By Craig Murto
Dick Trickle was a legend on America's short tracks.
The 71-year-old was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound near his North Carolina home last week. Family and friends reported that he recently suffered from chronic pain that doctors either could not diagnose or could not treat, and that it caused him to fall into a depression. It must have been severe, as Dick Trickle was a tough individual.
He wasn't even 10 years old when he fell two stories and broke his hip. Doctors at the time were sure the injury it would leave him invalid. His recovery was slow going, but he did recover, though it left him with a limp the remainder of his life.
When he was old enough, Trickle began to race in his native Wisconsin. He raced for more than 50 years, often racing five or six nights a week in a time when racers could make a living on short tracks. He is called the winningest driver in America, with more than 1,200 feature victories.
Known as "The White Knight" on America's short tracks, he was a seven-time champion in the ARTGO series -- at the time one of the top regional series in the country -- with a series record 68 wins. He had 32 career ASA National Tour victories and two series titles, plus six race wins in the NASCAR All-Pro Series. He scored multiple wins in most major pavement Late Model races across the country, and was a threat to win anywhere he showed up. He was still winning Late Model races a few years ago in Wisconsin.
Trickle was the hero of many racers at the top level today. He also helped teach many of the sports' legends their craft.
"I'm in 100 percent shock," said NASCAR legend and ESPN broadcaster Rusty Wallace. "Dick Trickle was my mentor. When I was short track racing, I would call him every Monday morning and he would always help me with race setups and stuff. He and I had such a good time telling little stories, but he was the guy that taught me almost everything in the American Speed Association. And he was the guy that I battled right to the end for my 1983 ASA championship. I barely beat the guy that taught me everything. I'd not seen Dick as much as I'd like to of late. He was a legend. A man that'd won over a thousand short track races, was one of the most winning short trackers in America, was a role model to many short track racers coming up. Could just do magic with the race car and he taught me so much about racing. My success in the ASA and what Trickle taught me is what got me into NASCAR. That's what got me hired by Cliff Stewart back in '84."
Trickle was always seen around the track with a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Even when he ran in NASCAR's top divisions, he had a cigarette lighter in his car so he could grab a quick smoke during caution periods. And though it was the Winston brand that spent a ton of money promoting the sport, Trickle smoked Marlboro.
He was as colorful off the track as he was on. Some of Trickle's late-night antics are legendary. It's said that he once left a bar in Wisconsin to sleep in his racecar towed on an open trailer, telling his crew to simply tow him home. The next day -- according to the story -- he awoke in a strange barn; he'd crawled into the wrong racecar and fell asleep.
It's impossible to verify such stories, and surely they grow over time. But Trickle is quoted as saying many times that he only required an hour's sleep for every 100 laps he had to race the next day.
Most observers agree that if Trickle had ventured into the top NASCAR levels earlier in life he would have had a great career. But it wasn't until 1989 that he began to run Cup full time, winning the Rookie of the Year title at the age of 48 while driving for the Stavola Bros. with crew chief Jimmy Fennig. He ran more than 300 Cup races without a win, but also ran nearly 160 Nationwide races, and scored two wins in that series.
But NASCAR is not what made Dick Trickle famous. He is America's winningest driver, a true short track legend.
Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.