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DICK TRICKLE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

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DICK TRICKLE

DICK TRICKLE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

By: Jeremy Markovich

It was 1989, and Dick Trickle was trying to buy a fake Rolex on the street in Manhattan. He was willing to pay $10. But he wanted a guarantee first. If it falls apart, the guy who was selling told him, you come and find me, and I’ll give you another one.

This was a little bit of a stunt, done for the cameras. Motor Week Illustrated was putting together a story called “Trickle Takes Manhattan.” A television crew followed Dick and Darlene around New York City. He bought a hot dog. He took the subway to Grand Central Terminal. “Man, look at all these trains!” he said. “You think you’ve got one that goes to Wisconsin Rapids?”

HE’D JUST WON NASCAR’S ROOKIE OF THE YEAR AWARD AT AGE 48

A few days later, on Dec. 1, Trickle stood on stage in a tuxedo at the Waldorf Astoria, listening to people talk about how old he was. “Luckily, this year’s rules do not include any age restriction,” an executive from Sears said, to mild laughter. He presented Dick with a painting of himself and his car. Dick got a check for $20,000. He’d just won NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year award. At age 48.

“I’d like to thank Champion and Sears DieHard Batteries for giving us young racers a chance to come up through the ranks,” he said. More laughs.

He thanked his kids for coming. He thanked Darlene for putting up with 31 years of racing. He thanked his sponsors. And he thanked Bill and Mickey Stavola, who owned the car. He had no contract. No guaranteed ride. He drove all year on a handshake.

“If you’d have told me last December that I would be on the stage at the Waldorf Astoria, I’d have said no way,” Trickle said. “But one phone call last spring changed it all.”

DICK TRICKLE

It started one year before, in 1988, actually, with the crash that ended Bobby Allison’s career. Allison blew a tire at the Miller 500 at Pocono in June, and then Jocko Maggiacomo came along and T-boned him so hard that Bobby still doesn’t remember the crash, nor winning the Daytona 500 the February before. Mike Alexander drove Allison’s car for the rest of the season. Afterward, at the Snowball Derby in December, Alexander hit an embankment with the driver’s side of his car. Something happened to him. But he didn’t tell anyone for months.

A few days before the 1989 Daytona 500, Alexander did a media tour during the day but was too worn out to keep going through the evening. His PR guy, Tom Roberts, thought that was strange. On Sunday, after 188 laps, Alexander hit the wall in turn two and that was it.

The next race was the Goodwrench 500 at Rockingham in early March. Alexander and Roberts were having dinner and Alexander confessed he shouldn’t be out on the track. He’d had blurry vision and severe headaches since the Snowball Derby. Roberts told him to fess up to his crew chief, Jimmy Fennig, and he did.

Now Stavola’s car needed a new driver. A few years before, Fennig had been Mark Martin’s crew chief when Martin was running American Speed Association races in Wisconsin. That’s how Fennig knew Trickle. He convinced Stavola to bring him in for the race, and that Thursday night, Dick Trickle got The Call.

He started in the last row. During the race, he kept pitting on yellow flags, and one of his pit crewmembers kept leaning way in through the passenger window. The TV announcers thought there was a problem with the transmission. The transmission was fine. But the heat near the throttle was causing Trickle’s right foot to swell, and the guy from the pit crew was trying to pull off his snakeskin cowboy boot. He kept trying until they finally swapped it out for a regular driving shoe.

Trickle finished 13th at Rockingham, ahead of Richard Petty. The next week, in Atlanta, Trickle finished third. He went on to nine top-10 finishes. Larry Pearson, son of NASCAR legend David Pearson, had been the favorite to win Rookie of the Year. That changed when Trickle came along.

HE WANTED TO BUY FANS BEERS AND TALK WITH THEM AND WORK THE CROWD

Roberts knew Trickle could drive. But he also knew Trickle didn’t have that much pressure on him. Opportunity just came to him. Trickle was just the fill-in guy and knew it.

Off the track, he hedged. For the first month, Trickle lived in a motel off of Interstate 85 in a rough area of Charlotte, just to be ready to go back home to Wisconsin Rapids with some cash in his pocket if NASCAR didn’t pan out. But at the track, he was still the same guy he’d been up north, smoking and drinking coffee and talking to everybody. His family came to every race. He didn’t want people to line up for his autographs – he wanted to buy fans beers and talk with them and work the crowd. Sometimes, after two-hour meet-and-greets, he’d ask if he could stay longer.

He didn’t always qualify well, but he knew how to pass. He never tired out. He said he didn’t need to work out. Got his workout in the race car, he said, and since he’d been driving so much in so many features on so many short tracks, he was in pretty good shape. At the gas pumps after the race, Roberts would see the other drivers worn out and sucking down oxygen. Trickle would just be standing there, cigarette in hand. I could go another hundred laps, he’d say.

He smoked outside of the car. He smoked in the car. When the yellow flag came out, so did the lighter. Trickle was a Marlboro man, but had the sense to put them into an empty pack of Winston’s whenever he was at a Winston Cup race. He’d show up at races with a briefcase, just like the one Alan Kulwicki, another short track racer from Wisconsin who was named NASCAR Rookie of the Year, in 1986, made popular. Kulwicki would keep shock charts, setups and notes from the last race in his. Trickle’s carried a schedule, a ball cap or two, cheap Miller High Life sunglasses and a carton of cigarettes.

By the time he was named Rookie of the Year, Trickle had already lined up a full-time ride for 1990, driving for Cale Yarborough’s Phillips 66 team. Two months after his trip to New York, Dick and Darlene bought a modest 11-year-old Cape Cod house in Iron Station, N.C., along with the eight acres of land that came with it, leaving Wisconsin behind. Their new home was less than an hour away from Charlotte, near where most all the other drivers kept their race shops.

One of the stories that is not quite right is this: Dick Trickle never won while he was racing in NASCAR’s Winston Cup. That is wrong. In May 1990, he qualified for The Winston Open, a 201-mile precursor to The Winston, NASCAR’s All-Star race. But neither one was a points race, so it doesn’t show up in most recaps. Still, the Open was big. Winning it gave you the 20th and final spot in The Winston, and the winner of that race got $200,000.

Ernie Irvan led a third of the race before Trickle took the lead with a dozen laps to go. Then Rob Moroso, the 1989 Busch Series champion, all of 21 years old, crept up behind Trickle. When the white flag flew, Moroso and Trickle traded spots, one and two, with Trickle taking the high side. When they hit the final straightaway and crossed the finish line, Trickle beat him by eight inches.

He got out of the car, grabbed a cup of water and thanked his sponsors. He thanked Cale Yarborough, who hadn’t had a win as a car owner. The reporter asked him what he needed to do to be ready for The Winston, which started in 20 minutes. “I’ll be ready,” he said, sweaty, his hair mussed. “Just get the car ready.” Then he hugged Darlene and answered another question about his car and Darlene buried her face in his shoulder. And then Dick Trickle went out and finished sixth in The Winston. Once again, he came from behind.

By: Jeremy Markovich

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