Edgerton native Bickle has seen it all from short tracks to Daytona
Rich Bickle sat next to a pond outside a North Carolina race shop, holding a fishing pole and trying to get "voluntarily fired."
He didn't catch any fish, but he did snag a new ride and accelerated on a path to drive for NASCAR legends, including Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough. So began the roller-coaster ride that defined his experience.
The Edgerton stock car driver had just moved to North Carolina in 1990, joining what he thought was a budding NASCAR Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) team. After years of winning short-track races from La Crosse to Pensacola, Fla., and even driving a few Cup races in an ARCA car purchased from Dale Earnhardt Sr., Bickle was on the rise.
"I was on top of the short-track world and had so many offers," Bickle said. "I thought, ‘Here's my shot to get down here.'"
Yet after just a few races with a fledgling race team, he wanted out. He said ownership cared more about account balances than fielding a competitive team.
"The deal was a total disaster," he said. "I couldn't wait to get out of there."
As he sat near the water with rod and reel, he pondered his next move. Then, a passerby provided it.
"A guy came by and asked if I'd drive his short-track car at Myrtle Beach," Bickle said. "He offered me a bunch of stuff—he had a building and money to fund a team."
The offer was to drive for a race team operated by Terminal Trucking, which was owned by Gene Eisenhower. Bickle could drive in a variety of series with what he considered to be a "real race team."
"We ran Busch (now Nationwide) Cup, short tracks, nearly everything," he said. "We did well."
He did so well that eventually he caught the attention of the seven-time Cup champion Petty. Bobby Hamilton—who then drove Petty's famous No. 43—delivered a message to Bickle at Rockingham Speedway in 1995.
"Bobby grabbed me and told me Richard wanted me to drive his truck," Bickle said, referring to the newly formed Craftsman Truck Series.
But Petty wasn't the only former series champion who wanted to hire Bickle. Darrell Waltrip—a three-time Cup champ—also offered Bickle a ride in the same series. However, Waltrip's deal didn't have a sponsor yet, while Petty's team was assisted by Dodge during its initial steps to re-enter the Cup Series.
"I took the deal with Richard and except for Gene (Eisenhower), Richard was the best guy to drive for," Bickle said. "Our contract was a handshake, no paperwork. Richard offered me a lot of incentives and most of all, he's just a great man."
In 1996, Bickle won two poles, had nine top-10 finishes and was 11th in the season standings. While he couldn't drive for a bigger name or better person in the garage area, he also couldn't compete for victories in Dodge equipment.
"The Dodge thing was not very good," he said. "Their motor program was so far off and Dodge had such a stranglehold on everything—they wouldn't let race people build the race parts."
Bickle was able to challenge for a top-10 finishing spot in the final series standings and was driving for one of his heroes. But if he could win poles and challenge for victories with an underpowered team, a championship could be within reach with the proper horsepower and engine durability. He was forced to make a difficult decision and choose a potential title over not reaching his potential in order to stay with Petty.
The prior deal offered by Waltrip still stood, and Bickle decided to leave Petty Motorsports to drive for a former Petty rival. He knew the motors were better with Waltrip Motorsports and quickly proved it on the track.
Bickle won four poles and three races, and he felt the title was his to lose in the season's closing weeks. He battled Jack Sprague for the points lead for much of the season and signed a contract on his birthday (May 13) in 1997 to drive for Waltrip in the Cup Series starting in 1998.
"We were just killing it in the truck series, and we kind of had the championship in the bag," he said. "Suddenly, everything went to hell."
With three races remaining in the season, Bickle trailed Sprague by 62 points under a points system that doled 180 points to a race-winner. California, Phoenix and Las Vegas were the remaining races, and Bickle was confident he'd gain the points lead and win the title. But he said Waltrip purposely harpooned a series title to take the wind out of his sails.
"(Waltrip) refused to rebuild the motors for the final three races, because he didn't want me to take over the Cup ride," Bickle said. "He touted me as his Cup driver—we had sponsor deals with Budweiser, First Union Bank, Pennzoil—but they all wanted him to be a spokesman and me to be the driver.
"Long story short, his ego wouldn't let him get out of the car, so he didn't rebuild the motors. We blew up and lost the championship."
Bickle's best finish of those three races was 16th and he barely clung to second in the standings, besting Joe Ruttman by a single point. He said the sponsors departed because the team owner wouldn't meet their requests, and Bickle parted from the team in disgust.
After an agreement to drive for a startup team co-owned by former NBA player Julius Erving fell through, Bickle did eventually get to NASCAR's top series, though not with Waltrip. In another case of irony, he signed to drive for Yarborough, a fierce rival of Waltrip. Greg Sacks was driving for Yarborough in 1998, but was injured in a career-ending crash at Texas Motor Speedway. Bickle was tabbed as his replacement.
With Yarborough, Bickle experienced a career high—a fourth-place finish at Martinsville that had him in tears, and not because of the burns. In heat that caused winner Ricky Rudd to nearly faint in victory lane and later visit a hospital for burn treatment, Bickle was also being cooked, but was running so well that he blocked the pain.
"I was burned up," he said. "That car had no coolers in it, nothing. You'll see the guys with helmet coolers and body suits; we didn't have any of that."
But even with the burns and the emotions, when his overjoyed pit crew met him post-race; Bickle told them, "I'll go another 500."
Over the following seven years, Bickle drove for many teams in NASCAR's three divisions. In 2005, he became disenchanted with the trends in NASCAR.
"Talent has nothing to do with racing, anymore," he said. "It's about young guns and coming with a sponsor attached."
Bickle moved back to Wisconsin in 2005 and concentrated on business interests, several related to racing. He said he wasn't in a hurry to begin turning laps again at all the local short tracks where he earned so many wins and championships.
"I didn't race much when I got back, until last year," he said. "I've been racing three times a weekend since I was 3. Enough time with that, it's time to go fishing."
He decided to make 2013 his final full-time season and chose the ARCA Midwest Tour as his farewell series. He's eager to get back to fishing—which so many years earlier, started a path to driving in the nation's premier stock car series.
Editor's note: This is the first article in a series by freelance reporter Troy A. Bruzewski as he chronicles the career of Edgerton driver Rich Bickle, who says this will be his final full-time season.