If you were to poll Wisconsin race fans on their personal favorite driver all-time, I would bet the first name many would mention is Dick Trickle.
My neck of the woods (in Wisconsin) has certainly made its contribution to stock car racing over the years.
Locally here in Milwaukee, Alan Kulwicki probably remains the most iconic driver 20-plus years after his final race. Kulwicki won the 1992 NASCAR championship in dramatic fashion in the final race of the season – an event that also marked the final race in the career of Richard Petty and the first in the career of Jeff Gordon.
Less than six months after being crowned Cup Champion, Kulwicki would lose his life on April Fools’ Day 1993 when his plane went down in icy conditions attempting to land in Bristol, Tennessee.
Matt Kenseth has taken his place as the most successful racing product from the state, rising from the short-track ranks to become a 27-time winner at the Cup level, along with the 2003 season championship. So far in 2013, Kenseth is having his most successful season yet, winning three of the first 11 events of the campaign. Despite that, Trickle remains a huge fan-favorite in Wisconsin.
Trickle, a long-time cult favorite, passed away Thursday at age 71 of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at a cemetery 40 miles outside of Charlotte, North Carolina.
The details are chilling. Trickle was said to have phoned a local command center informing them that there would be a body at the site, and that it would be his. Authorities attempted to call him back, then rushed to the cemetery only to discover that Trickle had already passed. His body found near his pickup truck.
As far as competing at stock car’s top level, Trickle was a late-bloomer. But long before arriving as a regular in NASCAR he was already a legend in the world of driving every conceivable local short-track on a Saturday night.
As an eight year-old, Trickle was involved in a serious accident at home that left him with a broken hip that took three years to recover from and left him with a slight limp for life. While recuperating, he attended a race at a local track and was immediately hooked. He was set on eventually becoming a driver himself.
There were obstacles however. For starters, his parents were on welfare, and racing, even at the local levels, was a profession where prohibitive start-up expenses must be absorbed for a would-be racer even dream of making it.
But by the time he was 17, Trickle was out on the track. He was even kicked out of his local venue after his age was discovered. When finally able to race legally, Trickle regularly contended but did not have the equipment needed to win. By slowly making deals with others in the business, that eventually changed. During the 1960s Trickle became one of the top drivers in the region.
Trickle, Kulwicki, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace, those were just a few of the names I remember who regularly raced in the USAC regional events during the 1970s and into the 1980s at the Milwaukee Mile and other venues. Actual stats are very tough to find, but Trickle was estimated to have raced in more than 2,000 events, ending up in the Winner’s Circle as many as 1,000 times.
In 1970 Trickle made the field for an event in NASCAR’s top series for the first time. From that point until 1988, he appeared in 18 races in what would eventually become known as the Winston Cup Series. In 1989 Trickle got his big break – a full-season ride with Milwaukee native Jimmy Fennig as his crew chief. Fennig would later sit on top of the war wagon for the likes of Mark Martin and Kurt Busch.
Trickle would finish that season 15th in points (it would be his best season) and won NASCAR Rookie of the Year. He was a grandfather at age 48.
Trickle would remain a regular in the Cup Series for most of the 1990s. He never won a race at the Cup level, but his final finishing position was sure to be mentioned by Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann on ESPN’s SportsCenter that night. It would go something like this each Sunday night:
“Jeff Gordon won the Pocono 500, Dale Earnhardt was second, Sterling Marlin third, and Dick Trickle finished 27th…”
In 303 career Cup races Trickle placed in the top-10 51 times, with 15 top-five finishes and one pole position. I remember Trickle actually leading an event once during green-flag conditions at Michigan in 1995.
Besides the SportsCenter notoriety, Trickle also became legendary for lighting up during races. He often cut hole in his face-shield and inserting the cigarette like an astronaut downing a Pillsbury space stick. Trickle came to an agreement with NASCAR to be allowed to have his own personal smoking lamp lit during caution periods.
After finally hanging up the NASCAR fire suit for good in the early 2000s, Trickle remained active in the racing community, participating in a bobsled project involving Geoff Bodine and other drivers, and making occasional Wisconsin racing appearances in recent years. The photo at right shows Trickle at Slinger Speedway in 2012.
There was also tragedy in Trickle’s life. Nephew Chris Trickle was a promising racer based out west before being shot in the head in a drive-by in February of 1997 in a case that to this day remains cold.
Chris Trickle remained in a coma for most of the 409 days that followed before succumbing in March of 1998, just weeks after being wheeled in during a public appearance at a fundraiser. For a brief period in the fall of 1997 Chris was said to have briefly regained consciousness, and reportedly drank coffee, spoke to family members and asked to relay a message to his girlfriend. He soon lapsed back into the coma, the family’s medical insurance ran out, and his condition proved fatal.
It is hard to say what role that prolonged anguish may have played in Dick Trickle’s apparent decision to take his own life. Another report late Thursday had Trickle suffering from an illness or depression. Personally, I think it is pointless to even speculate on a cause at this point.
I’d much rather remember Dick Trickle for a what he will always remain, one of the most colorful characters in the history of stock car racing. There are only a select few drivers that take the green flag at the top level on a given weekend, and for a generation Trickle was one of what would be considered the quarterbacks on the field involving 43 race teams each week.
And on the short-track level that remains the heart and soul of the sport, Trickle will always remain a legend.
Expect Trickle to be properly and fondly remembered during NASCAR’s All-Star activities this Saturday in Charlotte.
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