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Baranek: Rich Bickle to drive in late-model class at Grundy County Speedway

Rich Bickle | Suppled photo

Rich Bickle | Suppled photo

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Updated: May 29, 2013 7:10AM



Get your motor runnin’, because it’s time to head out on the highway for the start of the 2013 campaign at both of our area asphalt short tracks.

Friday night (first race 8 p.m.), the three-eighths-mile Grundy County Speedway will conduct its 43rd season opener, while at 7 p.m. Saturday the half-mile Illiana Speedway celebrates its 66th birthday.

The biggest news, drivers-wise, is that Wisconsin short-track stalwart and former NASCAR competitor Rich Bickle will be competing full-time in the late-model class at Grundy.

Bickle, 51, is driving for Tony and Tammy Phillips, who owned the No. 16 car Pat Kelly piloted to his third career Grundy title in 2012.

Kelly said he’s getting out of the driver’s seat, at least for a while, to put a late-model together for his son, Nathan, who was the street stock titlist at Grundy last season.

Bickle’s greatest success came on Wisconsin short tracks, where he won championships at Slinger Super Speedway in 1983 and ’89, and at Madison Speedway in 1985 and ’86. He was well-known on the old ARTGO circuit, and over the years ran a couple of those events at Grundy.

Between 1989 and 2001, Bickle competed in 85 NASCAR Sprint Cup events, his highest finish a fourth at Martinsville in 1998. Bickle won three NASCAR Camping World Truck events in 1997.

He has more or less been a part-time short-track racer for the past several seasons, but struck it big in the fall by winning the National Short Track Championship at Rockford Speedway.

Bickle is treating the 2013 season as sort of a farewell tour, with several planned stops in his home state and along the ARCA circuit.

Fridays, however, are reserved for Grundy, where Bickle will be behind the wheel of the pink No. 45, in memory of well-known area car owners Tom and Karen Magnabosco, and Bickle’s mother, Jackie, who died last year of breast cancer.

“It sort of came out of nowhere,” Bickle said of the offer to drive for the Phillipses, which was arranged through a mutual friend, Kim Kemperman. “I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me. But I said, ‘Well, this is going to be my last year. I might as well go out with a bang.’

“This is going to be me going there to have some fun. You aren’t getting any drama from me,” Bickle added, laughing. “But if it all goes right, we’ll come out on top.”

It’s appears the late-model field at Grundy is going to be crowded, with Eddie Hoffman at the top of the contenders list.

“The plan? We never really have a plan,” Hoffman said, chuckling. “We’ll be at Grundy as usual in the Feece Oil car with Tony (D’Ambrose) taking care of everything.

“It looks like we’re going to miss a couple of nights at Grundy, but we’ve missed one or two before and were still able to win a championship.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if D.J. Weltmeyer comes into full bloom this season after taking several steps up the late-model ladder in 2012. We’re also hearing that Billy Knippenberg is gearing up for a full-time late-model run again, while Paul Shafer Jr., Ron Vandermeir Jr., David Einhaus, Anthony Danta and Shawn Wiltjer all plan on full-time Grundy late-model campaigns, and Ray Brackett is moving up from the Mid-Ams.

Mark Sontag Jr., who last year at age 16 won his first career late-model features at both Grundy and Illiana, but at times was perhaps a bit too precocious, is bringing a different game plan to the tracks this year.

“We were learning. We still are learning,” Sontag said. “I learned mostly (last year) that I need to save my car and tame my temper.

“Winning two (races) last year was awesome. I would love to win more this year. The best thing about winning was to actually see my dad happy and smiling.”

With Hoffman not planning on running on a regular basis at Illiana, that late-model crown will likely be up for grabs.

Weltmeyer was last year’s runner-up, while Shafer finished third ahead of veterans Bobby Gash, John Nutley and Dean Patterson.

This ’n that

Racing coverage this season will include stories on the Friday and Saturday events at Grundy and Illiana appearing online and in the next editions of the paper. The weekly local auto racing page will appear on Fridays. ... Steve Bechtel and Gary Onsen host an excellent online radio racing show at 8 p.m. Mondays on ShortTrackNewsRadio.com. ... Kankakee Speedway kicks off its dirt racing season May 3.



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