WEST SALEM — In his low, almost gravel-tone voice, you can almost hear him say, “This boy needs a ride. Give him a darn ride.”
OK, so Trickle would have used another word than “darn,” but you get the picture.
Dick Trickle wasn’t at Friday night’s 44th annual running of the Oktoberfest Race Weekend, but if he would have been at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway instead of unbuckling from his heavenly stock car, you knew he would say it. You just knew it.
He would have approved of the low-budget Erik Darnell winning a race in his namesake and would have done what he could to help him out.
Darnell, a talented driver from Park City, Ill., has two Camping World Truck Series victories. In case you are not familiar with the Trucks, it’s the third-highest racing series in the nation being Sprint Cup and Nationwide. He’s also done well in a number of other regional series.
In other words, this guy’s good.
He proved that Friday night, winning the Dick Trickle 99 with a fast car, a fast mind and a pit crew that helped him put the No. 7 car in a spot to win in what has become the most popular race during the four-day Oktoberfest Race Weekend. Darnell finished second behind current Truck Series driver Johnny Sauter in the opening 33-lap segment, took seventh in the second segment, then finished second to Ty Majeski in the third.
This is where the math comes into play. Fans and drivers alike are busy adding numbers in their heads throughout each of the three segments, as an overall champion is determined by adding each driver’s finishes. And in this race, just like golf, the lowest score wins. In Darnell’s case, that’s 2 plus 7 plus 2, or 11 total points. That was just three points less than Nathan Haseleu of Pardeeville, Wis., and four less than Majeski, who won the second and third segments, but was knocked out of the running by a 13th-place opening segment.
“It is a fun race that is not your normal 100 lapper. It is not just 100 laps and go. It is kind of unique and fun,” Darnell said. “You do have to calculate what you need to do. ‘OK, this guy is ahead of me, this guy is behind me.’ ‘We are good in points, we are not good in points.’ It puts a unique twist on it, it’s a lot of fun.”
It was just the third race of the season for Darnell, who would love to race more — and certainly has the talent to do well — but it comes down to money and sponsors at the national level. It takes talent, it takes money and it takes sponsors to sit behind the wheel of a big-time race car or truck. Right now, Darnell simply doesn’t have the deep pockets or sponsors to race on a national series.
This is where Trickle, who died in May, would have piped up and said, “Give this boy a ride. He deserves a chance.” Trickle, if you recall, didn’t have deep pockets or sponsors either, which is why it took him until he was 48 years old before he broke into what was then Winston Cup.
“I am staying down South to keep my name in the hat to get back in a car or something along the line. It is just tough right now not having any sponsorship dollars. If you’ve got money, you can go race, and if you don’t, it’s tough to get in right now or get back in,” Darnell said.
“It gets to the point where (winning) doesn’t really matter anymore. It is not just me that is not driving. There are a lot of talented guys that are not doing it anymore because of funding. The honest truth is it is expensive to do it.
“It is a very expensive sport and I understand the car owner’s position when they got somebody that brings money because that keeps their doors open, it keeps people employed. It sucks for guys like me. That is the way it is right now, so I have to deal with it.“
So Darnell returned to Illinois, then to Wisconsin, to run a car that is owned by his father and grandfather. Trickle would have no doubt approved handing the cheese block-shaped trophy to Darnell. Darnell’s grandfather, Bay Darnell, raced against Trickle years ago regionally and nationally.
“My grandfather was really good friends with Dick. They did a lot of racing together, did a lot of partying together, and he used to always tell me all kinds of Dick Trickle stories and what fun he had with Dick and what a good guy he was,” Darnell said.
“Everybody is a Dick Trickle fan, I don’t care who you are. The guy is a racer, he is a legend. I have been up on that stage before at the end of this race and Dick hands us the trophy. It is a little different with him not handing us the trophy. It is a little disappointing. I do feel pretty honored to win the race in his honor.“
Majeski, an 18-year-old from Seymour, Wis., might very well have been holding the coveted Trickle 99 trophy if not for a bad first bad segment.
“The first segment we started seventh and running seventh and the caution came out and we must have run something over. We blew a right rear tire and had to come into the pits,” Majeski said. “We came back through the field and finished 13th. We got inverted to fourth (in the second segment) and ran away with the second segment.
“We started fourth in the third segment and ran away with that one, too. I think we might have had a shot at the overall if we wouldn’t have blown a right-rear tire. Stuff like that happens.
“We got what we could out of it. We, for sure, wanted to win the thing.”
Sauter, who was a late entry, ran away with the first segment, but his chances at the overall title took a huge hit when he had to pit with 11 laps remaining. He returned, but finished 18th, all but ending his chances despite a third-place third-segment finish.
Defending Trickle 99 champion Skylar Holzhausen — the last winner to personally accept the trophy from Trickle himself — finished fifth in the first segment, 10th in the second and ninth in the third for an ninth-place overall finish with 24 points. Holzhausen was running second in third segment until contact with Majeski on a restart shuffled him up the track and into what is known as “no-man’s land.”
Holzhausen was able to save his car and straighten it out, but the contact left his front fender wrapped around his tire. Needless to say, he wasn’t pleased.
“It sucks. We have been running all year long and not having any trouble with anybody and then all of a sudden out here with some driver we haven’t really seen on the tour all year, and can’t give me a clean start,” Holzhausen said. “He was pushing me up the race track into the debris, then he would just leave me. He would just turn left and stand on it. Well, I got my right (tires) all full of excess rubber, you are not going to go anywhere.”
Darnell hopes to go somewhere soon. Until then, he will keep racing Late Models like he will do Sunday in the final day of the Oktoberfest Race Weekend.
“I absolutely love Late Model racing, miss it, and I don’t get to do it as much as I like,” Darnell said. “This is, quite honestly, where it is fun again.”