-by Justin St. Louis
Ricky Craven grew up like so many kids across the country, wanting to be a NASCAR superstar. But actually Craven saw the plan through. He began racing at Unity Raceway in his native Maine in 1982 at age 15. By 1995, he was the NASCAR Winston Cup Series Rookie of the Year.
He was fourth in points in his sophomore season before a series of harrowing crashes left him with head injuries and out of a ride. After months of rehabilitation, he returned full-time in 2001 to earn his first Cup win at Martinsville, and was made famous for his .002-second margin of victory over Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003. After a season on the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2005, Craven retired. He now works as a popular analyst for ESPN's "NASCAR Now" program.
Craven did an interview with writer Bones Bourcier for Stock Car Racing magazine during his rookie year in what is now the Sprint Cup Series. Craven was intense in the interview, noting himself that he was "aggressive," "hard to get close to," and "committed" while attaining his goal of graduating from the short tracks of Maine and becoming a Cup racer.
He said that he never intended to stay in one place for too long during his ascension to the Cup level, and planned to reach that plateau by the time he was 30 years old. For the record, he made absolutely good on that plan: He raced weekly at Unity for two years, moved to Pro Stocks at Wiscasset Raceway and other tracks for three years, raced with ACT for three years, ran just two full seasons of the old Busch North Series -- winning ten races and the championship during the second year in 1991 -- was in the Nationwide Series for two years, and made it to Cup by age 28, two years ahead of schedule.
"I love plans and my plans always come together," Craven told Bourcier in 1995.
Fifteen years later, he sat with us at New Hampshire Motor Speedway and looked back at that plan.
"I've always put a lot of thought in to things and I've always worked hard, because I felt like that was the only way I'd have an advantage, to put in the effort and the detail," Craven said. "I never considered myself the world's greatest race car driver. I knew I was good, I mean, you have to be good to get to a certain point, but things turned out about like I'd hoped, honestly."
"To be very clear, I expected to win. My goal was to win ten Cup races, and I felt like I should have won have won ten Cup races, but I didn't volunteer to go through trauma twice. I didn't volunteer to get helicoptered out of Talladega (in 1996) or Texas (in 1997). You just have to react to that, and I'm no different than anybody else."
After taking time off from his Hendrick Motorsports ride to deal with his injuries partway through the 1998 season, Craven's first race back was at his "home" track, New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He knocked his teammate Jeff Gordon off the top of the speed chart to win the pole position. Still, he lost his ride with Hendrick shortly thereafter and took second-rate rides until Cal Wells came calling in 2001.
"I never considered quitting, but I can't honestly sit here and say that it was easy to not quit," Craven said.
"I remember a reporter asking me in 1999, 'Why do you keep doing this?' I grew up on a farm in Newburgh, Maine, and I started racing when I was 15. When I won my first race at 15, Bobby [Allison] was a guest at Unity Raceway [and] gave me his hat. I wanted to be a big-time Cup racer [like him] and win, and I did."
On his way out the door, headed for a flight back home to Charlotte, N.C., to celebrate daughter Riley's high school graduation, Craven pulled out his cell phone. The background image was a photo of his wife and two children. He took a moment to reflect on his driving career, his current role with ESPN, and his role as a family man.
"Things you learn about life, it's never perfect. You shoot for perfect, but it's never perfect," he said. Then he looked at the photo again.
"I've got nothing to complain about," Craven smiled. "My life is great."
Sunday is a big day for Devil's Bowl Speedway. It marks the first time in nearly 40 years that the track will return as an asphalt facility. It'll be a great thing for Vermont and northeastern stock car racing if it works. We lose one-third of the racing in our state if it doesn't, something race folks can ill afford.
Champlain Valley Racing Association president C.J. Richards opened the West Haven half-mile in 1967 as a clay-dirt track. He laid a coat of asphalt down on top of the clay in 1970, but theexperiment was a flop. Clay was returned to the racing surface after the 1972 season and the track has operated that way since. Five years ago Richards' children took over control of the CVRA, Devil's Bowl, and its sister track, Albany-Saratoga Speedway in Malta, New York. Things continued to run well with the two-track dirt circuit, with lots of fans and respectable car counts.
Politics and weather threatened to shutter the Albany-Saratoga track, though: A multi-million dollar microchip manufacturing plant in Malta began demanding that dust kicked up by race cars be eradicated. A three-year stretch of rainy summers had badly affected the racing schedules at both tracks. Dirt speedways require almost constant grading, packing, and massaging, especially after messy weather, and the manhours poured into the racing surfaces took time away from other important tasks that come with operating two race tracks.
The CVRA group had a choice to make: Get rid of the dust and the strain by closing their tracks, or by paving them. Thankfully, they chose the latter. They also chose to keep the same dirt-style divisions intact, implementing only minor rule changes and a switch to an asphalt-friendly tire in an attempt to keep their core group of racers.
A five-hour test session last Saturday was considered a success by all accounts, with teams from Devil's Bowl's Modified, Sportsman, Renegade, and Mini Stock divisions, as well as Tom Curley's Thunder Road Late Models, all giving favorable reviews. Modified driver Mike Bruno came within a few tenths of a second of the track speed record, reaching over 106 miles per hour -- that's an average speed for the entire lap, meaning straightaway speeds were closer to 130 mph -- even though he says he "wasn't pushing it." Perhaps most importantly, fans that attended agreed that the increased speeds on the asphalt have the potential for more exciting competition.
Yes, Sunday is a big day for Devil's Bowl Speedway. Maybe its biggest day ever. Go check it out.
AROUND THE REGION:
Time to take a look at the top Vermonters from the past weekend...
Airborne Speedway (Plattsburgh, N.Y.): Brandon's Don Scarborough finished third in the Modified feature last Saturday, with Milton's Bill Sawyer sixth in the Sportsman race. Lance Rabtoy of Fairfax was the Renegade runner-up.
Bear Ridge Speedway (Bradford): East Montpelier's Will Hull won the Limited Late Model feature on Saturday night before rains moved in. Jason Giguere of Enfield, N.H., was second, with Newbury's Jeremy Hodge third. Karl Sheldon of St. Johnsbury beat Bradford's Tom Placey for the Hornet checkers, with Mike Pittman of Corinth third. Make-up features for the Sportsman Modified, Sportsman Coupe, Fast Four, and Hornet Queen divisions have been added to this week's program.
Big Daddy's Speedway (Rumney, N.H.): Louie Cadwell of Vershire was sixth in Sunday's Sportsman Modified feature. Josh Sunn of White River Junction was the Mini Stock runner-up.
Canaan Dirt Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Rookie Dan Eastman of Thetford Center was fifth in the Sportsman Modifed feature on Friday. Josh Sunn of White River Junction was second in the Mini Stocks. Dakota Stender of Tunbridge was fourth in the Bandit feature with Mike Stender of South Strafford fifth.
Canaan Fair Speedway (Canaan, N.H.): Chris Wilk of Mendon was second in Saturday's Super Street feature, and Jamie Hodgdon of Ascutney won the Pure Stock feature with North Springfield's Rory Merritt fifth. Bobby Prior of White River Junction was fourth in the Outlaw Mini feature. Mike Parker of Bradford won the Bandit feature over Ascutney's Tyler Lescord.
Monadnock Speedway (Winchester, N.H.): Josh King of Vernon was 13th in Saturday's Modified feature. Ascutney's Joey Jarvis won the Sportsman Modifieds with Nate Kehoe of Windham in eighth. Putney's Dana Shepard was tenth in the Super Street feature. Joe Rogers of Ludlow finished seventh in the Mini Stocks with Mike Metcalf of Westminster ninth.
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Shelburne's Kevin Lepage was 38th at Dover Int'l (Del.) Speedway on Saturday.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: David Stremme finished 27th at Dover Int'l (Del.) Speedway on Sunday for Vermont-based Latitude 43 Motorsports.
Riverside Speedway (Groveton, N.H.): Derek Ming of Island Pond won Sunday's Late Model feature, with Jesse Switser of West Burke third. Dan Sidney of St. Johnsbury won the Outlaw Sportsman feature, and Michael Smith of St. Johnsbury was third in the Super Stock race. Doug Dupuis of St. Johnsbury won the Street Stock race over Concord's Brett Rowell. Willie Merchant of Concord was fourth in the Dwarf Car race, Waterford's Lorin Vear won the Cyclones, and Alison Barney of Granby won the Angels.
Sprint Cars of New England: Anthony Cain of Fairfax was fourth at Canaan Dirt Speedway on Friday, with Orange's Kevin Chaffee sixth and Lacey Hanson of Orwell tenth.
Twin State Speedway (Claremont, N.H.): Dallas Trombley of Rutland finished fifth in the Late Model feature on Friday night. Chris Wilk of Mendon was the Super Street runner-up. with Russ Davis of Cavendish third. David Greenslit of Waitsfield won the Strictly Stock feature over Pittsford's Kyle Davis and Jacksonville's Kaitlin Stone. Robert Leitch of Cavendish was the Wildcat runner-up.
Friday, May 21
Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Malta, N.Y. -- 6:45pm (Regular Event)
Canaan Dirt Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 7:00pm (Regular Event)
Twin State Speedway, Claremont, N.H. -- 7:30pm (Regular Event)
Saturday, May 22
Airborne Speedway, Plattsburgh, N.Y. -- 5:00pm (Regular Event)
Bear Ridge Speedway, Bradford -- 6:00pm (Regular Event plus make-up features for Modifieds, Coupes, Fast Fours, Hornet Queens)
Canaan Fair Speedway, Canaan, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Season Opener)
Monadnock Speedway, Winchester, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Regular Event)
Riverside Speedway, Groveton, N.H. -- 6:00pm (Regular Event)
White Mountain Motorsports Park, North Woodstock, N.H. -- 4:00 (PASS North)
Sunday, May 23
Big Daddy's Speedbowl, Rumney, N.H. -- 6:00pm (SCoNE 360 Sprint Cars)
Devil's Bowl Speedway, West Haven -- 2:00pm (Grand Re-Opening, Late Model 100)
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Fri., May 21 -- Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord, N.C. (SPEED/7:30pm)
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Sat., May 22 -- Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord, N.C. (SPEED/7:00pm)
Pro All Stars Series: Sat., May 22 -- White Mountain Motorsports Park, North Woodstock, N.H. (4:00pm)
Série ACT-Castrol Edge: Sat., May 22 -- Autodrome St-Eustache, St-Eustache (Montréal), Qué. (6:00pm)
Sprint Cars of New England: Sun., May 23 -- Big Daddy's Speedbowl, Rumney, N.H. (6:00pm)