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May 17, 2013

Dick Trickle, a stock-car driver whose larger-than-life personality and penchant for fun won him legions of fans despite a lack of success beyond the nation’s small tracks, died May 16 of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said. He was 71.

The Lincoln County (N.C.) Sheriff’s Office received a call believed to be from Mr. Trickle, who said that “there would be a dead body and it would be his.” Authorities tried to call the number back, but no one answered.

Mr. Trickle’s body was found near his pickup truck at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Boger City, N.C., about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte. Sheriff’s Lt. Tim Johnson said foul play was not suspected.

Mr. Trickle was a unique driver with a unique name who enjoyed a cult-like status before his death. He earned a reputation as a successful short-track driver before joining the Winston Cup Series (now the Sprint Cup) and being named rookie of the year in 1989 at age 48.

He competed in more than 300 Cup races. Although he never won a Cup race and had only two Busch Series victories, Mr. Trickle gained a cult following in the 1990s.

On ESPN’s “Sports Center,” anchors Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick would regularly mention where Mr. Trickle finished in each NASCAR race. It caught on and drew snickers from race fans around the country.

Mr. Trickle was never one to be told how to live his life.

There is a lasting image of him in the Winston 500 lighting up a cigarette while driving his stock car with his knees during a caution lap. He places the cigarette through a hole he carved in his helmet for a quick toke and exhales.

The green flag hits, and out the window goes the cigarette butt and back to racing goes Mr. Trickle.

“Dick always had a cigarette lighter in his car,” said retired NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine.

NASCAR does not keep track of short-track records, but according to the (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel, Mr. Trickle won more than 1,000 short-track races throughout the country during his prime. He was a seven-time winner in the regional ARTGO Challenge Series in the 1970s and ’80s and captured the ASA AC-Delco Challenge Series in 1984 and 1985 before turning to Cup racing.

“Dick Trickle was one of the best race drivers of the ’80s,” said Humpy Wheeler, former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “He was a product of the rich Wisconsin soil, where they race eight races a week in the season, and he could win all of them.”

Wheeler said that he asked Mr. Trickle to try NASCAR in the 1980s but that he initially declined because he was so successful on the short-track circuit.

“For a guy who really won at least 700 races, I could see why,” Wheeler recalled. “In those days, unless you were a top Cup driver, you couldn’t win enough money to over­compensate for that.”

Mr. Trickle eventually did move to NASCAR, settling into Iron Station, N.C., where he lived for more than 20 years. Bodine said that Trickle was full of stories and popular because of it.

“People everywhere knew his name,” Bodine said. “That’s why they used his likeness in that movie ‘Days of Thunder.’ He was such a character.”

The main character in that popular racing movie, played by Tom Cruise, was named Cole Trickle.

Bodine recalled inviting Mr. Trickle to compete in a bobsled event in 2004 at Lake Placid, N.Y.

He said Mr. Trickle went down the first time and crashed. After being cleared by doctors to continue, he tried again and crashed in the same place.

“They were doing interviews with him on TV, and he was like, ‘I don’t know what happened, I did the exact same thing I did the first time,’  ” Bodine said. “And we’re all looking at him like, ‘Hey Dick, maybe that was the problem.’ ”

— Associated Press

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