In the motorsports world of yesteryear, head injuries were an unintelligible subject. While sports like football and hockey were beginning to understand concussions and their enduring aftereffects, auto racing was seemingly turning a blind eye to the issue, with many racers being cleared to compete while still not feeling 100-percent. And with the racing industry being so competitive, drivers learned at an early age to compartmentalize the risk of harm in what they were doing, even when being constantly reminded of the reality of crashes and getting hurt. Many racers infamously competed through trauma; it became part of the brash, tough image they were known for. The idea of being replaced behind the wheel or missing time was too much for some to handle, so they chose to press on and continue competing, ignoring the signs that something may the release of his book “Racing to the Finish”, Dale Earnhardt Jr. opened up about his choice to retire from professional auto racing and the role that concussions played in that decision. Suddenly, one of the sport’s biggest stars was showing vulnerability about the matter, and the stigma surrounding racing-related injuries was changed forever.
On this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download, Dale and co-host Mike Davis invited to the Bojangles Studio a figure who played a big part in the journey to open up about his past concussions, Maine’s own Ricky Craven. In 1997, Craven suffered a crash during practice at the inaugural Interstate Batteries 500 at Texas Motor Speedway which resulted in a concussion and him missing two weeks of action. While he returned and finished out the '97 schedule, at the fourth event in the 1998 season at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he began showing side effects of his injury and was subsequently diagnosed with Post-Concussion Syndrome causing him to sit out from late-March until mid-July. When Dale Jr. missed most of the 2016 race schedule due to concussion-symptoms, Craven knew exactly what he was going through, and was a big advocate for him taking the time he needed to recover on race television broadcasts. The two have talked extensively about the issue, and brought their discussion to the air for The Download listeners to learn from.
Craven would graduate to the late model division and begin competing at Wiscasset Speedway, where he again locked up Rookie of the Year and the track championship. This led him to take his skills on the road, running against the American Canadian Tour late model group. He soon graduated to the NASCAR Busch North Series, which would put him in the same fields as the Busch Grand National stars of the day. In 1991, he scored 10 victories, including the coveted Oxford 250 at Oxford Plains Speedway and the
Chevy Dealers 250 at New Hampshire, and took home the season championship trophy. The 25-year-old from Newburgh was now a NASCAR Champion, and suddenly his dream of being a NASCAR Cup star didn’t seem as unreasonable as those around him may have initially thought.
The '91 Busch North Championship took Craven to the Gatorade Circle of Champions, where he found himself sitting next to the Intimidator himself, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who had just put the finishing touches on his fifth NASCAR Cup Championship. Craven recounted a humorous interaction with the NASCAR Legend where he struggled to keep up with his pace of signing autographs, to which Dale Sr. said, “why are you so damn slow?” The following year when Craven moved south to race the Busch Grand National Series fulltime for Bill Papke’s J&J Racing outfit, he asked Dale Sr. to test the No. 99 ride at Atlanta, because he felt unsure if he was prepared to take the next step in his racing career. He also didn’t know how to go about asking for changes in the set up from veteran crew chief Darrell Bryant. After blazing the ill-prepared car around the high-banks, Earnhardt hastily brought the car down pit road and told Bryant, “tighten this thing up, that kid (Craven) is going to bust his ass.”
His time in the Busch Grand National series was fruitful, winning Rookie of the Year in 1992, and posting back to back runner-up points efforts in '93 and '94 while bringing home a couple of first-place trophies from Hickory Motor Speedway and Nazareth Speedway. Around this time, Craven’s past re-emerged when Bobby Allison asked him to drive his No. 12 Cup entry. Unfortunately, due to Allison’s alliance with Ford and Craven’s loyalty to Chevrolet, he had to turn down his hero’s offer. When GM representative Herb Fishel heard about Craven’s act, he asked him to come to Detroit and stated, “I heard what you did, you have my word, we’ll have you in a Cup car in 1995.” A deal with Larry Hedrick Motorsports was put together, and the team was set to make a run at the Cup series in the 95 year. The effort would result in Craven beating out Robert Pressley to once again claim the Rookie of the Year accolade.
Dale and Ricky related on the concept of “life before and after injuries,” and how drivers can better insulate themselves to the risks of auto racing until they suffer a crash that has lasting effects. For Craven, that came at Talladega in 1996, when a lap-130 incident launched him into the catch fence, completely shearing the barricade down before landing back on the track and being struck by another car. He recalled waking up on the apron of the track with a sharp pain in his back, and NASCAR technical director Steve Peterson beginning to cut the roof of the car off to extract him asking, “Are you ok?” Craven suffered a T3 and T4 vertebrae fracture, which derailed his promising season. The next time at Talladega, Craven explained he had a panic attack during practice, not completely remembering what led to his last crash at the track and realizing he was just a victim of “Talladega circumstances”.
Dale responded with a story about being behind a pack at Talladega some time after being injured in 2012, and letting out of the gas because he thought there was going to be a crash in front of him. Instead, the race finished incident free, and he was 20-car lengths behind. Both Dale and Ricky realized that their injuries affected their ability to race with complete aggressiveness needed to win, so they began second guessing decisions behind the wheel. The two also spoke about missing extensive time with Post-Concussion Syndrome, and having to break the “tough-guy” archetype that came with being a race driver. Craven explained that the culture in the garage at the time was “oh I hit my head, no problem, I’ll be good as new in a couple of days.” He also brought up the example of the famous photo of Ricky Rudd racing with his eyes taped open, that everyone dealt with injuries and you’d only surrender if they got bad enough.
Craven would return to full-time Cup racing, and would eventually score his first series win in 2001 at Martinsville. His second and final win at Darlington became one of the most famous finishes in stock car racing history, when he narrowly beat Kurt Busch to the finish line after trading the lead back and forth in the waning laps. Craven recounted his thought process during the battle, and explained that advice he received from Donnie Allison and David Pearson helped him bring home the hard fought trophy that day. He would retire from racing in 2005, knowing that he was ready for a new direction. That change came in the form of color commentary, and he took a position in the booth for ESPN’s NASCAR coverage. He explained that oftentimes athletes with the experiences but not necessarily extraordinary talent are more relatable, thus making them effective analysts of the sport. Today, Craven operates Ricky Craven Motorsports with his son, where they deal in Corvettes.
The Download listeners can expect one of the most intimate and personal conversations to date, with both drivers opening up about their struggles and changing the idea of race drivers as we know it. During the opening segment of the episode, Dale and Mike unpack NASCAR’s past weekend at Circuit of the Americas, the last-lap action and how the rules are policed during road races. When the floor opened up for the Ask Jr. portion of the show, listeners asked about Dale’s iRacing preparation for his upcoming race at Martinsville, what NASCAR can do to shine more light on local short track racing and his favorite Foo Fighters song. You can hear all of this and more on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download - available on this website and all major podcast platforms.