The years and the beers may have clouded or blended his Oktoberfest memories some, but this much remains crystal clear:
“That’s the first track I ever drove a Super Late Model at,” recalled Rich Bickle, who’s run thousands of races and won hundreds since that 1978 debut at the LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway.
Bickle, then 17, had begun racing hobby stocks the previous season at his local quarter-mile and made the trip with his father to West Salem, Wisconsin from their home in Edgerton. The intention was for Rich Sr. to drive, but he decided an impending hangover would make a change the next day the wiser move.
The younger Bickle didn’t really believe the plan.
“Next day, I’m changing the gears and he goes, ‘You’re driving it. I’m not,'” he said. “That was like going to Daytona from Jefferson (Speedway).
“So, I’ll never forget, I’m against the inside wall and I hear this squealing and all of a sudden this car stops sideways at the flag stand and gets drilled right in the foot box.”
The driver was seriously injured, the extrication took a long time and the teenager wondered what he’d got himself into.
“I’m starting last in the heat,” Bickle continued. “They drop the green and they drove away from me, and about two laps later I was like, ‘you can do better than this,’ and I started catching the field. I passed three, four cars and missed making the feature by one spot.
“The next day I had the semi won and he had a ’71 Camaro, I think it was, with a Ford hood scoop on, the bolts fell off one side of the hood scoop and it was flopping away. They black flagged me. I was checked out, long gone. Went from scared to death to thinking, ah, hell, you can do this.”
And so Bickle was on his way to becoming one of the most prolific Super Late Model winners nationally through the 1980s and ’90s, a suitable protege for his hero and mentor, Dick Trickle.
As the 59-year-old Bickle approaches the white flag on his career — after two semi-retirements, he has declared the 2021 Snowball Derby to be his final race — he finds himself back for Oktoberfest’s 51st edition at the five-eighths-mile LaCrosse track where he admittedly has spent more time partying than actually competing.
“I went up there to raise hell and drink beer,” Bickle said. “Raced all year, ran four, five nights a week and you were wore out. That was everybody’s weekend just to go.
“Then when Bryan (Reffner) won it, I said, well, shit, if he can win, I can win. And that’s not a dig to him. We won at Madison, ’85 and ’6 championship. We were getting fairly decent and thought, well, hell, let’s go try it.”
In 1985, Reffner became the first of a new generation to earn the title of Oktoberfest champion, joining the likes Trickle, Junior Hanley and Mark Martin and central Wisconsin stars such as his father, Tom Reffner, Joe Shear, Jim Back, Larry Detjens and Dave Watson.
Then Bickle won in ’86, his first time racing at the track since his debut eight years earlier.
Bickle does not know the precise number of short track races he won but has estimated it at 400-plus. At his peak he ran more than 130 times in one season, and in a stretch across 1989 and ’90 he won something like 50 features in 90 starts.
Bickle moved south from Wisconsin to try his hand in NASCAR and ran 218 races across the three national divisions in a career that lasted intermittently from 1989 to 2003. His three victories and a runner-up finish in the 1997 Truck Series standings and a fourth-place in Cup at Martinsville in 1998 were the highlights, and he returned to Wisconsin soured on the politics of the sport. (Bickle’s 2019 no-holds-barred biography, “Barnyard to Brickyard,” explains those feelings in detail.)
The time away further limited Bickle’s opportunities to race Oktoberfest. He’s done it only a handful of times with no memorable runs outside of the victory.
“That’s one of the places I really don’t get around worth a shit,” said Bickle, who tested at the track with T1 Racing and crew chief Tony D’Ambrose. “I don’t know what it is. (Turns) 3 and 4 I’ve got figured out, but 1 and 2, it’s like I’m lost.
“That’s funny because I’ve been to over 200 some racetracks. … This place just has something for me and we don’t see eye to eye. So it really did feel good to go there last week and to be actually really fast on old tires.”
Technology in the short track world during Bickle’s absence contributed to him being unable to match his earlier success. He also settled into a number of other business ventures, so racing was no longer vital to his survival the way it once was.
This season he has set fast time for a handful of races and run consistently well but has not won.
“We’ve had some incredibly great cars,” he said. “I’ve had crazy things happen over the years. But there was nobody in the same ZIP code as us at the Slinger Nationals, and the solenoid shorted out and drained the battery dead. I think I had four-tenths on the field there. I’m not saying one-tenth or two-tenths, I’m saying four-tenths.
“We had the race won the next time we went there and the damn distributor failed and I’m on seven cylinders. … It’d be different if it was back in the day when you had to use crap and all you had was $5, but everything we have now is brand new stuff. You just look at it and go, ‘Well …’ and shake your head keep going.”
That’s not something Bickle always did well — handling disappointment — but he has come to realize just how much luck played into his favor earlier in his career. These things, he said, tend to balance out.
A 200-lapper for the ARCA Midwest Tour headlines the 17 divisions competing in the Oktoberfest races. The track opened Wednesday, and the weekend will wrap up late Sunday afternoon.
In addition to his main event, Bickle will make his debut with the Dairyland Vintage Series, driving a replica of the late Trickle’s 1982 car.
After nearly 44 years of racing and with his exit already planned years ago, Bickle said he hasn’t had any sense of impending finality.
“It’s been such a long ride that I guess you don’t even pay attention to it,” he said. “I know it’s coming, and I’ve kinda semi-retired twice. … I’ve been doing this since I was a month old — at the racetrack — and racing’s been my whole life. Sometime it’s time to do something different. You don’t know how long you’ve got.”
It’s not all about the amount of time, though, but rather how well it’s used.
Bickle knows he can get the job done and he has the equipment to win another bunch of races before sails off on his end-of-career cruise.
“Maybe all the bad luck is getting out of our way this year and next year will be incredible,” Bickle said. “Like i said earlier in the year, I’d like to win 10 more races before it’s over, but if we do what we’re (planning) to do next year, we might have a chance of doing it.”