When Ricky Craven left his role as a NASCAR analyst for FOX Sports at the end of last season, he essentially drove off in style: behind the wheel of a classic Corvette.
After a nearly 30-year racing career that began in the sportsman ranks in his native New England and on through nearly 20 years in different levels of NASCAR competition, followed by almost 15 years in broadcasting with Yahoo Sports, ESPN and FOX, Craven was too young to retire and go sit in a rocking chair.
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Instead, the 55-year-old Maine native decided to indulge himself and follow a long-held dream by going into business for himself, collecting and selling both modern and classic Chevrolet Corvettes. The outcome: Ricky Craven Motorsports in Landis, North Carolina, about 35 miles north of Charlotte.
“I had a piece of property where I kept my old race cars and memorabilia in, and I began last year transforming that into Ricky Craven Motorsports, where we just sell hot rods,” Craven told NASCAR.com. “Corvettes have always been my favorite. And we’ve already moved 27 Corvettes this year.”
“I needed to think about the third chapter in my life. And I knew for certain that I couldn’t close one chapter without opening another. That’s just an important part of my personality.”
Craven is definitely enjoying the newest chapter of his life. His business is growing and gaining more attention both locally in the Tar Heel State as well as nationally. His pursuits of particularly rare and exotic Corvettes have taken him and his checkbook all over the country, from Texas to Florida to Minnesota and a couple times across the West Coast.
“For 40 years, I’ve been consumed with NASCAR on some level,” Craven said. “And so I wasn’t naive enough to think, well, no matter what I do, I’ll be successful at it. There’s a lot about this industry to learn. But the basis of it is that I love Corvettes.
“And the pursuit of the car is the most enjoyable part of what I do, what really gets me excited in terms of buying from other people and collectors, discovering a car and then trying to acquire it. That’s the part of this whole equation that gets me excited and gets me out of bed every day.”
Having a thoughtful and analytical mind and style as a broadcaster, leaving FOX was a difficult decision, Craven admits. But the COVID-19 pandemic and how it impacted both NASCAR and his life, made him decide if he was ever going to open his Corvette business, it was the right time.
“In some ways, the six weeks when we were locked down due to COVID and being able to reflect on life in some strange way was of great value, because I felt like the music was going to stop and I would be left without a seat,” Craven said. “Not immediately, but I was just being practical. I had 15 years (in broadcasting) after hanging up my helmet, where I was able to play a role and contribute and I really thoroughly enjoyed it.
“There’s been a few times this year where there has been an absence (being away from in front of the camera). You miss the people, you miss being part of a team. And fundamentally, that’s been the majority of my life. That’s just part of my structure.
“I have a love affair with of auto racing. And NASCAR is part of who I am. It’s absolutely etched into my DNA.”
Craven had a rewarding NASCAR Cup Series career, making 278 starts and earning two wins, with 17 top-five and 41 top-10 finishes. He also made 142 Xfinity Series starts with four wins, plus 27 top-five and 57 top-10 showings and 26 starts in the Camping World Truck Series, with one win, four top-five and nine top-10 finishes.
Craven is perhaps best known for his second career Cup win, one of the most exciting in NASCAR history, in 2003 at Darlington Raceway. He and Kurt Busch beat and banged on each other until Ricky barely pulled ahead at the finish line, capturing the checkered flag by a mere .002 of a second.
That mark remains the closest margin of victory in Cup history.
“I am absolutely linked to that moment, and my career is probably 95 percent associated with that one race,” Craven said. “Seldom do I go somewhere and meet somebody for the first time where it’s not brought up.
“That race also created a connection and a friendship with Kurt Busch. I didn’t really have that before and I’m not sure I would have had (if it wasn’t for that finish). He’s embraced the moment as much as I have.”
But while fans today still talk with him about that incredible day nearly 20 years ago, it actually was not what Craven considers the highest point of his career. That distinction was his first career win two years earlier at Martinsville Speedway.
“There’s not even a close second,” Craven said. “That was a once-in-a-lifetime race, the one that stands out above all else. It was a life-changing moment.”
When asked to reflect back on who were the toughest competitors he ever faced and — at times — even traded paint with, Craven points to a sportsman racer he did battle with early in his career, as well as the likes of Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.
“It’s pretty hard to say one driver, because they were tough in different ways,” Craven said. “Dave Dion was among the most underrated drivers, a local hero of mine in New England that I competed against. He gave you nothing, but he was a good, fair driver.
“In Cup, in a lot of ways Tony Stewart was as tough as anybody I competed against. I think Dale (Earnhardt) was obvious. And Jeff Gordon was right there. I mean, Jeff was, is and always will be a good friend of mine. But he had this incredible ability when he got in the race car to just completely disconnect from that.
“He was more than just competitive, he was ruthless. But he always had a smile on his face. He was just an incredible talent and an incredible competitor. He was every bit as competitive as Dale Earnhardt, but he had a completely different personality and persona. Also, Mark Martin was one of the best I ever competed against, and Rusty Wallace was arguably the best short track driver I competed against.”
As for today’s drivers, Craven is particularly impressed with the season Kyle Larson is having. What makes Craven’s appreciation of Larson’s achievements a bit sweeter is that he can enjoy Larson as more of a fan, rather than having to remain neutral during all his years as a broadcaster.
“I’m a big advocate for Kyle Larson, it’s just a phenomenal story,” Craven said. “I think it’s inspiring for everybody that he’s gotten a second chance, and he’s capitalized on it. And it was long before Rick Hendrick called. It was the work that he did through the middle of the country racing dirt tracks every chance he got and the way he handled himself and, and the responsibility that he took. I’m enjoying that. I’ve also always been a fan of Martin Truex Jr. and his family. I raced against his dad early in my career.”
But it was a chance encounter with NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison that helped shape the kind of racer Craven would become and ultimately lead him on a path to NASCAR.
Allison made an appearance at Unity Raceway in Craven’s native Maine when Craven — then a 15-year-old aspiring racer — earned the main event win there one night, defeating several drivers much older than himself. That definitely caught the eye and admiration of Allison.
“I remember Bobby saying to me after the race, ‘Were you driving that 12 car?’ And I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said, ‘You drove the tires off that thing.’ I was just a kid and he goes, ‘I can’t believe it. Congratulations!’
“After that, when I reflect back on it, I wanted to be Richard Petty. I wanted to be Bobby Allison. And I never deviated from it.”
Craven had two particularly bad wrecks that impacted him and the rest of his career, eventually playing a part in his decision to walk away from racing at the end of the 2006 season, at the still-young age of 40. The first bad wreck was in 1996, when he was involved in a multi-car crash at Talladega Superspeedway.
It was an especially brutal impact, but ultimately nothing compared to a crash Craven suffered the following April in practice at Texas Motor Speedway.
It would be recorded as the first bad crash at the then-new 1.5-mile facility. He would suffer a number of injuries, including a severe concussion, that prompted him to be airlifted by helicopter from the track to a trauma center in serious condition. The wreck led to him becoming a more cautious and admittedly tentative driver.
Craven missed just two races after the wreck at Texas, but lingering effects of the concussion returned in 1998. He competed in the first four races before sitting out the next 12 events as his recovery continued. After returning for four races, he would miss another 10 events before being released by Hendrick Motorsports. He finished the last three races of the 1998 season driving for MB2 Motorsports.
“There was a point where I didn’t know if I could come back right,” Craven said. “That that was the most adversity I ever had in my career.”
Yet, he also wore the crash as almost a badge of honor.
“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do,” Craven said. “You never know what’s going to inspire you and encourage you and motivate you.”
Even in the face of adversity, Craven has always maintained a positive personality. But he does admit to two regrets from his career. The first was wishing he had more than just two Cup wins.
The other was not being able to accomplish a lifelong goal.
“I really regret that I didn’t try to qualify for one Indy 500,” Craven said. “That’s something that I just would have liked to have done. And when I quit racing, that (opportunity) was gone.
“I admit I was depressed for about six months (after hanging up his fire suit). But I honestly do not spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror. I’ve tried to look out the front windshield 99 percent of the time. I want to know where I’m going more than where I’ve been.”
The Ricky Craven File:
* Age: 55
* Hometown: Newburgh, Maine
* He won Winston Cup Rookie of the Year in 1995.
* NASCAR Cup career: 278 starts, two wins, 17 top-five and 41 top-10 finishes. Also six poles. Best season finish: 15th (2002).
* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 142 starts, four wins, 27 top-five and 57 top-10 finishes. Also four poles. Best season finish: second in 1993 and 1994.
* NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career: 26 starts, one win, four top-five and nine top-10 finishes.
* NASCAR K&N Pro Series (East and West combined): 51 starts, 14 wins, 26 top-five and 36 top-10 finishes. Also 13 poles. Best season was 1991, when he won the East championship. In 21 starts, he won 10 races, plus had 13 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes.
Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Terry Labonte, Kenny Wallace, Trevor Bayne, Ken Schrader, Shawna Robinson, Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky Rudd, Darrell Waltrip, Mark Martin, Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski and @TheRacingBeat, as well as The Racing Beat podcast, available on most podcast platforms.