AUGUSTA — A line of autograph seekers, ex-drivers and longtime fans slowly snaked through a motorsports mobile museum Friday night at the Augusta Civic Center to catch a glimpse of or swap stories with one of the premier figures in Maine auto racing lore.
“Awesome,” said Klay Brewer, 39, of Portland. “Ricky is a big reason why we came. He’s still big here.”
Ricky, of course, is Ricky Craven, one of the most successful and recognizable race car drivers in Maine history.
The 46-year-old Newburgh native was on hand for the 25th annual Northeast Motorsports Expo, which opened Friday night and continues through Sunday.
Craven, one of a handful of drivers to win a race in the three NASCAR touring series, joined fellow ex-driver Steve Park as the top draws at the event.
Fans from around the state ventured to meet the driver who began his racing career as a wide-eyed 15-year-old at Unity Raceway and ended it as a two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup race winner.
“He’s a really down-to-earth guy,” said Hilda Taylor, 50, Brewer’s wife who is originally from Augusta. “He was awesome. We got our autographs. We’re happy.”
Craven, who is in his sixth season as a NASCAR analyst for ESPN, lives in Charlotte, N.C. He owns a home on Moosehead Lake, a place he calls a nice retreat.
“I flew into Boston (Thursday) and I drove there (Thursday night),” Craven said. “I got there at midnight, but it was nice to wake up there and have a cup of coffee. The 25th anniversary is important and I had to find a way to come here. It’s a homecoming, sure.
“Part of why I came here early is to see these pictures, these drivers, these tracks. They had a tremendous influence of who I became (and) why I became a driver. So much of my life was a product of racing. I was consumed by it. I was looking forward to crossing paths with people I used to race with.”
Dave Steuber, 69, of Madison, was one of those former drivers.
Steuber, who raced at Unity Raceway in the 1970s, later became a crew chief for Maine racing icon Stan Meserve, who is retired and lives in Florida.
“Ricky and I go way back,” Steuber said. “Way back. I’ll tell you what, he still looks great. We haven’t seen him in a few years. It was great to catch up again.”
Craven, who participated in an open mic talk with Park, made his NASCAR debut in 1986 at Oxford Plains Speedway.
He continued his rapid ascent to the top of auto racing when he joined the Busch North Series in 1990. He was crowned series champion in 1991, winning 10 races.
After a pair of runner-up finishes in Busch North, in 1993 and 1994, Craven teamed up with Larry Hedrick Motorsports to try to win the Winston Cup Rookie of the Year award.
Craven qualified for all 31 races, finished in the top 10 four times and edged Robert Pressley for that award. He then had three straight top-10 finishes at the start of the 1996 season to establish himself as one of the top young drivers in the NASCAR circuit.
The following year, in 1997, Craven joined Hendrick Motorsports, with whom he drove the No. 25 Budweiser car. He finished third at the Daytona 500 that year and a career-best 19th in points.
“I had a great career,” Craven said.
The marriage with Hendrick Motorsports came to an abrupt end during the 1998 season, when he missed several races after being diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.
After a brief stint in the NASCAR truck series, Craven retired at the end of the 2005 season at the age of 40.
“Very seldom do I miss it,” Craven said. “I miss driving every now and then, but I don’t miss the travel and being away from my family. I’m pretty good with everything.”
Craven will spend the bulk of the NASCAR season with ESPN, which starts broadcasting races at the end of July with the Brickyard 400. He said being an analyst helps him stay connected to the sport.
“I really enjoy what I do,” he said. “There was a big void when I stopped racing and not being part of a team anymore. I missed that camaraderie, but I got that at ESPN. It keeps me busy. I basically am at ESPN every week after the Brickyard, I still get up to Maine when I can. I probably spend 30 nights a year at my home on Moosehead. Someday, I’ll spend half the year there. It just isn’t today.”
Friday also featured the unveiling of the Heluva Good! top 25 racing personalities in the last 25 years of the Expo.
Craven was No. 3. Mike Rowe was voted by fans as No. 1.
“It’s good to be back home,” Craven told the audience as he accepted his plaque.
Bill Stewart — 621-5640