AUGUSTA, Maine — Ricky Craven remembers being in the Hampden Academy library his freshman year, where he and his friends would read newspapers.
Craven began his auto racing career when he was 15 and would get his name in the paper for a victory or a top-five finish.
“My buddies would say to me, ‘So where are you going with this?’” recalled Craven. “I told them I was going to be a NASCAR driver. When I’m done with high school, the next time you’ll see me I’ll be in Charlotte (N.C.) as a NASCAR driver.
“They would say to me tongue-in-cheek, ‘That’s great. I’m going to be an astronaut.’ I’d say, ‘Good luck with that,” chuckled Craven on Friday.
Craven defied the odds, growing up in Newburgh and not only becoming a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, but winning two races and being one of only 22 drivers to have won races at the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck series level.
Craven, now an ESPN NASCAR analyst, will return to his home state and join nine others who will be inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday at the Augusta Civic Center.
The others are former Bowdoin College hockey captain and U.S. national soccer team physican and consultant Douglas Brown, Skowhegan field hockey coach and 14-time Class A state champion Paula Doughty, University of Southern Maine women’s basketball coach Gary Fifield (628-115 record), national and international powerlifting and bodybuilding champion John Robinson, Portland Boxing Club owner Robert Russo, former Cony High of Augusta girls basketball coach Paul Vachon (451-40 record), two-way UMaine football standout Manch Wheeler, high school football coach and 10-time state champion John Wolfgram, and former Bangor High School and Bowdoin College basketball star and Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen.
Craven will be the third man affiliated with auto racing to be inducted after Kennebunkport’s Dick McCabe in 2004 and Scarborough’s Ralph Cusack in 2005.
“It’s quite an honor to be a member of an exclusive group that includes people I have listened to or watched as a kid,” said Craven, who used to race against McCabe. “I’m pretty darned excited to meet everybody else [in this year’s class]. They all left their mark. They’re dedicated to what they did.”
Craven feels the passion each of them had for their respective sport is an important ingredient behind their success.
“When I started racing at 15, the only thing I wanted was to make it to the Daytona 500. That’s all I thought about. I just loved to drive,” said Craven who went on to become the Rookie of the Year in Busch North (now K and N Pro Series East), Busch (now the Nationwide Series) and Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) series.
He said that if someone had laid out a “schematic blueprint” of what it would take to make it to the Sprint Cup series when he was 15 and he got a first-hand look at all the hurdles he would have to overcome, “I’m not sure I would have continued on that crusade.”
“It would have been discouraging. But it’s different when you’re 15 and you love what you do as much as I loved what I did,” said Craven. “There’s very little that can interfere over the long haul as long as you stay healthy and capitalize on your opportunities. But you have to constantly challenge yourself.”
He said he always dealt with adversity “head-on” and figured “I’d find a way to get through it.
“I was willing to do anything to win,” added Craven. “I was consumed with competing.”
Craven said he never felt growing up in Maine was a liability.
“There were a lot of race tracks in Maine and some darned good drivers that I aspired to be like including Ralph Nason and Stan Meserve,” said Craven.
Drivers including Nason, Meserve, McCabe and Turner’s Mike Rowe “mentored me,” he added.
“They taught me lessons and provided me with different experiences. I used them all the way down the line.”
Craven captured his first of two Sprint Cup wins in 2001 at the Old Dominion 500 at Martinsville (Va.).
“It was the only time in my life that time stood still,” he said.
In his post-race talk, he recalled a quote his wife, K.K., had given to him from a book she was reading while he was floating on a raft in Moosehead Lake years before. He had been sidelined by injuries from time to time.
“Tough times don’t last, tough people do,” said Craven. “That inspired me. People in Maine never gave up on me.”
He won again two years later in the Carolina Dodge Dealers 400 at Darlington (S.C.).
Craven said in reflecting on his career, which included 278 Sprint Cup races, “I was always more comfortable as an underdog. I loved that role. I felt like I had something to prove.”
And he did.