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Concord, N.C. - Dick Trickle, a former NASCAR 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 Thursday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said. He was 71.
The Lincoln County Sheriff's Office said authorities received a call believed to be from Trickle, who said "there would be a dead body and it would be his." Authorities tried to call the number back, but no one answered.
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 Lieutenant Tim Johnson said foul play was not suspected.
Trickle earned his reputation as a successful short track driver before joining the Winston Cup series and earning 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 won just two Busch Series races, Trickle earned cult status. Former ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann would regularly mention where Trickle finished after each NASCAR race. Former NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine said there was only one way to describe Trickle, a native of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis.
"Fun," Bodine said. "Just plain fun."
Trickle was never one to be told how to live his life. He was known for cutting a hole in his racing helmet so he could have a smoke break when the caution flags flew.
"He always kept a cigarette lighter in his car," Bodine said in a telephone interview. "It's all just sad. We don't understand why he would do this. Hopefully we will all learn why he would do that. There was something that triggered him to take his own life. We are all really saddened by this in the racing community."
NASCAR does not keep track of short-track records, but according to the (Milwaukee) Journal-Sentinel, 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 late 1970s and mid "80s. Trickle also captured the ASA AC-Delco Challenge Series in back-to-back years in 1984-85 before turning to Cup racing.
Trickle lived in Iron Station, N.C., for more than 20 years. Bodine said 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 niche racing movie, played by Tom Cruise, was named Cole Trickle.
Bodine said that a few years ago he had to back out of a celebrity cruise for patients who were on kidney dialysis. He asked Trickle to fill in.
"He made such an impression on people on that ship that everyone wanted to know when Dick was coming back," Bodine said. "They loved him. They tell me he was the last man to leave most of the bars on the ship and I believe it."
Bodine also recalled inviting Trickle to compete in one of his bobsled events in 2004 at Lake Placid, N.Y.
He said Trickle went down the first time and crashed. After being cleared by doctors to continue, Trickle 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."