Some legends aren’t afraid to get dirty. Or laugh right along with you.
Years ago, I remember standing in the pits after seeing Dick Trickle win a car race on a short track. His racing suit was caked in mud. Fans with mud in their hair and beers, an occupational hazard, surrounded The Man.
A woman demanded an autograph. Trickle took a drag on another cigarette and asked where. The woman pulled her shirt collar down, low, lower, then still lower. Trickle asked for the marker.
“My name always seems to get longer,” he said with a wink. “Sometimes, I even use my middle name.”
In an age of varnished, precision-handed car drivers, Richard “Dick” Trickle was his own guy. Some people might have bristled if their name’s double entendre was an endless source of humor. Dick Trickle chuckled just like the “SportsCenter” fellas who made fun of him.
Trickle died Thursday, age 71, apparently by his own hand. Everybody remembered.
He never did much at the very top rung of NASCAR, never won a race, though he was voted rookie of the year in 1989 when he was: 48. But he was beloved, mostly in places you never heard of, especially the Midwest, asphalt and dirt ovals that had a lot of nerve calling themselves speedways or raceways.
I first saw Trickle race while I was still in journalism school. He won more than 1,200 races on short tracks and legions of devoted fans. He was the “King of the Short Tracks.”
“He was my mentor,” former NASCAR great Rusty Wallace said last week.
“When (Dick) was coming up, that’s where the NASCAR racers came from, like Rusty and Mark Martin,” NASCAR.com writer and former Tribune racing writer Holly Cain said. “Today, the kids are just plucked from wherever, there was no one track that people take. … Dick, he didn’t need the life of a big Cup driver. He liked traveling around, being a big shot at the local races, making enough money to keep doing it. He didn’t need airplanes and that stuff. Heck, he was on ESPN anyway.”
There was the time, right during a race, when a frantic call went out over a track P.A. system for a water pump — and a fan drove his car right into the pits, they yanked the pump out, shoved it in Trickle’s ride and he won. After, they put the water pump back in the fan’s car.
Trickle was renowned for drilling holes in his racing helmets so he could smoke during races, and for having cigarette lighters in his race cars. He’d get out of his car and hammer a beer. Dick Trickle ran circles around pretense. It was refreshing in an age when racers became increasingly, hopelessly freeze-dried.
At Daytona in 1997, Trickle’s heart was broken. His nephew, Chris Trickle, a promising driver, a good, young kid, was shot in a drive-by in Las Vegas. He died a year later. The case remains unsolved.
In 2001, Trickle lost his 16-year-old granddaughter in a car accident as she returned from a volleyball practice. The cemetery where she is buried, 30 miles northwest of Charlotte, N.C., is where they found Dick Trickle’s pick-up truck Thursday, with him inside. Family members said Trickle had been experiencing debilitating chest pain, doctors couldn’t treat it, and that he was depressed.
Holly Cain remembers bumping into Trickle at a Las Vegas casino. Trickle lived in Las Vegas; Cain was there for a race. She saw him next to a slot machine, nursing a drink. Suddenly, a horn sounded. Bells started ringing and lights began flashing. Trickle had hit a $10,000 jackpot.
“I guess I must a put in a five,” he said with a grin.
Here’s mud in your eye, Dick.