as Thompson Speedway Motorsports Park, Oxford Plains Raceway, Jennerstown Speedway, Holland Speedway and now closed Flemington Speedway.
“One of greatest memories of my racing career was the year I won those 10 races and the championship,” Craven added. “The 1991 season along with winning the Cup rookie of the year award in 1995 are two my best memories for sure.”
His success in 1991 got him a ride for Dick Moroso at the season finale at Rockingham Speedway where he would finish 34th after mechanical issues ended his day early.
Craven moved on to compete in the Busch Series where he won rookie of the year honors in 1992 and finished second in the final standings in 1993 and 1994 scoring a pair of wins in his final full-time season.
Moving up to the major leagues
After enjoying success in the NASCAR Busch and Busch North Series, Craven got the opportunity to move up to the Cup Series in 1995 with car owner Larry Hedrick.
As he’d done earlier in his career, Craven enjoyed immediate success after a consistent season winning rookie of the year honors.
Craven was off to a good start when things changed quickly for him at Talladega Superspeedway on April 28, 1996. While racing in the lead pack, Craven was collected in a multi-car accident that gave him a concussion and hurt his chances for a successful season. See the Talladega accident HERE.
“That was something I’ll remember forever as we were off to such a good start that season and entered Talladega either third or fourth in the points standings,” Craven said. “We would finish out the year and scored a top-five at Charlotte later that season.”
In 1997, Rick Hendrick offered Craven a ride in the No. 25 car and Craven, as he always seemed to do in his driving career, got off to a hot start finishing third in the Daytona 500.
Craven was injured again, this time at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997, in an accident in practice that left him with a concussion and forcing him to miss the next two races on the schedule.
“It was hard getting injured again, because the year before I was miserable when I had to get out of the (No. 41) car after the Talladega crash and when Mr. Hendrick offered me a ride the next year, it gave me inspiration,” he said.
“It showed me tough times don’t last but tough people do. However, the accident at Texas was a challenge to recover from at the time.”
The long road back
Craven returned and completed the 1997 season, however, he was still feeling the effects of his concussion and was forced to sit out most of the 1998 season to deal with his injuries.
“That was tough for me in 1998 because all I ever dreamed of was winning a Cup race and at that time it was crucial that I get back in the car or I felt my life wouldn’t be complete,” Craven said.
After being diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, Craven worked to regain his ability to compete again and he didn’t stop until he was cleared to drive again later that season. He made his first start back with Hendrick Motorsports at New Hampshire Motor Speedway where he won the pole in qualifying.
“I was able to come back and race again and I appreciate the opportunity I was given to come back,” Craven said.
Hendrick decided to release Craven three races later and he would finish the season in the No. 36 car subbing for Ernie Irvan.
Craven would compete the next two seasons in the No. 58 and No. 50 cars, respectively, before his next opportunity came along for a full-time ride.
“I had worked so hard to get better and show everyone that I was capable of racing at the highest level again and that was all I ever wanted to do at that point in my career was to win a Cup race,” Craven said.
That’s when the opportunity to drive for California car owner Cal Wells presented itself.
Another chance to go for wins
After talking with Wells, Craven knew he had to prove to his car owner and to his team that he could get it done.
“Cal looked me in the eyes and asked if I was OK and I told him, ‘You let me drive that Tide car and I’ll reward you,’ ” Craven said. “I went through a battery of tests and cleared every hurdle medically and I wanted that team of guys to believe in me.”
Craven enjoyed being around that close-knit team on and off the race track and said one afternoon of sharing grilled chicken and cold beer made a big impact.
“I’ll never forget we were testing in Richmond and I brought my bus and about 12 of us sat around after practice one day and just drank some beer and ate chicken and hung out,” Craven said. “That’s what the Tide team was all about. We had a great chemistry.”
The comradery shared soon paid off as the team scored its first pole with Craven at Michigan Speedway.
Then it all came together in Martinsville that fall.
“I grew up on short tracks in Maine and always loved racing on them so Martinsville Speedway has always been one of my favorite tracks,” Craven said. “Being able to get my first Cup win there with Cal Wells and the Tide team back then was and still is a very special memory for me in my career. It’s the only time in my lifetime stood still for me.”
Watch Craven take his first win HERE.
The ‘win’ and calling it a day
Craven remained with Wells throughout the 2001 season and was driving for him when the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 rolled around in the spring of 2003.
Craven and Kurt Busch put on a show for the ages battling over the last handful of laps for the win with Craven scoring the closest win in the history of NASCAR for his second Cup victory. Watch that exciting finish HERE.
“That was something that was fun and special and I’ll always remember that race and how we won it racing Kurt hard those last few laps,” Craven said. “Any win is special and people still celebrate that win and I appreciate it more today as I’ve had time to reflect on it and how so many fans still talk about it today.”
Craven’s last NASCAR win came in a Camping World Truck Series race at Martinsville in 2006 driving for Jack Roush.
After that win, Craven felt the time was right to hang up his helmet.
“I walked away with a year left on my contract with Jack Roush,” said Craven. “I raced my last race and I just knew the time was right. I was done. I had given all I could give to the sport and there was nothing left in the tank.”
The next career
Craven had dabbled into television working for TBS in the late 1990’s with its NASCAR coverage and dove in fulltime after his retirement with ESPN.
“Jack Obringer called me about nine months after I quit driving and I had taken enough time off to be hungry and recharge my batteries,” Craven said. “I spent two weeks up at their headquarters in Bristol (Connecticut) and it all started from there for me on the network.”
Craven would go on and serve as a race analyst on ESPN’s show “NASCAR Now” and now serves as an analyst on SportsCenter and also writes for ESPN.com.
While it’s nowhere near the same as driving, it fills a small void for him.
“I’m often asked if I miss the competition and getting ready for races,” he added. “I get a percentage of that feeling working at EPSN. I love the challenge each week of making sure I get it right for the viewers and race fans. I get to say what I believe based on my 25 years of driving experience.”
Much like his driving ability, Craven wants to make his ability to communicate to the race fans and viewers something they’ll remember and be valuable to their experience watching the sport.
“I approach each week trying to make myself a valuable asset to the ESPN team in their coverage of NASCAR and give the fans information that they want to know,” he said. “I really enjoy what I do and hope that I can continue to share my thoughts and perspective with the viewers and fans. I couldn’t enjoy a job more than I do this one.”
His health and future plans
As the problems associated with concussions have dominated the sports landscape in recent years, Craven realizes he has a part to play based on what he’s been through as a driver. However, he tries to keep in it perspective.
“If there was something going on with me I would be the last to know,” Craven said with a laugh. “I don’t think a lot about it today and it can be frustrating because there’s so much information out there about concussions. I’ve done research for my benefit and the data is profound particularly in football.”
Craven knows he participated in a dangerous sport that could be an issue down the road but he also understood the risks when he chose to become a race car driver.
“Being a race car driver requires you to evaluate the risk and being a successful race car driver requires you to accept those risks,” he said.
While he has no regrets and doesn’t look back often, Craven realizes his injuries did cost him something.
“If I hadn’t gotten hurt that first year driving at Hendrick Motorsports, I believe I could have had three or four really good years that I lost due to my injuries,” he said. “I feel like I gave away my prime years of my career.”
Relaxation time on the lake
While Craven still has a home in the Charlotte area he prefers to relax and spend time on the lake in Maine.
“I try and spend as much time as I can on my property on Moosehead Lake in Maine,” he added. “I absolutely love it up there.”
Craven’s grandfather, Vinal Smith, was a lumberjack and owned a farm where he would work from 5 a.m. until around 3 p.m. every day harvesting trees. Craven now enjoys the same in his retirement.
“I love going out there and chopping down a tree, cutting it up and burning it in my fireplace,” he said. “It’s something I love to do now and Cedar Cove is my favorite place to be on the planet.”
Thank you to the fans
Craven, like many retired drivers, stays in touch with fans although he’s been out of a race car for over a decade.
“It’s amazing, I still get eight to 12 letters and cards a week from fans and I answer every one of them,” Craven said. “What’s fascinating about that is about 70 percent of them are handwritten which shows you the dedication fans have for you even when you quit driving.”
Craven always enjoyed racing anywhere but it was always special when he raced in the Cup series at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“That was my home track on the Cup circuit and it always meant a lot to me to hear the fans cheer me on when I raced there,” he said. “I remember when I won the pole there after coming back from an injury and that was something I’ll always cherish on how the fans supported me so much in New England.”
Ricky Craven Bio & Accomplishments
Born: May 24, 1966 (Newburgh, Maine)
Children: Riley, Richard, Lydia
Race Starts: 485 (278 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, 142 NASCAR Xfinity Series, 26 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, 49 Busch North Series)
Poles: 26 (6 MENCS, 7 NXS, 13 BNS)
NASCAR Tour Race Wins: 20 (2 MENCS, 4 NXS, 1 NCWTS, 13 BNS)
Member of the following halls of fame:
Eastern Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame (2016)
Nine drivers named to 2017 NASCAR Next class
Regan Smith to fill in for injured Almirola this weekend at Charlotte