Iracingone On One:/I Ricky Craven

(Ricky Craven has seen a lot of adversity thrown at his racing career in recent years. A bout with post-concussion syndrome set him back and contributed to his ousting from Hendrick Motorsports. The past couple of years have seen him scramble just to stay in the sport, but Cal Wells rescued the Maine native and the former NASCAR Winston Cup Series Rookie of the Year is now driving Wells’ No. 32 Tide Ford.)

RacingOne: You don’t see a lot of drivers at this level - or NASCAR’s three highest levels - who grew up in Maine? What was it like growing up there?

Craven: Probably not much different than anywhere else except my access to NASCAR racing was limited, through venues like television. But, my interest was the same because my dad was a racer on a local level. If you go through the garage area, that’s one consistency you can see. Most of the drivers had a dad or a relative that raced.

RacingOne: You’ve had some tough things to deal with in your career, but last season must have been a nightmare for you.

Craven: It was frustrating. You can’t do anything part of the time if you’re going to be good at it. You need to be up to your neck in it, 100 percent, full time. We just weren’t able to do that because we didn’t have the financial support. I’m really appreciative of the opportunity I had with Hal Hicks at the 50 team, but I wasn’t interested in doing that forever. It was just very difficult.

RacingOne: The previous year when you hooked up with Scott Barbour’s team, how tough was that to take when things fell apart?

Craven: Everybody makes bad decisions in their life, and that was one of my poorest decisions, going with that team.

RacingOne: When you were sidelined with post-concussion syndrome, did you ever, at any point, believe you might not race again?

Craven: I certainly had to consider it. There were all sorts of emotions when I left the hospital in Chapel Hill (N.C.). I had a couple of doctors basically controlling my destiny, and the fact they said you’ve got a problem and it needs to be corrected was really scary. At that point you go through all sorts of emotions. It’s not as simple as pulling a tooth or putting a Band-Aid on your finger. I kept hoping things could be corrected, but yeah, honestly, there were times when I thought I might not get in a race car competitively ever again. That’s your whole life, and that’s very frightening.

RacingOne: Would you say hooking up with Cal Wells and this Tide team is a resurrection of your career?

Craven: Absolutely. It’s a second chance of sorts for me. It’s very exciting because I had a lot of success early on in my career and I wanted to return to that level. This is a chance for me to do that. Most of my career, up until the past couple of years, has been a success. There are some things I’ve discovered that are difficult and frustrating, but out of that are some of life’s lessons and that’s what I got out of the past couple of years. Those are the positives, and now I’m going to put everything I can into make this opportunity a great success.

RacingOne: When you signed on with Hendrick Motorsports, did you step back and take a look at yourself and say, ‘Hey, I’ve arrived?’

Craven: I said that after the Daytona 500 my first year. We finished 1-2-3 and I said, ‘Boy, this is great.’ This is exactly why I came here. Two weeks later we’re second in the points, and a few weeks later we qualified second at Darlington. It’s the only time in my Winston Cup career I woke up and said hey, ‘I’m going to win my first race today.’ I just felt that strong about it. I got caught up in a wreck with a lapped car. There is no substitute for that kind of confidence that allows you to race with authority. That’s just irreplaceable.

RacingOne: How disappointing was it for you when such a great opportunity like that came to and end?

Craven: It was the complete reversal of what I just talked about it. It was equally disappointing. My expectations were so high. Also, I had walked away from a close friendship with Larry Hedrick to go to the Bud team at Hendrick Motorsports. So, not only were my expectations high, but I had put all my eggs in one basket. That was a big decision and I felt good about that decision. I guess I got humbled. You find yourself reflecting back and saying, ‘Well, I guess I didn’t make a very good decision there.’ But it was tremendously heartbreaking, that’s for sure.

RacingOne: You work closely with a lot of charities. What compels you to do that?

Craven: I went to New Hampshire International Speedway about six or seven years ago, and a young guy named Nathan Russo was there with the Make-A-Wish Foundation. They brought him up to the trailer. His ambition was to meet a driver and spend the day with one. He chose me, which I thought was very special. I tried to convince him it was probably better to go with the 24 car or go meet Dale Earnhardt, and he wanted to be with us. That same weekend, we ran the Busch North race and Nathan was with us the whole weekend. We won that race, and he went to victory lane with us. I kept in contact with him and the family. I talked with them as much as I talked to my own family. His mom and dad would tell me how he watched every single race. I would send him whatever memorabilia we had because I discovered that even the smallest things, things you might dismiss, propel other people. They really have an impact. I thought, damn, something so simple, so shame on me if I don’t stop and really pay attention. This was invaluable for him. His principal would call me and give me updates about him. Out of that, I just got a new perspective on things. I also have two children, so I can relate. I’m very thankful my children are healthy. I visited with the Children’s Miracle Network and discovered a lot of children weren’t getting proper care because they didn’t have the proper equipment. They didn’t have the equipment because they didn’t have the funding, which I thought was so ridiculous. People are worried about stuff like how big of a dock they’re going to put on their beach house or how many BMWs they need. People have problems, but until you visit the children’s ward of Eastern Maine Medical Center, you realize those are irrelevant and meaningless. I often say if you have the chance, you should expose yourself to that. It really changes your perspective. I’m a fierce competitor, and I really get caught up in my racing and I really get frustrated. There are times when I may not be the most pleasant person to be around, but that’s me as a competitor. When I stop long enough to think about the real world, it solves all of my problems. That’s what compels me to do that.

RacingOne: You’ve won rookie-of-the-year honors in three different NASCAR divisions. How proud are you of that?

Craven: I’m proud of that, but I can’t be a rookie in anything anymore (laughing). It’s kinda neat to reflect on that. I’ve got all of those trophies together to show I was able to accomplish that. You only have one chance at something like that. Every year I’ve been able to accomplish that, I’ve had great people around me and I had great teams. We had great focus and good sponsorship. Each one of those three years was a model of success for a driver. I was the beneficiary of being around some good people.

RacingOne: You made your first Winston Cup start in 1991. What do you remember most about that?

Craven: Honestly, the thing I remember was how miserable 500 laps were. At that point, I hadn’t raced anything half that long. My car wasn’t handling that great. I’m not sure I knew what I was doing. I took a lot out of that, however. Buddy Parrott was my crew chief, and Dick Moroso was generous enough to have me race for him. He asked me to go to Atlanta the next week to drive for him. I’ve always been a realist and I’ve always worked hard to not get in over my head. That’s part of why I’ve been fortunate enough to have the three rookie-of-the-year deals. I’ve always waited until I thought I was ready, not when other people thought I was. I got out of that car that day and I told Dick, ‘I’m not ready to go to Atlanta. I really need to address a few things, and as a team, that wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to race.’ I needed to get myself in better condition. But, I’ll never forget working with Buddy Parrott. He is just a fun, fun guy to be around.”

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