Retiring Edgerton native raced with top NASCAR names
MADISON — It was the equivalent of the Milwaukee Brewers lending a big hitter to a World Series opponent and one of the most generous offers Rich Bickle received in his 40-plus years of racing.
He entered his first full American Speed Association season in 1990 after finishing 28th in that year’s Daytona 500. The ASA was a hotbed of short-track talent, featuring drivers such as Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace in previous years.
Bickle faced several other future NASCAR drivers fighting for a championship as he fought for Rookie of the Year.
Dick Trickle, Butch Miller, Ted Musgrave and future Matt Kenseth crew chief Robbie Reiser were a few of the ASA touring regulars that season. It was Johnny Benson who challenged Bickle for the top rookie spot and defined the stock car environment for him.
As the two drivers were locked in a close battle for that Pat Schauer Memorial Award, one of the scores of unforeseen roadblocks that partially defined Bickle’s career emerged. With just a few races remaining in the season, Bickle’s car owner decided to pull the plug.
Bay Motorsports owner Randy Piontek was mysteriously absent from this event, despite attending each race to that point in the season, Bickle said. He sensed something was amiss and that was confirmed after his brand new race car began to fall apart.
“We went to Winchester and the lower ball joint broke,” Bickle said. “I didn’t pound the wall too badly. We fixed it and got back up to speed and then the motor blew up.”
Bickle said he called the team owner and got permission to change motors, allowing him to compete in that event and stay in the hunt for the rookie title. But the response he received lit Bickle like a firecracker.
“He went off the deep end and was (angry) about the grill of the car being damaged in the crash,” Bickle said. “He said we were quitting; we should pack up, and he was done with racing.”
Bickle—desperately wanting to compete and not toss the rookie crown—tried reasoning and negotiating with Piontek. That only made Bickle angrier.
“He wouldn’t sell me the car; he wouldn’t rent me the car,” Bickle said. “There was no reasoning with him, and he was willing to throw away the season.”
While the team owner fumed about the custom chrome-plated grill on his race car, Bickle wondered what his next course of action would be. Then an offer came from the very driver he was battling for the rookie title.
Benson—a member of that auto racing community that Bickle appreciated—decided if he was to win the rookie title, it wouldn’t be by default.
“Johnny came to me and offered me his backup engine,” Bickle said. “That’s a big offer. We were tooth-and-nail in the rookie battle, and real racers want to win something against a competitor at his best, not just have it handed to him.”
Benson said his respect for Bickle and pride in winning something “legit” sent him to Bickle’s trailer to extend the offer.
“As far as I was concerned, (Bickle) deserved the opportunity to run for the rookie title, like myself,” Benson said. “I think any competitor who’s a serious competitor would do the same thing.
“It gets to the point where you say, ‘I don’t want to win it this way.’”
Bickle said that is a defining characteristic that sets the motorsports community apart from other sports. Benson said he wouldn’t have been surprised if Bickle would have made the same gesture if the roles were reversed.
“You always remember the bad things, but nothing bad ever happened between (Bickle) and I,” Benson said. “He was a clean driver and a hard racer. I admire people who race like that, and there aren’t a lot of people you put in that category.”
However, despite both drivers running General Motors equipment, Benson’s Chevrolet engine wouldn’t fit in the Buick driven by Bickle. So the Edgerton driver didn’t have the chance to challenge Benson with his own engine.
While Bickle was touched by the offer from his fellow competitor, the inability to use Benson’s engine—and the indifference of his team owner—forced him to vent his frustration. He decided to do some grill work.
“I knew (Piontek) loved that grill. He’d put the car in car shows just to show off that grill,” Bickle said. “So someone got a camera and took pictures of me kicking the … grill before the car went back.”
That experience certainly had negatives, but the positive is just as memorable to Bickle.
“It was a great gesture (by Benson),” Bickle said. “I’ll never forget that.”