SB Nation

Jeremy Markovich | July 30, 2013

Elegy of a race car driver

The good times, hard life, and shocking death of Dick Trickle

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.

"on the back by a ‘93 pickup, there's gonna be a dead body."

"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.

561333_mediumDick Trickle in 2002, his last season.

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."

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Up All Night

It was 6:30 a.m. on a summer morning in 1996, and Dick Trickle threw the door open and walked into the conference room at the Chose Family Inn in Stoughton, Wisc. He had a somber look on his face. He stood on a cooler and looked around.

"You all are a bunch of drunks," he said.

The men in the room laughed. They weren't up early. They were up late. They were Rich Bickle's race team, which had beaten Trickle the night before at Madison International Speedway and clinched the championship in a series of races called the Miller Nationals. Once the race was over, they drank in the pits. It was always a contest between Bickle and Trickle to see who would leave last.

Dick always seemed to have a brewing company's logo on his car, and a can of beer in his hand.

Once the track kicked them out, Bickle's team found a bowling alley and drank there. Then they found some bars that were still open. They drank there. When the bars closed, they ended up back at the motel in Stoughton. And that's where Trickle found them. At 6:30 a.m.

"Give me a beer," he said.

Dick always seemed to have a brewing company's logo on his car, and a can of beer in his hand. He joked about a sponsorship deal that gave him $100,000 and 350 cases of beer. But there are 365 days in the year, he said. What am I supposed to drink on the other 15 days?

The fans and friends who drank with him tended to miss something - Dick didn't actually drink all that much. Once he got down to the end of his PBR, he'd just stand there, holding a nearly empty can for as long as he could. Everybody else kept drinking. Dick kept holding. If someone threw him a beer, he'd take it. But people don't tend to do that when you've already got one in your hand.

His close friends had never seen him drunk, even though his close friends got drunk with him. Kenny Wallace finally figured out his trick. "You know how many times I've gotten drunk because of you?" he asked.

119595179_mediumKenny Wallace, one of Dick Trickle's closest friends.

Dick would much rather talk. He'd stay up late to talk racing. Cars. Anything. If you'd ask him how on earth his parents named him Dick Trickle, he'd matter-of-factly tell you that his parents named him Richard. If you asked him how often he smoked in the car, through a special hole he'd drilled in his helmet, he'd ask: How many yellow flags have I had in my career? If you'd see him rolling up to the track in the morning and asked him how late he was up the night before, he'd probably say it would depend on the race. The rumor about him, spread by him, was that he needed one hour of sleep for every 100 miles he'd have to drive the next day. He once said he probably drank 40 cups of coffee a day. The man ran on caffeine and conversation.

You could tell when Trickle was going to say something important. "My boy," he'd start off, and then he'd tell you something simple that made a lot of sense. Don't say you finished sixth, he'd say. You won sixth place, because guys who finished seventh and eighth would love to have had the race you did. Don't race the other drivers. Just race the leader. Race the track. Don't crash. To finish first, he'd say, you must first finish. Guys like Mark Martin made that their mantra.

By that day in 1996, he'd been racing for nearly four decades. He had plenty of fans. But he was still more popular in the Midwest than he ever was outside of it. In 1995, he flew to Minnesota for an American Speed Association race at the State Fair, and his PR guy remarked that he seemed more popular than Richard Petty.

Dick Trickle had always been a big fish in a small pond. Before the 1990s that was about the best you could hope to be, a local hero. But during the 1990s, NASCAR shook off its reputation as a regional, Southern sport and turned into a national phenomenon. Petty retired and Jeff Gordon debuted in the same race in 1992, the Hooters 500. North Wilkesboro Motor Speedway shut down and Las Vegas Motor Speedway opened up in the same year. Neil Bonnett died on the track. Alan Kulwicki died in a plane crash; Davey Allison died in a helicopter crash. Before the '90s, a lot of races were still shown on tape delay. By 2000, a half dozen channels had broadcast live racing. The money started rolling in, and drivers who used to spend their time riding from track to track on the interstate began to buy their own private buses and airplanes. The King Air 200 became the most popular jet in racing.

Dick would fly with people, but he didn't buy a plane. He didn't even buy a big RV. He built a big garage behind his house in 1991, but that was it. "My boy," he told Kenny, "I don't need none of that stuff." The Wisconsin in him kept him incredibly frugal. Although he didn't like to talk money, he had a lot of it. In 1989, arguably his most successful year in Winston Cup, he made $343,000. He struggled in 1998, with only one top-10 finish. It was his final full season. He still won $1.2 million.

His biggest problem was his age. By the time he ran his last Cup race in 2002, he was 61. Too long in the tooth, as Humpy Wheeler would say. At that age, your eyes get to you. When you're down at Daytona or up in Charlotte, you're running at 300 feet a second. Sooner or later, your age is going to creep up on you. "Your eyes are what bring you down," Wheeler said.

Great race drivers don't hang around, Wheeler says, they fade away like old soldiers. When Trickle stopped racing in Winston Cup, he didn't come out and announce his retirement. There was nothing official. He was just done. That was it. He didn't become a team owner like Junior Johnson. He'd get invited back up to Wisconsin every once in a while to grand marshal a race, or he'd show up to sign autographs, but mostly he'd hang out in Iron Station with Darlene and his family. He went on a cruise for the first time in his life. He played with the grandkids, cut down trees on his property, picked up garbage along the road. He didn't need NASCAR. He never did. "Who knows," he told now-defunct bgnracing.com after his final Cup race, "maybe I'll be revived and get the support of the right sponsor and team and be out there every weekend. But if I don't, life isn't bad."

Trickle didn't need to win anymore. He didn't need the money. "I had a new challenge when I went to Cup," he told nascar.com in 2007. "I had a refreshing life, from 48 to 60. I was excited. I was pumped up. I enjoyed it. I got a second lease on life."

Back on that morning in 1996, at that little two-story motel in Stoughton, Wisc., the party was still going for Dick Trickle. Around 8 a.m., when it was time for either breakfast or bed, the long night started making memories foggy and Bickle's crew began to split up into two groups, those who fell asleep and those who passed out. One by one, they started heading off to bed.

Dick Trickle was one of the last to leave. He took a can of beer back to his room.

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Rookie of the Year

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."

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.

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The Short Track

Dick Trickle had a crown on his head. He'd just won the 1983 World Crown 300 in Georgia and the $50,000 that came with it. Dick looked over at the guy who'd just presided over his coronation in victory lane. "I'm not a king," he said. "I'm a race car driver."

This was, at the time, the largest prize Dick Trickle had ever raced for. He spent a month preparing the car. If anyone else did any work on it, he went back and did it over. "I never look at the purse," Trickle told Father Dale Grubba, a Catholic priest and chronicler of Wisconsin racing who'd known him since 1966. "My wife does. I come to race."

But for the World Crown 300, Trickle broke his rule. He did look at the purse. The race itself had been nearly rained out, and instead of thousands of fans at the Georgia International Speedway in late November, there were only a couple of hundred. It was a problem for Ron Neal, the engine maker who owned the speedway. He promised a huge purse for the short track race, one that now, because of the weather, he might not be able to pay for in cash. It's OK, Trickle said. I'll barter with you. So instead of getting the entire purse, Trickle also got new engines, and engine service, for his cars. He did things like that.

The number of wins that Trickle is supposed to have is 1,200.

There are tons of stories about Dick Trickle from the short track days. He once told a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter about the time when he blew a water pump in a race, got on the P.A. and asked if anyone in the crowd had a Ford. A guy drove his car down to the pits. Trickle pulled the water pump off, put it on his car, won the race, and gave it back. Another time he blew an engine, pulled one out of a tow truck, dropped it in his car, and won that race also.

Trickle won a lot on the short tracks. Maybe more than any other driver. The number of wins that Trickle is supposed to have is 1,200, legitimized by a Sports Illustrated article in 1989. But unlike NASCAR, which has precise records, Wisconsin's short track racing record book isn't a book at all, but a patchwork of newspaper clippings and memories and word of mouth. One man, who has tried to piece together records of every race Trickle entered, says he's found evidence of 644 wins up thru 1979. He's not sure of the ‘80s. Trickle would have needed 556 more victories before heading off to Winston Cup in 1989 to hit 1,200.

Might have happened.

He was good at the little things. He knew how to power through the corners. He always kept his car in control, even in traffic. Pit stops were critically important, because when a race was long enough to require one, one was all you got. At the 200 lap races at Wisconsin International Speedway in Kaukauna, he would pit on around lap 70 or 80 when everybody else thought about heading in around 120. After his stop, he'd drive conservatively, waiting for a yellow flag. When everybody else went in to change tires, Trickle would stay out, take the lead, and a lot of times take the checkered flag. He won at least 34 races at Kaukauna. At least.

In central Wisconsin, the same drivers went to the same circuit of tracks, which all ran races on different nights of the week. Drivers didn't bump and grind because they couldn't afford to and you didn't have a week between races to fix your car. You only had a matter of hours. If Dick Trickle couldn't get around you cleanly to win, he'd settle for second. It wasn't worth the risk.

Almost all of the other drivers had day jobs. They had to go home after the races. Trickle could hang out at the track all night. He could hit the bar. He could hang out with fans. "Just because the races were over didn't mean pulling up the shades and going to bed," he told Father Grubba for his book "The Golden Age of Wisconsin Auto Racing." "You are still pumped up. What are you going to do, stop at a corner church?" When Trickle left the track, people would follow him. They knew he'd stop somewhere for a drink.

The things that made Dick Trickle old school later were quite ordinary then. He drank canned beer because that's what most bars served. He smoked because people smoked. He wore cowboy boots in his stock car because they were thick and durable, and that's what people wore to race.

He started to get a reputation. One time, at an ASA race, the fans booed him when he was introduced. Doesn't that bother you?, another driver asked. "When you get introduced there may be 500 or a thousand people that cheer," Trickle told him. "But when I get introduced, 100 percent of the crowd reacts, one way or the other."

He was always racing, stock cars, snowmobiles - anything. In the beer garden after a race at the Milwaukee Mile in 1969, Trickle got to talking with another short track racer, Dave Watson, and they decided they needed to race again. The two drivers and three crew members grabbed mats and walked to the top of a nearby giant blue carnival slide. They sat, counted down, and pushed off. Dick Trickle won.

In 1972, he entered 107 races, and won 68. He got his 49th on Aug. 4 in his 1970 Mustang, starting at the back of the field, taking the lead on lap nine, and taking the checkered flag on lap 30. By this time, he was starting to make the No. 99 car legendary. He was called the White Knight, named for the mascot of Super America, his sponsor. He won seven ARTGO short track championships in 11 years, from 1977 to 1987. He was the ASA champion in 1984 and 1985.

There wasn't big money in NASCAR. Not yet. He could make more money in short track.

There was a point, in 1979, when Humpy Wheeler tried to bring Trickle down to NASCAR full time. Trickle had driven in 11 Winston Cup races up to that point, starting at Daytona in 1970. He ran four Cup races between 1973 and 1974 and won at least eighth place every time. The big question about a short track guy like Trickle was focus. The longer the race, the longer you're required to maintain that intense concentration. That was never a problem for Dick Trickle. Focus ran in his family. "They could focus so hard," said his brother Chuck, "and forget there was another world and get things done."

He made the calculations. There wasn't big money in NASCAR. Not yet. He could make more money in short track. So he told Wheeler, I can't afford to come down there. Promoters are paying me to show up at the tracks up here.

He had all the ingredients to be a great Cup driver. He just didn't need to be one. All he needed to do was win.

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The Start

Rudolph, Wisc., where Dick Trickle was born in 1941, was race-crazy in the 1950s. At one time, Father Grubba says, there were 26 race cars in a town of just a few hundred people. Nearly every driveway had a race car in it.

When Dick Trickle was nine, a neighbor took him to a race at Crown Speedway in Wisconsin Rapids, and he thought that was the greatest thing he'd ever seen. For the next seven years, he focused on how to get behind the wheel of his race car. Problem was, the Trickles were on welfare. Dick's father Lee came down with an ear infection that led to medical problems and was hospitalized for years. There was no money for racing. Dick had to work for his money, on farms, and in his father's blacksmith shop. He swept the floors, but he also learned how to use the arc welder.

In 1958, at age 16, when he'd welded together enough parts and came up with enough money to buy a 1950 Ford, he dropped the engine from a 1949 Ford in it and started racing. It was slow, and during his first race, in Stratford, Wisc., he finished way back in the end.

Whenever he raced, he raced hard, and smart, as if he might not have another chance.

When the nearest racetrack, Griffith Park in Wisconsin Rapids, found out he was too young to race, he was kicked out for a year. After that, Dick never took racing for granted. Whenever he raced, he raced hard, and smart, as if he might not have another chance.

But he still had a day job, working 66 hours a week at a service station in Rudolph while racing four nights a week. With his free time, he worked on his cars at night, using what he'd learned about fixing cars during the day.

He married Darlene in 1961, paid $8 for a motel room the night of the wedding, and then ran two races the next day at Wausau and Griffith Park. Dick started working for a telephone company, and hated it, being up high on the poles. So he started doing the math: Gas was cheap. Parts were cheap if he scoured through the junkyard and did the work himself. If he owned his own car, he wouldn't have to split up his winnings. Dick could bring in the money, and Darlene could stretch it as far as it would go, but the racing season in Wisconsin ran from only May to September, so he didn't have all year to make money, and the payouts for winning races were maybe $100 one week, maybe $300 another. He would have to be on the road constantly, going from track to track, from LaCrosse to Wausau, from Madison to Wisconsin Dells. He couldn't afford to lose. Wherever there was a race, Dick Trickle would have to go there and win.

I think I can make it, Dick told Darlene. And he did.

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The End

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.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

Photo__27_

Jeremy Markovich is a columnist for Charlotte magazine, a contributor to Our State magazine, a producer at WCNC-TV and a former raft guide at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. He lives in Charlotte with his wife Kelsey, his son Charlie and his dog Lucy. Follow him on Twitter at @deftlyinane.

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