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The Legend of Dick Trickle: NASCAR driver lived, and died, on his own terms

Posted: June 28, 2014 - 9:42pm  |  Updated: June 28, 2014 - 9:46pm
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Former driver Dick Trickle sits in his car before a race in 1992, three years after he was NASCAR's Cup Series rookie of the year at age 48.  Photo provided by NASCAR
Photo provided by NASCAR
Former driver Dick Trickle sits in his car before a race in 1992, three years after he was NASCAR's Cup Series rookie of the year at age 48.

BOGER CITY, N.C. | Anyone who knew Dick Trickle swore the man never had a bad day.

Always smiling, always playing and always at full speed, he was a lot more than a race car driver with one of the most recognizable names in sports.

He was a Midwest short-track legend whose gregarious personality made him a pop-culture phenomenon on and around the track.

Known for his chain-smoking, coffee-swigging and an infectious smile, Trickle never won a Sprint Cup Series race. But he left a legacy of funny tales, impressionable memories and sadly, some puzzling questions.

A punch line for late-night shows who achieved cult status within the sport and was known best for his jollity away from the track, few people knew him well. He grew up on welfare and started his racing career with a jalopy he bought for $32.50.

He won an estimated 1,200 short-track races — so many that nobody could keep count — and was the mentor to many young drivers from the American Speed Association program.

Despite being the life of every party, he had pain that was hard to bear. He lost a nephew to a drive-by shooting and a granddaughter to a car crash. And then came a stabbing pain in his chest that pushed him even closer to the brink, if not over.

On May 16, 2013, the pain apparently became too much. He drove to a secluded corner of a local cemetery and called 911. Fifty-two seconds and one gunshot later, Richard “Dick” Trickle, 71, was dead.

BEATING THE ODDS

Trickle was one of five children. His mother, Lauretta, struggled to provide food and clothing. His father, Leo, was a blacksmith who worked on farm equipment near their rural Wisconsin home before having a nervous breakdown and spending the last 50 years of his life in a mental hospital.

Welfare helped close some of the financial gap. All five children counted on each other for strength and love.

“That’s what we had, so we didn’t let it bother us,” said Chuck Trickle, Dick’s younger brother. “We had no money and it taught us to be humble. It was a tough life when the other kids got a bicycle for Christmas and we got a shirt. But our mother was a great woman. She did the best she could.”

“We didn’t have a car,” Dick Trickle told Sports Illustrated in 1989. “Come to think of it, we didn’t even have indoor plumbing.”

When Trickle was 8, he fell 20 feet while playing at a construction site. The fall shattered his left hip and doctors said he wouldn’t walk again. He had a cast that covered his entire left leg, his lower abdomen and most of his right leg. He spent 10 months in a hospital in Madison, Wis., far away from his family.

“We could only go see him once a month, when somebody could take us,” Chuck Trickle said. “That was really tough on a kid to be by himself for that long.”

Dick Trickle built his first race car, a 1949 Ford, and added parts fashioned from scraps from his father’s blacksmith shop. His first bumper was bent and welded from an old manure spreader.

Though he walked with a limp from the childhood fall, Trickle started winning races when he was 16. By the time he was 48, he was considered one of the greatest short-track drivers of all time.

A two-time ASA national champion, younger drivers such as Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin and Alan Kulwicki all looked up to him.

“He told me to finish first, first you have to finish,” Mark Martin said. “I always remembered that.”

Martin said Trickle also taught him track etiquette — race hard, but respect your equipment and your competitors and they will respect you.

Trickle got his first full-time ride in NASCAR in 1989 with the Stavola Brothers and he won the rookie of the year title. He was 48.

“The trick to life is feeling good,” Trickle said then. “If you’re feeling good, life’s fun. … An old boy [who] worked for me once said he liked to get sick once in a while, made you appreciate your health.

“When you’re 48 and you feel like you’re 30, the way I figure is, you’ve got 18 years’ experience ahead of the others.”

Rusty Wallace, the 1983 ASA national champion, always considered Trickle his mentor. They often talked on Mondays during their short-track days about setups and strategies, including the 1983 season, when Wallace barely beat Trickle for the title.

Trickle came back to win the championship in the next two years.

Wallace won the NASCAR championship the same year Trickle was rookie of the year.

“He could do magic with the race car,” Wallace said.

Trickle made 303 career starts in Sprint Cup, with 15 top-five finishes and no victories. He won a pair of Nationwide races and one race in the ARCA Racing Series.

He still tinkered with his Late Model racers long after his final NASCAR start at the Dover International Speedway in 2002. Former NASCAR champion Matt Kenseth, another Wisconsin driver, ran into Trickle at Slinger (Wis.) Speedway. They talked for nearly two hours.

Kenseth said he’s never forgotten the unique way Trickle looked at things.

SMOKIN’ ON THE TRACK

Trickle once admitted to drinking as many as 40 cups of coffee a day and smoking so many cigarettes he refused to count.

He started drinking coffee with his mother when he was 7.

“He said if he sat there drinking coffee with all the neighborhood ladies, you got to hear all the gossip,” Chuck Trickle said.

Trickle drilled a hole in his full-face helmet so he could smoke during a caution period of a race. While others had bottles of water and Gatorade to help them during a quick break, Trickle rarely drove without a cigarette lighter on board.

When asked how many times he’d smoke during a race, he once said, “How many cautions were there?”

When he wasn’t racing, he seemed to find the best party. If not, he created his own.

“Him and I liked to drink beer and have fun,” Chuck Trickle said. “He was out there getting rowdy and drinking and having fun. If you were there, you were having fun.”

To the end, Trickle said he only needed one hour of sleep for every 100 laps in a race.

Jim Sauter, who carved his own short-track career in the Midwest, worked with Trickle and Dave Marcis to set up the cars from the International Race of Champions. All three were from Wisconsin and they flew into Daytona Beach the night before a test.

They met at their traditional place — the local Waffle House.

“That was our thing,” Sauter said. “I remember when we ordered he called the waitress back and asked if he could get a couple extra scoops of grease on his. We all laughed so hard.

“Those are the kind of memories I have of Dick Trickle.”

In 2011, Trickle quit smoking. He stayed close to his home in Iron Station, N.C., trying to make sense of other things in his life.

It was becoming apparent Trickle that wasn’t the life of the party anymore.

EMOTION, PHYSICAL PAIN

Chuck Trickle’s son, Chris, was starting a promising career in the Featherlite Southwest Tour. He drove Late Models around his home in Las Vegas until he was shot between the eyes in a drive-by shooting.

He lived for 408 days after the shooting and died in 1998.

“We were building a team for Chris,” Chuck Trickle said. “When he got shot, I ended up selling the team to my sponsor. And they put Kurt Busch in the car. That’s how he got his start.”

Dick Trickle’s granddaughter, Nicole Bowman, was killed in 2001 riding home from high school volleyball practice.

“He loved his grandkids,” Sauter said. “I know he liked being close to them.”

Leo Trickle died in the mental hospital in 2003. Lauretta Trickle, who sacrificed everything for her family, died a year later.

At the same time, Dick Trickle was battling through hip pain that eventually led to replacement surgery. He also had stents placed in his heart to help with circulation.

Sauter wonders if the mix of pain and medicine affected Trickle’s judgment. Chuck Trickle talked to his brother regularly about the medicine, and he was convinced the medicine wasn’t a factor.

“My brother wasn’t crazy,” Chuck Trickle said. “He was in pain.”

“I’m paying for some of my good times, but at the same time, I’m getting better and better with old age,” Dick Trickle told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2009.

LAST CALL

Chuck and Dick Trickle talked two or three times a month. The younger brother quickly realized his brother was in trouble.

“The last time we talked, he used the f-word,” Chuck said. “That was the first time in my life I heard him cuss. I used to call him names and give him the finger just to make him mad, but he didn’t do that.

“That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

Dick Trickle went to Duke University for some tests on May 14. He was released a day later.

“They couldn’t do anything for him,” Chuck Trickle said.

A day later, shortly after noon, Dick Trickle ended his pain with a single, self-inflicted gunshot in the same cemetery where his granddaughter is buried.

He left a wife, Darlene, and three children — Vicky, Chad and Tod. The immediate family has refrained from talking or talking about letters Trickle left, including calls and messages from The Times-Union.

But they did post a statement shortly after their father died that read:

“He had been suffering for some time with severe chronic pain, had seen many doctors, none of which could find the source of his pain. His family, as well as all those who knew him, find his death very hard to accept, and though we will hurt from losing him for some time, he’s no longer suffering and we take comfort knowing he’s with his very special angel.”

The message also said:

“Dick’s passion in life was his racing. He touched many lives throughout his career, provided memories for many that will last a lifetime. Many thought when he retired he would continue as a car owner, but he was a driver at heart; he wanted to be behind the wheel and be in control of his destiny. We believe he felt himself no longer able to be behind that wheel of life or be the man he only knew how to be because of the pain and suffering.”

Chuck Trickle, who called his older brother his hero, accepts that.

“He had pain,” Chuck said. “He couldn’t sleep because he kicked so hard. Whatever was in him and made him do this, he hit his head on the corner of the night-side bed stand and he had stitches.

“I think Dick decided, ‘I’m not going to hang around with this pain. I can’t be helped with this pain. I can’t live with this pain.’ ”

Even in death, thinking about Dick Trickle brings smiles to the faces of friends. There were too many funny stories, too many laughs and so much life to remember.

Said former crew chief and ESPN commentator Ray Evernham: “His life was racing. He didn’t conform. He didn’t worry about all the other things. He lived on his own terms.”

He died that way, too.

 

Don Coble: (904) 359-4111

THE CALL

“Lincoln County 911. What’s the address of the emergency?”

“Yes. The Forest Lawn Cemetery on 150. On Forest … Forest Lawn.”

“OK.”

“Forest Lawn.”

“Yes sir. What’s your, what’s your name?”

“On the back side of it, in the back by a ’93 pickup, there’s going to be a dead body.”

“OK.”

“Suicide. Suicide.”

“Are you there?”

“I’m the, I’m the one.”

“OK, listen to me. Sir, listen to me.”

“150 Forest Lawn Cemetery, in the back by a Ford pickup. In the back.”

“Sir, sir, let me get some help. Sir, I do have it. Let me get some help to you.”

Click.

Comments (7)

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MollyLu
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MollyLu 06/29/14 - 02:28 pm
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Premium Member

Why is this even in the news?

Why is this even in the news? He killed himself 13 months ago???? By looking at the article you would think this just happened.

1000m
2346
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1000m 06/29/14 - 12:40 pm
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Premium Member

I didn't even know that he

I didn't even know that he had killed himself.

Thanks for sharing that dhelmly.

johnctaughtme
13542
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johnctaughtme 06/29/14 - 12:26 pm
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Premium Member

Donnie, there can indeed be

Donnie, there can indeed be "physical pain with life's events". Guys like Dick Trickle made the sport, life, and those times more interesting for many of us. I wish it could have all ended better for he and his family. May he and his loved ones rest in peace now, and old friends enjoy his memory.

dhelmly
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dhelmly 06/29/14 - 09:27 am
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I had the ultimate pleasure

I had the ultimate pleasure of knowing Dick Trickle, And I am thankful that Don Coble took the time and effort to put this article together. I had the pleasure of visiting with Dick many times both at the track and away from the track. No, Dick never won one for the NASCAR premier events, however he was a true hero in so many of us grass roots level racers eyes.

I was so saddened when Dick ended his life. It had been 3 or 4 months since our last conversation, but he had told me that he was in so much pain, that he didn't know what to do about it. The Dr's could not pin point it. I asked him, "Dick, Is it possible that its a broken heart"? You loved your nephew and your grand daughter so much, and losing them was unbearable?" Dick said, "Donnie I didn't really know there could be physical pain with life's events. And I was truly discounting that possibility. Dick was a regular on my radio here in JAX, and was a great friend. I truly miss him. Thanks Don Coble for the story.

tobot241
8343
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tobot241 06/29/14 - 09:15 am
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Premium Member

What an idiot......

What an idiot......

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