April 24, 2013

Steve Solloway: They had that drive to succeed

If Ricky Craven was a 16-year-old kid again but had the knowledge of the 47-year-old man he is today, would he have chased his dream? Or would the path from the tiny Maine town of Newburgh to NASCAR's palaces of speed been too daunting?

click image to enlarge

In this 2004 photo, NASCAR driver Ricky Craven talks before practice for the Nextel Cup Siemens 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H.

AP

HEADED FOR AN HONOR

WHAT: Maine Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner

WHEN: 11 a.m. May 5

WHERE: Augusta Civic Center

TICKETS: Visit: mshof.com and click on Banquet Tickets link. (Deadline is Saturday)

 

Craven laughs at a question to which there is no true answer. Thank heavens for the ignorance of youth. "Knowing what I know now, I'm afraid it would have been so discouraging."

That's not saying he would have tried another career.

Craven won Sprint Cup races at two of NASCAR's toughest tracks at Martinsville, Va., and Darlington, S.C., over an 11-year career racing at the sport's highest level. He finished third in the 1997 Daytona 500 behind his Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte. He was the Sprint Cup rookie of the year in 1995, bringing many Maine fans to NASCAR for the first time.

In two weeks, Craven will join nine others for induction into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame. They are coaches and a doctor. A basketball player, power lifter, boxing trainer and football quarterback. Separate achievements, separate identities, shared passion. When challenged, they believed in themselves.

"Along the way with the discouragments and fighting the headwinds, it galvanizes you," said Craven. Meaning, sink or swim. Go after the dream or let it fade, always questioning why.

It's a good bet all 10 of the 2013 inductees were knocked down. Craven maybe most of all. Certainly his falls were more visible. The two hellacious crashes, first at Talladega when his car got airborne and flew into the catch fencing by the grandstand. The television cameras pulled away from the scene quickly, fearing the worst.

There was the crash at Texas and the head injuries that put him on the shelf at exactly the time he needed to further establish himself with Hendrick, one of the top multicar teams in the sport. After a glorious return at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, winning the pole, he was let go. The gloom of damaged goods followed him.

Craven persevered through bad owners or bad cars or both. Car owner Cal Wells found him, saying one had to look down to see that the rock that was kicked was in fact a diamond. The underfunded, single-car team with the Tide sponsorship struggled. But in 2003, Craven beat Kurt Busch across the finish line at Darlington by inches, the closest finish in NASCAR history.

Those last two laps, when both drivers drove their cars hard and into each other banging sheetmetal, was Craven's career in microcosm. He wouldn't surrender.

"My level of passion and commitment was at a pretty high level," said Craven, now an ESPN race analyst.

"That's a key component. Ultimately you will your way to victory lane."

It's what separates the inductees from many of us. Before Bill Cohen became Sen. William S. Cohen and then secretary of defense in President Bill Clinton's cabinent, he was a star basketball player and pitcher at Bangor High.

The lessons on the court and mound had to prepare him, especially as a Republican serving in a Democratic administration.

Cohen can relate to Craven. Parents tell their children they can grow up to be president of the United States. Winning election as a U.S. senator isn't a bad consolation prize. But at 16, how daunting was that?

Pick any of the inductees. Which one had the easier road to success? None.

When you think about it, the accomplishments of each is unbelievable.

For 30 consecutive years, Gary Fifield's women's basketball teams at the University of Southern Maine won 20 games or more. Paul Vachon's girls' basketball teams at Cony High School of Augusta lost 40 games out of nearly 500 from 1985 to 2008.

John "Skip" Robinson was tired of being skinny. So he transformed his body, winning numerous national and international power lifting and body building championships, two sports that are virtually ignored.

Dr. Doug Brown, a specialist in sports medicine. Paula Doughty, coach of the dominant high school field hockey program at Skowhegan. John Wolfgram, the football coach with state championships at four Maine high schools. Bob Russo, who is as much a mentor as he is a trainer to the dozens of men and women who have gone through his Portland Boxing Club. Manch Wheeler, the UMaine quarterback who caught the attention of the Buffalo Bills and old Boston Patriots.

Craven knows some in his induction class by name. Some he doesn't know. No matter. In his mind they're brothers and sisters, sharing that passion to succeed despite the odds.

Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

ssolloway@pressherald.com

Twitter: SteveSolloway

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