BRISTOL — Rich Bickle still recalls how his racing career began, when at the age of 15 he and a friend stole the body of a car and turned it into a competitive stock car.
That story and more about Bickle’s start on the short tracks of Wisconsin and eventual career in NASCAR is documented in his recently-released book, “Barnyard to Brickyard: The Rich Bickle Story.”
Bickle, along with the book’s author, John Close, the sports editor at the Daily Jefferson County Union from 1989-1994, are on a nine-city tour around Wisconsin promoting and signing the book at various racetracks and establishments.
“There’s a lot of stories that people have no idea about,” said Bickle, who has been racing for 43 years. “It’s kind of neat to get this story out about racing in general and growing up racing in Wisconsin; some of the political stuff in NASCAR and how things happen.”
Bickle and Close were in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Kaukauna, Oregon, Wisconsin Dells and Slinger last week, and will conclude with appearances at Edgerton (Red Baron Tavern) on Friday, July 26, and Jefferson Speedway on Saturday, July 27.
HOW IT ALL STARTED
“I stole that car from a barn when I was 15 and wound up racing at the Brickyard (the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) in 1994, so that’s kind of how we came up with the title,” he said. “A guy in our subdivision took off on his wife and three kids and moved to Colorado, so me and his oldest son hit the barn where the race car was, painted it, and went to Jefferson.”
A native of Edgerton, Bickle began racing at Jefferson Speedway in 1977 with that very car he turned into a racing machine.
“I was leading the first six laps of the heat race and I got hit in the door and knocked me up the back straight-away and broke the roll cage off the chassis and the transmission ripped out of it. It was a short-lived car, I think it lasted maybe 12 laps,” he recalled.
Bickle graduated to Super Late Model ranks in 1980, won the Super Late Model Championship at Slinger Speedway in 1983 and in 1989 made his NASCAR Winston Cup Series debut at Martinsville Speedway in Alabama.
He had a lot of help along the way, driving with and against some of Wisconsin’s most famous drivers, including the late Alan Kulwicki and Dick Trickle.
“Jim Doyle had a Cup car in Wisconsin Dells and through my motor builder we got it together and in the fall of 1989 we went down and ran in Charlotte and Atlanta.
The next February Bickle headed to Daytona to set his sights on qualifying for the Daytona 500, and that’s when he met up with the late great Kulwicki. The Greenfield, Wis. native and 1992 Winston Cup champion took Bickle under his wing.
“We got hooked up in the 125s where he brought me far enough to the front where I made the (Daytona) 500,” said Bickle, who finished 28th.
Bickle later bought a car from Dale Earnhardt Sr., racing it at Daytona and Talladega, and by 1990 he was winning nearly every short rack in the country.
“I happened to stop at a guy’s shop and knew someone from Illinois who worked there and the crew chief said, ‘Oh, I never thought about you, do you want to drive our Cup car next year?’ That’s how it started.”
RACING FOR “THE KING”
Bickle drove for racing legends and team owners Darrell Waltrip, Cale Yarborough and the King of NASCAR, Richard Petty.
“In Richard’s last race in 1992, which was Jeff Gordon’s first race, I’m the one that Richard ran into and caught fire. Four years later, as fate would have it, he offered me a ride to do the truck deal.”
Bickle made 218 NASCAR starts, 85 in Winston Cup alone, earning over $2.3 million in his career that lasted from 1989-2005.
His Winston Cup highest finish was a fourth at Martinsville in 1998.
Hall of Famer Mark Martin did the forward for the book and as Bickle noted, in the ‘80s he came to Wisconsin because it was the hottest bit of asphalt short track racing in the world.
Wisconsin has produced some of the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, including Kulwicki, Cambridge native and 2003 Winston Cup champion Matt Kenseth and the legendary Dick Trickle.
“As far as I’m concerned, I got to learn from the best there ever was, Dick Trickle,” said Bickle. “I think I’m the second-winningest driver in the state and I trail a guy that basically had the same (last) name; he was my hero growing up, he was my friend and mentor once I got to that level. I’ll never forget that night in Kaukauna when he told me I pretty much passed the Dick Trickle school of racing — it was like God telling you you were worthy.”
In 2015, Bickle was inducted into the Southeastern Wisconsin Short Track Hall of Fame.
STILL RACING AFTER ALL OF THESE YEARS
Bickle, who turned 59 in May, still is an active competitor in Super Late Model ranks. As recently as July 9 he earned a sixth-place finish in the 40th Annual SUPERSEAL Slinger Nationals at Slinger Speedway.
“I retired twice and keep getting dragged back into it,” he said with a laugh. “This year we’ve been running pretty competitively and have had some really good runs. It’s still fun and I still love to do it. This is my 44th year and I plan on retiring after 45 years, the number of my car.”
His next race will be on Saturday, July 27 in Wausau.
So where does “Barnyard to Brickyard” come from?
“John (Close) and I put thousands and thousands of miles going up and down the road and always talked about going on a permanent vacation,” said Bickle about how he and the author came up with the idea for a book while listening to the Aerosmith song “Permanent Vacation.” They were actually my favorite band growing up and eventually got to know the guys.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Close grew up in Manitowoc, Wis. and got the passion for racing from his late father Lou, who won at multiple race tracks around Wisconsin during the 1950s and ‘60s.
Close covered motorsports for the Capital Times in Madison and Daily Jefferson County Union when he caught his big break in 1994, becoming the marketing specialist in NASCAR, a job he held for 18 years. He also served as a spotter for Bickle for over 150 races.
"Rich and I had this idea a long time ago, and now we put it to print," said Close, who will be doing his own signing at Jefferson Speedway Saturday while Bickle, who has a race that night, will return to Wisconsin's Action Track on Aug. 10.
Close has authored a total of five books, all about stock car driving.
“When I was running in Madison in 1985 he was working for the Cap Times and we became friends,” he said of Close. “I always had the coldest beer and best parties and he was always there. In 1990 I moved down south, and he came down in 1994 and we eventually got hooked up again and were attached at the hip for about the next 10 years — he remembers some stories that I forgot, and I remember stuff that he forgot — it’s a really good fit on how this thing turned out, I couldn’t ask for anybody better to write the book.”
HOW TO GET A BOOK
The book is available in 6x9-inch paperback for $24.95, E-Book for $8.95 and Audio-Book formats on Amazon.com. It also is available at Coastal181.com and other select motorsports publication-related websites.
The book contains 16 chapters and more than 150 photos.