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Head Injury Turned Ricky Craven Upside Down

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 13 2012

Ricky Craven, former driver of the Tide Ride, said news of the Dale Earnhardt Jr. injury brought back fuzzy memories. (File photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Deb Williams | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

CONCORD, N.C. – When former NASCAR driver and now ESPN analyst Ricky Craven heard Dale Earnhardt Jr. was stepping out of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for two Sprint Cup races it resurrected a lot of memories for the 46-year-old Maine native.

That’s because Craven was driving a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet when he had to step out of his ride to recover from a series of concussions. It was the late 1990s, but just like today drivers competed when they were hurt. To admit you had a problem could cost you your coveted ride. It wasn’t unusual for drivers to compete with broken wrists, legs or ribs. Ned Jarrett even won one of his championships in the 1960s with a broken back.

It was different, however, for Craven whose issues began in 1997 when he suffered three concussions in three weeks. The third one was the most serious with Craven being airlifted from the Texas track. He remembers laying in Parkland Hospital, being able to see colors but not being able to focus on anything. He competed in 30 of the 32 races that year, producing four top-5s and seven top-10s.

Towards the end of the season an incident in Craven’s airplane made him realize he possibly had a serious problem. He was sitting in his plane’s right seat when it flew into a bank of clouds and Craven thought the plane turned upside down.

“I was scared,” Craven recalled. “The pilot grabbed me and he got us out of the clouds. He said, ‘Trust your instruments.’ The artificial horizon showed we weren’t upside down. That was the end of it with him. I didn’t divulge that I had just had vertigo.”

Craven kept thinking things would get better, especially during the off-season, but it didn’t. When the 1998

Ricky Craven knows the dangers of head injuries. (Photo courtesy of ESPN)

season began Craven reported to Daytona for Speedweeks. It wasn’t until the season’s fourth race that Craven realized he still had a problem.

“I was running really well in Atlanta, maybe top five,” Craven said. “Then somebody started losing fluid and covered up my windshield. I lost that visibility and I started dropping like a rock. I was ridiculously slow. I had a horrible day.”

It was then that Craven knew he needed to focus on his health, not his racing. He immediately went to the University of North Carolina hospital in Chapel Hill at Dr. Jerry Petty’s recommendation. It was there he went through two days of analysis. One machine measured rapid eye movement. Another one blew air in his ear and changed the temperature. One ear was fine, but when the other ear was checked Craven became sick.

“I was completely disoriented,” said Craven, who was the first driver to admit he needed some time out of a race car to recover from a concussion. “That’s when I knew I was in big trouble. I knew then I wasn’t going to race for a while. This was out of my control.”

Still, it wasn’t easy. Even today, he said it took a tremendous amount of courage to take the step Earnhardt Jr. did earlier this week, announcing Thursday he would miss the next two Sprint Cup races so he could recover from two concussions he’s suffered in the last six weeks.

“At this level, you’ve worked your whole life to get here,” said Craven, who lost his Hendrick Motorsports ride before the 1998 season ended. “I’m really a little emotional about it because I remember what it felt like for me. You’ve put everything you had in this to get to this point and when you cross this bridge there may not be a way back.”

Craven noted there are several phases a driver goes through when faced with the concussion issue. The first is to acknowledge it. Second is to deal with watching someone else drive your race car. Craven described that as a “very uncomfortable feeling”, especially for a driver who has been in the business for a few years because he feels equity in that car. Next comes the recovery process and it’s not simple.

“I remember vividly the doctor saying we know what’s wrong, but we don’t have a quick fix,” said Craven, who admitted it took him nine months to feel better. “That begins that process of frustration.

“By nature, drivers are insecure. Drivers love control, regardless of the application. In this case, it’s exaggerated because it’s career threatening. That’s reality. I think if Dale manages this correctly, he has several years left.

“I use myself as an example. My best years were after I came back. It was three or four years after (I came back). I wasn’t as fast, but I was a smarter driver. ”

When Craven returned to racing in the sport it was the season’s 17th event and he won the pole in his Hendrick Motorsports entry. However, his first Sprint Cup victory didn’t come until 2001 at Martinsville in a Ford fielded by Cal Wells. His only other victory occurred at Darlington in 2003 when he edged Kurt Busch in a sheet-metal exchanging duel. His 11-year Sprint Cup career ended with the conclusion of the 2004 season.

“I’ve had a great life. I got to roll into victory lane in a Sprint Cup car,” Craven said.

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 13 2012
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  • John Sturbin says:

    Deb: Great report on Ricky’s medical problem and recovery, back when concussions basically were a taboo subject in NASCAR. I believe he owns the unfortunate distinction of being the first Cup driver to crash in practice at Texas Motor Speedway _ in the tricky Turn 4 area of the Fort Worth track as it originally was configured _ during the Friday morning session in March 1997. Always found Ricky to be a deep-thinker and eloquent interview subject, and he’s become a solid analyst for ESPN.