CONCORD, N.C. -- Practice? Dick Trickle didn't need practice. Whether it was his native Wisconsin or elsewhere, the short-track legend was famous for often arriving after practice had ended. While others would be weary from a day of chasing speed, Trickle would show up with it. He'd unload his car, set the fastest time in qualifying, and then dominate the race, becoming more beloved by both fans and competitors with every lap he turned.
"He'd travel throughout the country and do the same thing he did in Wisconsin," said Johnny Sauter, a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series driver who also hails from the Badger State. "It wasn't just there. He'd drive down to New Smyrna for Speedweeks, and go down there and dominate. He'd go to Georgia somewhere and race, and then go back to Wisconsin and dominate. He won a lot of races, and coupled with the fact that he was a great person with a great personality -- it just made him a hero."
Which is why so many in the NASCAR community, particularly those who lived or raced in the upper Midwest, were so shaken by the news Thursday that the 71-year-old Trickle had died by his own hand. "I'm still in shock," NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star and Wisconsin native Matt Kenseth said Friday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, echoing the feelings of countless others who knew Trickle as a friend, a mentor, a competitor and a legend.
On the surface it may seem strange, such an outpouring for a driver whose accomplishments at NASCAR's national level appear so meager -- a pair of victories in what's now the NASCAR Nationwide Series, a win in the preliminary race prior to the All-Star event in 1990, an 0-for-303 Cup Series mark in equipment that was usually a notch or two below the best. But in actuality, Trickle's contributions to NASCAR are immense, outdistancing those numbers just like he used to outdistance the field at places like Wausau or Wisconsin Dells.
"Dick made himself a mentor to many," said Mark Martin, who started in the American Speed Association before breaking into NASCAR. "Rusty (Wallace), myself, Alan Kulwicki -- you know, we wouldn't have been the racers that we were when we got here had we not come under his influence. ? I was proud of who we were, and the racers we were, for the influence that he had on us and the etiquette and the way he raced. He raced us real hard on the race track, but off the race track, he was very free with parts or advice. He gave freely. Really, really good dude. I'm confused and broken-hearted about what happened."
Through a combination of cult-hero status and gregarious nature, Trickle helped mold generations of drivers from a region where late model stock cars are every bit as popular as they are down South. He competed against the likes of Bob Keselowski and Jim Sauter, he enthralled and inspired their sons through his exploits on the race track, he shaped them all as racers through his openness, his attitude and his work with the International Race of Champions Series.
"By the time that I started racing short-track stuff, Dick was down here running Cup stuff," Kenseth said. "He was gone for probably five or six years before I started, so being a little kid in the stands I used to watch him a lot. And, man, there was some great races up there. ? Dick was a -- is a legend, and for a lot things. For the way he raced, for the way he conducted himself after the races, for all his different formulas for how much sleep he needed and just all the different stuff. He just was a racer's racer. That's all he cared about, and all he worked on, and that was all he did."
His influence was not limited to Wisconsin. Casual sports fans in the 1990s were likely most familiar with three NASCAR drivers -- Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt, and Trickle, the latter of whom former "SportsCenter" anchors Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick made sure to mention every week. This was in the pre-Internet days, when the Sunday night version of ESPN's flagship program was must-watch television, and views of the sports world were shaped in part by Dan and Keith on what became known as "The Big Show."
Every Sunday night, Olbermann and Patrick told you who won the race -- and where Dick Trickle finished. It was a joke, sure, but it came at a time when races were moving onto network television and into prime time, and NASCAR was getting its firmest grip on the American consciousness. It wasn't by accident that producers of the film "Days of Thunder" chose Cole Trickle as the name of the main character to be played by Tom Cruise.
"The late Dick Trickle helped mainstream NASCAR coverage" on "SportsCenter," Olbermann wrote Thursday on Twitter. "We gave prominent attention to him, then his races, then ALL races."
Patrick, who now hosts a nationally syndicated radio show, paid tribute to Trickle on his program Friday. "No matter what happened in the race, I'd always say, 'And Dick Trickle finished 38th.' Well, Dick appreciated it, and I eventually had a good relationship with him. He had a great sense of humor, obviously with his name. And he was a legend in Wisconsin. So it was sad to hear," he told listeners.
"There was one race when he was leading, and I remember the reaction. People thought it was my dad who was leading, I was so proud and so happy. He didn't win, but it was one of those funny, great moments. He had a great sense of humor, and Keith and I struck up a friendship with him."
Trickle got the joke. "For sure," Johnny Sauter agreed. "His personality was just as good as gold. I think he was kind of prankster and a joker a little bit, and secretly, he really liked it. He really had fun with it, and I think we can all probably learn a lesson from that -- taking things a little bit lightly, and relaxing a little bit."
To those that knew him from Wisconsin, it was no surprise. The last time Kenseth saw Trickle was at the Slinger Nationals in the summer of 2012, right after the news came out that the former Roush Fenway Racing driver was moving to Joe Gibbs Racing. They talked for two hours, Trickle telling Kenseth why the change of scenery would be good for him. Now, Kenseth has three victories already this season, and is enjoying the best start to any year of his career.
"He had a unique way of looking at things, he had a ton of common sense, and he was really smart and always had a really funny way of putting things," Kenseth remembered. "Man, he went on for about an hour just about my move and what he thought was great about it and just a lot of other interesting things that made me feel good. Ninety percent of the stuff he told me, at least through all the years I raced with him ? always proved to be right."
He was always so lighthearted -- people think he stayed up all night drinking, Sauter said, but Trickle would barely take a sip out of one beer can before someone handed him another. It was the camaraderie he loved the most. All of which made it so stunning to learn that Trickle had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to the Lincoln County (N.C.) Sherriff's Office. His brother Chuck told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that prior to his death, Trickle suffered from a constant pain in the left side of his chest.
"Sad," Martin said. "I knew Dick really well, and I just can't fathom it coming to this."
For a long time, there will be questions. But for a much longer time there will be a legacy, one of a driver who helped popularize NASCAR just through the very mention of his name, and whose statistics at the national level can't convey the thousands of races he won on short tracks, running five nights a week in a region where weather mandated a shorter season. "He was the winningest driver in the country," Martin called him. "Probably bar none."
He never really had the opportunity to show that at the Cup level, running for teams like Donlavey Racing and a later-years Bud Moore Engineering, toiling in inferior equipment at a time when the youth movement in the sport was just beginning to gain traction. "The sport really got popular when he was an older guy," Sauter said. But by then, those familiar with Dick Trickle didn't need further validation. They knew. They always will.
"There's no doubt in my mind, I'd put him up against anybody, any day, anywhere in equal cars," Sauter said. "He's that good."
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