(Editor’s Note: Parts of this story are from an earlier publication on Speed51.com.)
Every race has a king. The Daytona 500 has Richard Petty, the Indianapolis 500 has AJ Foyt and the Snowball Derby has Rich Bickle, Jr.
The Edgerton, Wisconsin driver might be widely known for his limited success in the NASCAR top-three series, but there is so much more to his legacy in the short track world. Bickle tasted victory not once, twice, or even three times, but a record five times in the Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida.
“To win the Derby five times in 10 starts is amazing,” Bickle said. “We had a lot of good cars and a lot of good luck down there in Pensacola. I can honestly say I don’t think that it will ever happen again. The competition is so tough getting one win is hard enough, let alone five.”
In fact, Bickle’s Derby record is hands down unrealistic. In 11 Derby starts, he had five wins and seven podium finishes. In additions to his wins in 1990, 1991, 1996, 1998 and 1999, he also scored runner-up finishes in 1989 and 2002.
“I don’t think we appreciated what we were seeing with Bickle in the 90s,” said Five Flags Speedway Promoter Tim Bryant, who was a driver at the time. “It’s very much like Jimmie Johnson in the Cup series. He made it seem easy. He expected to win. How he did that? We’d like to know.”
Although he won three NASCAR Camping World Truck Series races at Evergreen, Portland and Martinsville (incidentally all on short tracks), he remembers the Derby as the best years and best triumphs of his career.
“I tell a lot of people that I am happy of what I accomplished in my NASCAR career, but I am truly proud of what I did in my short track career,” Bickle stated.
Anyone who has raced the Snowball Derby has plenty of stories to tell, so you can only imagine the wealth of information a five-time winner of the race has. Bickle can reflect on each Snowball Derby victory when he looks over the Tom Dawson trophies in his trophy case.
“We had to take the hood off one year and everyone thought that was our secret, but it actually made the car worse with down force. All the wins were unique, but I remember losing to Rick Crawford by half-a-car length in 1989 and then having the V6 that lapped the field (in 1992) and we blew up. You tend to remember the ones you lose over the ones you win.”
His success even turned into some jealousy from other drivers who waited years before they won the trophy.
“Rich came down here with a real laid back attitude and won four or five of these things and made us all look like idiots,” said 2005 Snowball Derby Champion Eddie Mercer.
Bickle will make his return to the Snowball Derby for the 50th running of the race this year. Race fans can watch him go for a record sixth Derby victory via a live, television-style broadcast on Speed51.com.
Bickle’s Derby History
1989 – Bickle ran his first Derby only to finish second by half a car length to Rick Crawford.
1990 – Bickle wins his first Snowball Derby in only his second start.
1991 – Bickle pockets $8,500 and becomes the first driver to win back-to-back Derby’s
1992 – Engine trouble ends Bickle Derby bid and he finishes 36th.
1993 – Rich Bickle Finishes Third, his fourth podium in five starts.
1994 – Bickle does not run the Derby.
1995 – Bickle leads laps and finishes eighth.
1996 – From the pole, Bickle wins the race with no hood after an early wreck
1997 – Bickle get’s taken out in a wreck, finishes 24th.
1998 – Bickle takes the lead with two laps to go and wins again with no hood.
1999 – Bickle is awarded the $100,00 bonus and the win after Bobby Gill was found to be a lap down.
2000 – Bickle misses Derby due to a points battle elsewhere in racing.
2002 – Bickle returns for his final Derby to date and finished second to Ricky Turner.
2017 – ???
By Elgin Traylor, Speed51.com Southeast Correspondent