Bickle not part of ‘DW’ fan club
MADISON—In the rare instances when Rich Bickle catches a NASCAR race on television, it’s usually with the sound off.
It’s not the roaring engines he’s avoiding; it’s a voice coming from the broadcast booth. The voice belongs to Darrell Waltrip, current FOX NASCAR analyst, three-time Cup Series champion and the man Bickle says started the downfall of his NASCAR career.
While Waltrip was still wearing a fire suit at the race track rather than a suit and tie, he was an owner-driver in the Cup Series and owned a Craftsman Truck Series entry. In 1996, Bickle was driving Richard Petty’s CTS Dodge, as the manufacturer returned to NASCAR with a fledgling engine program.
While he was driving for a hero of his, Bickle knew a truck title would require a change in race teams. He chose the Petty ride over an offer to drive Waltrip’s truck, which was unsponsored before that season, but secured funding for the following year.
“We knew Rich was a perfect fit for the truck,” Waltrip said. “He could drive a short track with the best of anyone. If you take him to a bullring, he’s the man.”
So when Waltrip reoffered the ride to Bickle a year later, the difficult decision was made to leave Petty and challenge for the title in Waltrip’s Chevrolet. Bickle says that decision was probably his downfall.
“It bothered me to leave Richard. He’s just a great man,” Bickle said. “DW’s engine program was good, way better than Dodge. Looking back, it was stupid.”
At the time, however, it seemed quite savvy. Bickle earned back-to-back wins at Portland and Evergreen in early May, giving him the points lead over Jack Sprague. The two traded the position throughout the spring and summer.
“We were killing it in the truck deal,” Bickle said. “We were winning races and poles, and on my birthday—May 13, 1997—I signed a contract to drive in the Cup Series for (Waltrip).
“We had sponsor deals and he was touting me as his future Cup driver. He’d run 15 races and I’d run the others in the first year (1998), and I’d drive full-time in 1999.”
Waltrip decided to field a car for Bickle in that year’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Bickle qualified 10th, six spots behind Waltrip, and he was running well early in the race. But a hard crash—with seven laps remaining and while running in the top 10—left him with a 34th-place finish.
Waltrip said that crash was detrimental not only to Bickle’s finishing spot that day, but also to their CTS effort. However, results from truck races immediately following the crash kept Bickle in the championship hunt.
With three races remaining, Bickle trailed Sprague by 56 points, making both he and Waltrip confident they could win the series title. But Bickle’s enthusiasm toward a full-time Cup ride the following season was premature planning to Waltrip, who says he wanted to build a multi-car team with Bickle as the first component.
“(Bickle) wanted to make it to Cup, and our desire was to help him do that,” Waltrip said. “I was an owner-driver and kind of wanted to put together a second car and bring along another driver. Sooner or later I was going to retire, and I wanted a program with a second team with a driver like Rich.”
However, the team struggled in the final three races and finished 232 points behind Sprague.
“(Waltrip) refused to rebuild the engines at the end of the year because the sponsors for next year all wanted me in the Cup car and his ego wouldn’t let him get out of the car,” Bickle said. “We blew up and lost the championship. I was doing all his testing, and we were winning races. The only way to get at me was to screw me over and sabotage me.”
Waltrip says he wanted Bickle to win the title and that being a former driver, he understands that the driver often draws a different conclusion than the owner does.
“I think it’s the driver in Rich that wants to believe something like that,” Waltrip said. “Drivers always have their own opinion when something goes wrong. The motor wasn’t good—that’s the driver mentality. I’ve been down that road.”
He said the Cup ride didn’t materialize due to the lack of sponsorship and resources, and Bickle’s resume wasn’t yet matching his ambition. Waltrip wanted Bickle to continue driving his CTS entry the following season, but Bickle wanted out. His departure was a major setback for Waltrip’s operation.
“Rich’s whole thing, his dream and his goal, was to be in Cup and get off the short tracks,” Waltrip said. “He wanted to make it, and it was our desire to help him to that. At the end of the truck season, he didn’t want to drive the truck anymore. But he didn’t have the credentials yet to run in Cup.
“We’d invested in Rich
and when he left, the sponsor
didn’t want to come back,
and that put us in a bind.”
Bickle did get to the Cup Series the following year, but not for Waltrip. He was signed in April by Cale Yarborough’s team, replacing Greg Sacks after he crashed at Texas Motor Speedway and did not return to the team.
Waltrip later sold his CTS and Cup teams, which suffered a financial hit early in the 1998 season.
“When we lost Rich, we lost a very important part of the program, and I went through some tough times with that race team,” Waltrip said. “I was trying to survive myself and help (Bickle) in the process. I needed somebody to work with me, but that’s not the way it went, and I hate that it didn’t work well for him and went worse for us.”
Common ground between Bickle and Waltrip is found in their mutual respect for what the other was able to accomplish on the race track. Personal feelings aside, they agree there was potential in a combination of legends from NASCAR and the country’s short tracks.
Bickle says there’s “no doubt Waltrip was one of the greats” in NASCAR and Waltrip views Bickle as a short-track ace whom he would have liked to employ longer.
“I’m not a Bickle-basher. He was a great short-track driver and had a ton of potential,” Waltrip said. “I only regret we didn’t have more of a chance to work with him.”
This is the latest installment of freelance writer Troy A. Bruzewski’s series that chronicles what Edgerton driver Rich Bickle says will be his final season.