On Thursday afternoon, when the press release from the Lincoln County, N.C., Sheriff's Department hit my inbox, I was devastated.
Dick Trickle, one of truest throwback racers of all time, was dead. Dick was a great guy and a great racer, a Midwestern legend who reportedly won more than 1,000 short-track races.
He was also a great sport, even when it came to his name, which was made (in)famous by Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick during the mid-1990's "Big Show" days of the 11 p.m. Sunday night "SportsCenter." One of the last conversations I had with Trickle was about that very topic.
"I wasn't real damn happy about it at first," he admitted in his patented box-of-nails voice.
But then he came to realize that it also had given him a level of national notoriety that an old short-track racer from Wisconsin could have never achieved on his own.
"It kept me racing for a while longer. And yeah, it was kind of funny as s---," he said
Those kinds of conversations are why, even as heartbreaking as the story of his apparent suicide is, I still couldn't help but spend some time Thursday evening laughing. A lot of Trickle stories came to mind, but here are the three I have told the most before and will tell the most again.
Hickory Speedway, 1997
Perhaps the greatest, most genuine Victory Lane celebration I've ever witnessed.
Trickle made his NASCAR Cup Series debut before it was the Cup Series, qualifying for the 1970 Daytona 500, the fourth race of NASCAR's Grand National schedule that season. Over the next 27 years he started nearly 300 races across NASCAR's top two divisions, with nary a win to show for it.
Then, on Saturday, March 29, 1997, he rooted his way around defending series champion Randy LaJoie in the closing laps to win the Galaxy Foods 300, a NASCAR Busch Series event at the crusty old Hickory Motor Speedway. He was 54 years old.
I will never forget him climbing from his Dura Lube Chevy in the makeshift Victory Lane with a lit cigarette between his fingers. You see, he was the last NASCAR racer to keep a pack of cigarettes in the cockpit. During caution periods he'd light up, burn one down and go back to racing. He chased that nicotine with what he always estimated as around 40 cups of coffee. Per day.
With photographers snapping photos, he took a drag and matter-of-factly asked the race officials, adorned in Busch beer logos, "I get free beer for winning this thing, right?"
Later that evening, after the fans were long gone and we were packing up our TV gear, he walked by us to his waiting pickup, a free Winston cigarette hanging on his lip and carrying a case of Busch tallboys on each shoulder.
Talladega Superspeedway, 2000
On the morning of what would wind up being his 20th and final Cup Series start at Talladega, Trickle was asked to meet with the track safety crew prior to the race. Having a driver chat with the emergency personnel was a longtime standard operating procedure, especially at the superspeedways.
This was the first -- and only -- time I've ever sat in on one of those meetings. Me being there was a total accident. It was hot as forty hells so I'd ducked into the Goodyear building for a little shade. As I walked in, one of the safety workers asked Trickle how he preferred to be approached and handled should he be one of the drivers caught up in the inevitable multicar crash known as the Big One.
"All you need to do is bring me a cigarette and a cup of coffee, " he said, holding up both. "Then you can go check on the other guys."
I've never seen so many firemen cry and fall all over the floor before or since.
Darlington Raceway, 2000
Later that year, I was getting set to interview Trickle at Darlington, where he'd won a Busch Series event in 1998. He was in a cranky mood. Looking back I think he sensed that the end of his NASCAR career was coming soon, which it was. Just before I asked the official question, the track began to blare music from "Days of Thunder" over the public address system.
Sensing a chance to break the ice, I started with a question about the movie's leading role.
"Dick, I have to ask. Was Cole Trickle your son?"
"Hell, I don't know, kid," he said. "Could be. Some of those nights back there, they're a little fuzzy."