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DICK TRICKLE THE END

DICK TRICKLE
19 Apr 2002: Dick Trickle, driver of the #91 Evenham Motorsports Dodge Intrepid R/T, stands next to his ride during qualifying for the Aaron’s 499 at Talledega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama. DIGITAL IMAGE. Credit: Donald Miralle/Getty Images

DICK TRICKLE THE END

By: Jeremy Markovich

Sometime after 10:30 on a Thursday morning in May, after he’d had his cup of coffee, Dick Trickle snuck out of the house. His wife didn’t see him go. He eased his 20-year-old Ford pickup out on the road and headed toward Boger City, N.C., 10 minutes away. He drove down Highway 150, a two-lane road that cuts through farm fields and stands of trees and humble country homes that dot the Piedmont west of Charlotte, just outside the reach of its suburban sprawl. Trickle pulled into a graveyard across the street from a Citgo station. He drove around to the back. It was sunny. The wind blew gently from the west. Just after noon, he dialed 911. The dispatcher asked for his address.

“Uh, the Forest Lawn, uh, Cemetery on 150,” he said, his voice calm. The dispatcher asked for his name. He didn’t give it.

“On the backside of it, on the back by a 93 pickup, there’s gonna be a dead body,” he said.

“OK,” the woman said, deadpan.

“Suicide,” he said. “Suicide.”

“Are you there?”

“I’m the one.”

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

“Yes, it’ll be 150, Forest Lawn Cemetery, in the back by a Ford pickup.”

“OK, sir, sir, let me get some help to you.”

Click.

The funeral was four days later. It was small. There weren’t many people. Maybe 50, mostly family. A few were old crewmembers from Wisconsin and Kansas City. Kenny Wallace, a driver who made Dick Trickle his mentor, was there. So was Kenny’s older brother Rusty, the former Winston Cup champ who used to call Dick every Monday. Mike Miller and Mark Martin, both drivers, came. Nobody else from NASCAR did. Dick wanted it that way.

There was no eulogy. The pastor only said a few words. But he didn’t go on long. Soon, everybody had left the church and headed down the road to Dick and Darlene’s place in Iron Station. Kenny hugged Dick’s son Chad.

“I’m so sorry,” Kenny said.

“Aw, come on, man,” Chad told him. “Seventy-one years. That’s pretty good.” Kenny thought Chad sounded a lot like his father.

The suicide. That didn’t seem like Dick at all. People who knew Dick had heard something was wrong. A lot of them weren’t sure what it was. Kenny asked Darlene if she’d seen this coming. No. She had no idea anything was wrong until a Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy pulled into her driveway on Thursday afternoon.

After Dick shot himself, Chad called Kenny. Darlene wants you at the funeral, he said. “You know,” he said next, “we’re all big Kenny Wallace fans.” That sounded like a Dick Trickle call. There weren’t many short phone conversations between Kenny and Dick. If the phone would ring and Dick’s name was on the caller ID, Kenny would think twice about answering if he didn’t have an hour to talk. But they still talked all the time. Dick was still giving him advice. Back in 2011, Kenny called to talk about his new Nationwide Series race team. He told Dick he’d lost some weight. He was ready. You’ve got a new car now, Dick told him. Do not change your driving. Let the car do the work for you. Kenny had 11 top 10s and finished seventh in points, his best showing in years.

The calls started to slow down. Kenny wasn’t sure why. Dick really didn’t talk about it. In 2011, Kenny’s father, Russ, an old-school racer who won a lot around St. Louis, died at age 77. Your dad lived a great life, Dick said. He was in pain, but he’s fine now. Dick could justify anything, but Kenny thought it was odd how quickly he’d made sense of his father’s death.

After Dick’s funeral, Kenny had an idea. “Darlene, maybe we should make some T-shirts,” Kenny said. New ones. With Dick Trickle’s name on the front. Just something so his fans could remember.

“Nope,” she said. “We’re done.”

Darlene hadn’t talked publicly about what happened to Dick. She still hasn’t. And so Dick Trickle’s closest friends were left with memories from a lifetime of friendship and a couple of clues and hindsight to make sense of his death. Darlene knew that the people who loved her husband needed to know what happened. So before Kenny and the rest of Dick’s friends left the house after his funeral, she gathered up some manila envelopes and handed them out, one by one.

Here, she said. The answers to your questions are inside.

Most of the stories people tell about Dick Trickle aren’t quite right. They aren’t wrong, but they just aren’t what they appear to be. He was bowlegged, and walked with a slight limp. That must be from a lifetime of crashes, right? Wrong. There was that commercial from 1997 where Dick Trickle talked about a contest for guessing the winner of the Napa 500. “A little tip,” he smirked, “it’s gonna be me.” Instantly, text flashed on the screen: Dick is 0 for 243 in Cup races. “And remember, November 16th could be a real big day.” That’s 0 for 243, the screen said. If you saw that, and didn’t know much about racing, you’d get the impression that Dick Trickle never won anything.

Same thing if you watched SportsCenter in the early ’90s. You’d hear Dick Trickle’s name alongside a litany of middle to back-of-the-pack finishes. Dan Patrick and Keith Olbermann thought the name sounded like a joke, so they said it as often as they could after NASCAR highlights. “I thought, ‘Well, this guy’s not any good,'” Patrick told SPIN magazine in 1996, which pointed out Trickle’s last place finish in the Daytona 500 that year. “But he’s a good old boy and he really represents what NASCAR used to be. He just loves to drive.” Patrick and Olbermann weren’t the only people who kept referring to Dick Trickle by his full name. Announcers did it. Fans did it. At the track, only his wife called him Richard. To everyone else, Dick Trickle had that three-syllable cadence that made you want to say the whole thing, like Kasey Kahne or Ricky Rudd. At first, it’s funny, then familiar and finally it just feels easy, not formal. When you say Dick Trickle, you know a story is coming.

When Dick Trickle finally got to NASCAR, to the biggest stage he’d ever been on, he was fading. By that time, people had attached a lot of labels to him, some true, some half true and some not true at all. Hard drinking. Hard partying. Hard living. Veteran. Journeyman. Chain smoker. Respected by racers and loving fans who could appreciate who he was and what he’d done, he had become a caricature to many, misunderstood by a new group of people who only saw him as a coffee drinking, cigarette smoking, old-school racer. If you were one of them, you might think that Dick Trickle wasn’t good enough to hack it in NASCAR. That he never got the chance to run in the Cup series as a young man. And that too, like so many of the labels, is not quite right either.

“He was definitely one of the most talented race drivers that we’ve ever had in America,” says Humpy Wheeler, the former promoter and president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “He’s up there with A.J. Foyt, [Richard] Petty, [Mario] Andretti, Cale Yarborough, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon.” Wheeler once stuck his face in a tiger’s mouth. He knows hyperbole. But he’s being serious.

“Today, had he been 25 years old, his looks would have gotten him into a racecar,” Wheeler says. But today, he would have had to deal with sponsors who squirm at habits like smoking cigarettes or personalities that aren’t squeaky clean. Dick Trickle was the last NASCAR driver to keep a pack of smokes in his car. Imagine that now. These days sponsors create a whitewashed version of the drivers that fans fell in love with when racing was racin’, and stock cars were actually stock cars. “Today, they would have tried to put him through the clothes wash, and he wouldn’t have gotten in the clothes wash,” says Wheeler. “If you start off and you don’t have perfect size, perfect weight, perfect teeth, perfect hair and perfect speech, you’re probably not going to get in a Cup car.”

Dick Trickle could have. But he didn’t. To understand why, you need to look at his life in reverse. That way the quirks become more commonplace, the near misses become wins, and the legend becomes real. The pain he endured at the end of his life washes away. He was a family guy from Rudolph, Wisc. – a working man, whose work just happened to be racing cars.

“He liked the simple life, he liked the simple people, he liked the working people,” Wheeler says. “And that’s where racing’s always been, and despite all the people today that have entered this sport, particularly working for companies, that have led cloistered lives and don’t understand working people, Dick Trickle sure did. And that’s why they didn’t understand Dick Trickle.”

Chuck Trickle doesn’t want to talk much more about the suicide. He’s on the phone from a water park.

“It’s not the right thing to do, and I’m upset the way he did it, but you know, I wasn’t in his shoes,” Chuck says.

“Now they’re turning on the music,” he says, changing the subject.

“That’s my story, anyway.” The music gets louder.

“The park is closing in 15 minutes,” he says.

“Anyway, that’s about it. Is there anything else you want to know here?”

Tom Roberts says he struggles with Dick Trickle’s suicide. So does Father Grubba. John Close, who partied with Dick Trickle in Stoughton, is saddened by it. Humpy is too. Kenny Wallace put a Dick Trickle sticker in the cockpit of his dirt car in memory of Trickle. But he had to take it off. It bothered him too much. He had a hard time driving.

Kenny Wallace tries to justify it like the others. He doesn’t agree with suicide, but he’s not going to question it. Dick had been through a lot over the last couple of years, he said.

I WANT TO MAKE SURE YOU UNDERSTAND THAT HE WAS A GOOD MAN, HE SAYS. I WANT TO MAKE SURE YOU KNOW THE FULL STORY

Kenny has been talking about Dick Trickle for about two hours when he stopped for a second. “You know, this has been like therapy for me,” he says. His voice sounds tired. I want to make sure you understand that he was a good man, he says. I want to make sure you know the full story.

“Don’t you fuck it up,” he says.

So he tells me what was in the envelope.

There were medical records inside. Computerized forms. Test results. Findings from doctors. Charts. They detailed a day-by-day, doctor-by-doctor struggle with pain.

Dick Trickle chain-smoked for his entire life. But he didn’t have cancer. Aside from some stents, his heart was healthy.

To understand the end, maybe you have to go understand the beginning, way before racing, back to 1949, when Dick was eight years old. He was playing tag with a cousin up in the rafters of the house his uncle was building in Rudolph when he fell and broke his hip. He dragged himself home, and his mother took him to the hospital. He spent six months there, and missed a year of school. Doctors weren’t sure if he’d ever walk again.

Once he got home, he wore a cast on his leg for months before he and his brothers got tired of the thing and cut it off. He’d walk again, but always with a slight limp.

In 2007, 58 years after the fall, that hip needed to be replaced. The limp was becoming too painful. He also had stents put in, doctors put him on blood thinners, and told him he ought to stay off the track. In 2009, he told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel he still felt good enough to race, but he admitted to feeling the wear and tear from years of bumping cars and hitting walls. “I’m paying for some of my good times,” he said, “but at the same time, I’m getting better and better with old age.”

But sometime after, only his family knows when, he began feeling a stabbing pain two inches under his left nipple. Dick Trickle didn’t cuss all that often, but when the pain became too much he started to really let the words fly. His phone conversations got shorter because he just couldn’t go on. He went to doctor after doctor, looking for help, for years. We can’t help, they told him, because we can’t find the pain.

The problem with pain is that most doctors need to know what’s causing it before they can treat it. Prescribe the wrong drug, and you might mask the real problem. Prescribe the drug to the wrong person, and they might abuse it. One study found that chronic pain increases the risk of suicide by 32 percent. It can leave people desperate. It can change people.

After the pain started, Dick Trickle stopped smoking. But by that point, he was already dealing with another kind of pain, too.

In 2001, Vicky’s daughter Nicole, Trickle’s granddaughter, was on the way home from volleyball practice. She stopped for gas at a minimart and was pulling back on to the road when a pickup truck smashed into her side of the car. She died instantly. Dick never talked about it with Kenny all that much. That wasn’t surprising. “You are never going to get a feeling out of Dick Trickle,” he said. Still, Kenny knew he was grieving. Other friends said he never got over her death.

They buried Nicole at Forest Lawn. Her death came just three years after his nephew, Chuck’s son Chris, died after being shot in Las Vegas. Police there have never solved the crime. Chris was an up-and-coming race car driver. He called Dick for advice all the time.

“You never know what a man is thinking,” Kenny said. Maybe it was grief. Maybe it was pain. Maybe it was a combination of both.

Race car drivers don’t like to talk about pain. It shows vulnerability. And besides, it might keep them off the track. Dick Trickle endured a lifetime of crashes and hard hits. He wasn’t a complainer. But he’d been through a lot of pain. His chest. His hip. His granddaughter. His nephew. Dick Trickle was always a guy who looked ahead. He didn’t dwell on the past. He always raced so he could race again. But there were no more races. Ahead, all Dick saw was suffering.

A week before his death, Dick called Chuck. I don’t know how much longer I can take it, he said.

On May 15, Dick Trickle went to the Duke Heart Center in Durham. This was his best chance to get better. Doctors ran more tests. But it was the same answer. We can’t find anything wrong with you.

On May 16, he was dead.

Kenny thinks everything was done deliberately. Dick Trickle didn’t kill himself at home. He didn’t do it on a piece of property that somebody else could buy sometime. He ended his life at the same cemetery where his granddaughter was buried, where he would be buried. He made sure Darlene and the family had enough money.

The Trickle family is still private. Chad Trickle politely declined to talk about his father. Vicky didn’t return an email. Their racing days are done. But they still know there are a lot of people out there who loved Dick Trickle. Two weeks after the funeral, Kenny got a package in the mail from Darlene. It was an old Dick Trickle T-shirt.

Most of the grave markers at the Forest Lawn Cemetery are flush to the ground, so from a distance, one looks the same as the next. You almost have to know where you’re going to find the spot where Dick Trickle is buried, on the gentle slope of a North Carolina hill. You can barely see a gas station across Highway 150. Beer, coffee and cigarettes aren’t too far away.

His grave is right in front of Nicole’s. There are a few trinkets on it. A little number 99 checkered flag. A toy John Deere tractor. A Titleist golf ball with the words “miss you dad.” Some flowers. There’s an oak tree nearby. It’s sunny. The driveway through the cemetery is a small asphalt oval.

Fitting, really. Dick Trickle always liked a short track best.