Ask Jeff Craven -- known to most as “Rooster” -- with Richard Childress Racing about the good ol’ days of racing and get ready to go back in time when pit crew members didn’t wear helmets, engineers studying the science of racing were nowhere to be found and there was no such thing as only one job when it came to working on a race team.
“When I first started, everybody was in the shops,” Craven said of the early 1990s when he started out as a NASCAR mechanic. “I can remember when a 24-second pit stop was bad to the bone. Of course now it’s gotten down to 12 seconds ... Back then, you were the test team, you were the race team, you were the pit crew.”
Craven, the hauler driver for the No. 31 of Sprint Cup driver Ryan Newman, grew up with a fascination for mechanics in his hometown of High Point, N.C., where he still lives today.
“I guess as a teenager, I liked cars,” Craven said. “I started working on cars in an auto parts store,” where he changed the oil, made deliveries and soaked up as much knowledge as he could.
But in typical teenage boy-fashion, Craven pushed the limits.
“Me and a friend of mine had the very bright idea of putting a V-8 engine in an old S-10 pick-up where a 4-cyclinder goes,” Craven said.
And how was the ride?
“Wicked,” he added.
After high school, Craven studied the diesel mechanic program at Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem and later worked for Ryder Truck Rental as a mechanic.
Outside of work, Craven was preparing for his future career in NASCAR, even if he didn’t know it yet.
“I had friends who had raced drag cars, late model cars, so I messed with that on Saturday nights,” from building engines to tinkering with gears, he said.
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After about 10 years with Ryder, Craven was about to get the opportunity of a lifetime. A friend of his happened to be with Mac Tools, a sponsor with Richard Petty Enterprises.
“They wanted to hire a mechanic on the outside” of the sport, Craven said. “I went in, talked to them and they hired me” in 1992.
Craven rose through the ranks, becoming head of assembly for the racecars and working with crew chief Robbie Loomis.
“I enjoyed the Pontiac days most of all because it’s back when -- it was a bunch of good ol’ boys having fun,” he said. “Today, it’s a lot more of the business aspect.”
Though he’s worked with many drivers throughout the years, he fondly remembers the days with racer Bobby Hamilton Sr.
“He was just one of the guys, a wrecker driver and Saturday night racer” before his NASCAR career, Craven said. “He’d come by the shop, he didn’t care, he’d grab the wrench, work on the car and be right there with you.”
For as dedicated as Hamilton was, so was his crew. Craven said he remembers one time at Martinsville Speedway when he was gassing up Hamilton’s car under caution and the probe on the catch can got stuck as he drove away.
“I wouldn’t let go. I kept running with the car down four or five pit stalls,” until it finally came loose, Craven said. “Everyone was asking if I was OK. I was more mad that the can got stuck.”
In 2000, when Loomis left for Hendrick Motorsports, Craven followed, working with drivers like Jeff Gordon and then later at RCR in 2005 with Kevin Harvick.
Highlights for Craven were winning the Daytona 500 with Harvick in 2006 and Gordon’s championship in 2001.
“It was one of the years where we could do no wrong. We won seven races that year, we knew every track we had a chance to win that race,” Craven said, adding that Gordon is still a class-act. “I could see Jeff today and he will still stop and speak to me.”
At RCR, Craven helps out with mechanics, including the drivetrain (his specialty), helping Newman’s car be the best while also driving the hauler.
“I’ve had people chase me down for 50 miles to take a picture with the hauler,” Craven said, who drives a 2014 Freightliner Cascadia. “I’m telling you, these trucks today drive like a pick-up or car, they’re so comfortable ... I was amazed at the quietness inside, they steer so easy.”
One of his favorite things is talking to fellow truckers on the CB under the handle “Rooster.”
“When you’re driving, the fans want to talk. They want to know where you’re going and ask you questions about the race especially after,” Craven said. Sometimes, they’re hoping the racecar driver is riding shotgun. “They see the movie ‘Days of Thunder’ and they think they’re in the truck riding with you. I say, ‘No, no, it’s just me. They fly,’” he added with a laugh.
Though his NASCAR career is more than a job, rather a “passion,” Craven said his heart is at home with his wife Angie, son Austin and daughter-in-law Jessica. His son is the business manager and tire carrier for RCR’s No. 3 driver Austin Dillon.
“Oh it’s awesome,” Craven said of sharing the NASCAR world with his son. “When he was a kid, I had him taking parts and pieces ... from the front end assembly, rear-end housing when he was about 10 or 11. ... He’s a go-getter, he will try anything.”
When he’s away from the track, he and his wife are proud Popi and Mimi to their grandchildren, McKayla, 5, and Mason, 3.
“I’m a big family man. They love hitting balls, they love puzzles, they both love Play-Doh,” he said, explaining his favorite “sandwich” is the Play-Doh ham, cheese and tomato his granddaughter whips up for him. “They taste wonderful, no matter what.”
Despite watching the fame, press and attention the racecar drivers get, Craven said he’s never had the desire to race. He’s happiest as the behind-the-scenes man.
“I want to help it go fast. I want to put it together where someone can drive it and be safe and do a good job,” he said.
Q&A with Jeff Craven:
1.) Who is your hero?
My dad. He was always there with me, my best friend. I wanted to be like him.
2.) If you could have only one more meal on this Earth, what would it be?
I’d have to say my wife’s cooking. She makes an awesome baked spaghetti.
3.) What is the coolest thing you’ve ever done?
One time when I was at Richard Petty Enterprises, Richard gave all of us the driving experience at Charlotte for Christmas ... It gave me a lot of respect for drivers.