He is still the shining star of New England stock car racing, even as he now says he's onto his “third life,” a life that has him no longer an active driver but an important presence on the television side of NASCAR.
And today, Ricky Craven still sees New Hampshire Motor Speedway as a necessary stop on the path to a Sprint Cup Series career for young, aspiring drivers.When the Newburgh, Maine, native won the Chevy Dealers of New England 250 at New Hampshire back in 1991, it tossed his career into a blazing spotlight.
“Without the Nationwide Series to compete against, it still would have been – so what? You can succeed on a regional level, but can you master these guys on a national level?” said Craven, who now is a regular on ESPN's NASCAR programming, including color commentary for select Nationwide Series races. “What I knew (in 1991) and still know today – Dave Dion, Dick McCabe, the Dragon brothers, Mike Rowe – those guys that I raced against were great drivers, salt of the earth people, and they were as good as guys I raced against all the way up through the Sprint Cup Series.
“But that doesn't matter. You know and I know how good those guys were, and you can tell people that until you're blue in the face, but they want to see you against the best there is. When I won that Chevy Dealers 250, I was able to go against guys like Harry Gant – who had won seven races in a row between Sprint Cup and Nationwide – and Chuck Bown, and I went on to win the race. Had there not been a New Hampshire Motor Speedway – had there not been a Nationwide race that particular weekend there – there would have been no opportunity for me to compete at a national level on a big track against people that I needed to impress to catch their attention.”
Today's NASCAR K&N Pro Series, which grew out of the old Busch North Series, has taken what New Hampshire Motor Speedway provided two decades ago and improved upon it. Now, New Hampshire isn't the only stop on a national stage for the series.
This season alone, the K&N Pro Series has made stops at Bristol Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway, Dover International Speedway and Iowa Speedway.
Next February, the series will participate – along with the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and NASCAR Whelen All-American Series teams – in an all-star race of sorts on the short track at Daytona International Speedway. K&N Pro Series East veteran Eddie MacDonald, a five-time race winner at New Hampshire, thinks the added exposure to bigger venues and tracks provides a boost for the series.
“I think it will be for us and a lot of un for all of our teams,” said K&N Pro Series East veteran Eddie MacDonald, a five-time race winner at New Hampshire. “I think it's a great addition to this series. I think it's what this series needs. A lot like the ARCA series, in that they go to a lot of bigger places like Michigan and Talladega.
“Anytime we can go where Truck, Nationwide and Sprint Cup teams are there at the same time, it's great. It's a big challenge, but everyone on this series is willing to jump through hoops to make it work and run at places like that.”
Craven, a two-time Sprint Cup Series race winner and two-time runner-up in the final Nationwide Series standings, remembers well what New Hampshire Motor Speedway meant to him.
Everything about his experience on the Magic Mile was memorable.
“Even as the track was being built, you knew that it was going to be very, very significant,” said Craven, noting the efforts of Bob Bahre in getting the speedway built and bringing NASCAR racing to New England. “I knew it was going to bring attention to the northeast and provide an outstanding opportunity for northeast drivers to be recongized. I was very much aware of that.”
He said that he remembers his first start at New Hampshire – as a 24-year-old driver in 1990 – as if it was only yesterday.
“As an example, I can't tell you in detail anything about my first race at Oxford, or Thompson, or Holland, N.Y. – but I can give you detail of my very first race at New Hampshire,” Craven said. “I understood the value of having a big track, a national series like Busch Grand National come to New Hampshire and the opportunity to compete in that.
“There is no doubt that the speedway was a contributing factor in me being able to recognize my goals and dreams of being a Cup driver. There's no doubt at all.”
In 1991, Craven won the Chevy Dealers of New England 250 from the pole – the same year he won the Oxford 250. At the time, that race, too, was a combination race for the Busch North Series with what is now the Nationwide Series.
Craven spent the early part of his life admiring the short-track stars of the northeast, before then moving on to pursue his own driving career as it went to the sport's pinnacle in the Sprint Cup Series. Now, by his own admission, he's “Ricky Craven, Family Man” with a regular gig on television.
Through it all, and through a myriad of name changes, he still sees today's NASCAR K&N Pro Series as the same vital avenue to a full-time career in the sport that the old Busch North Series was.
“I don't think it's changed in terms of identity,” Craven said. “The names all change, but it still represents the same step in this process. If you look at the three major series – Truck, Nationwide and Cup – those are still the three three premiere series. Underneath that, you have the the regional series, so the identity is still very similar.
“I was in Iowa a couple weeks ago watching these guys, and this is without question a grooming series. This is a series filled with young names, young drivers, that are auditioning for their futures.”
Craven can't help but see today's series and remember the one he used to race with at a New Hampshire Motor Speedway that put his name on the map.
“I'll always have a fondness for the old Busch North Series – even the NASCAR North Series that I watched as a kid,” Craven said. “I'm completely immersed in my 'third life' now, but I often think back to my favorite memories. Winning at Martinsville in a Cup car was one, winning at New Hampshire for the first time, winning the Oxford 250 – those all stand out.
“But on the same level – one of my favorite memories is still sitting in the grandstands as a kid and watching these guys compete."
This story appears in the Sylvania 300 souvenir program this weekend.
Photo appears courtesy of NASCAR/Howie Hodge.