It was 2013 and, by all accounts, Rich Bickle Jr. was winding down his incredible racing career.
The native of Edgerton, Wis., had done it all during a career that lasted more than 30 years.
He’d won the legendary Snowball Derby at Florida’s Five Flags Speedway an incredible five times. He’d won the National Short Track Championship at Illinois’ Rockford Speedway twice. He’d won the Slinger Nationals at Wisconsin’s Slinger Super Speedway four times, including in 2013, the year he was supposed to retire.
We say “supposed to” because like so many drivers before him and many after him, Bickle just couldn’t stay retired.
“The guy who was doing my crew chiefing, Chad Wood, bought another ranch down in Oklahoma,” Bickle explained. “He kind of went down there and left me without anybody to work on the cars and I’m way past that point of wanting to work on race cars. I kind of just said, ‘OK, this will be it. I’ll call it a day.’”
Bickle stuck to his word and retired, at least for a little while. He went on vacation, a few of them actually, but he grew bored with it all.
Who grows bored with vacation? A racer, that’s who.
“I went on a bunch of vacations and I kind of got tired with going on vacations. I was actually just sitting back and going, ‘I’d sure like to race again,’” Bickle said.
Conveniently, Bickle got a call from an old friend, who said someone he knew was interested in having him test a late model at Grundy County Speedway in Morris, Ill. Bickle figured sure, why not?
“Tony Phillips, who I drove for at Grundy (County Speedway) a while back, like three or four years ago, called me up and said Tony D’Ambrose wanted me to come test his car at Grundy,” Bickle said. “Tony (D’Ambrose) was Ed Hoffman’s crew chief for quite some time. I didn’t know him, but I knew who he was.
“I went down there basically and made a few laps and he asked me what I was doing with my stuff. I said ‘Well, it’s on the shelf.’ He said: ‘Well, what about racing Madison (Int’l Speedway) next week?’ I was like, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ He goes, ‘Oh, I’ll come get the car and do all the work and we’ll get ready.’
“So to make a long story short, we went to Madison, drove at the front, got to the lead and thought we had the car to beat for the day until we had a little snafu on our pit stop,” Bickle added. “Still had a good day and it felt good to get back in the seat.”
That was in 2015 and Bickle, now 56, hasn’t slowed down since. He’s once again a touring series regular, competing against the young guns of the ARCA Midwest Tour at many of the same tracks he raced at in his youth.
Racing is a way of life for Bickle. His father, Rich Bickle, raced throughout Bickle’s childhood. He says he has literally spent his entire life racing or at a race track, so the thought of doing anything else is difficult to fathom.
“I grew up at the race track since I was a month old,” Bickle said. “My dad raced for 33 years. I got to grow up watching the greatest asphalt short-track guys in the world from (Dick) Trickle on down. I grew up in the greatest area in the greatest era of asphalt short-track racing. I think of the 50 best in the United States and you had 40 of them here at that particular time. So I got to watch them growing up.”
Bickle reminisces about his first race, which involved a car that wasn’t exactly his.
“When I turned 15, I was friends with this family and the dad took off on the mom and the kids and me went up and stole his race car out of the barn and went to Jefferson (Speedway in Cambridge, Wis.) with it. I led a few laps and got wrecked, but my first race I led the first six laps of the race. And on it started.
“It’s hard to get it out of your blood,” Bickle said. “It’s been 41 years that I’ve been driving and I’ve been at the race track since I was born. So 56 years of being at the track, it’s hard to walk away.”