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Area loses racing legend in Bickerstaff

March 30, 2008
By KEN MARQUETTE Tribune Chronicle correspondent
Local racing legend Jim Bickerstaff died March 21. No other stock car driver from our area has ever won on as many race tracks on different surfaces since Warren Hall of Famer Mike Klaypack.

Hailing from Mineral Ridge, ‘‘Bick’’ won on dirt and asphalt from New York to Florida against all comers. Even non-race fans knew who Jim Bickerstaff was.

When I was growing up, my sports arenas were Canfield Speedway on Saturday nights and Sharon Speedway on Sundays. Local drivers battled each other and the track every week to see who was the best in the 60s on the 1/4 bull rings and later Sharon’s big half mile. My hero was ‘‘little Jimmy Bickerstaff’’ as some announcers would say. Bickerstaff always was the man to beat. He also ventured to several other race tracks and won races.

Then came the 70s, Canfield speedway closed and Sharon became a big paved half-mile asphalt speedway. Expo at Trumbull County Fairgrounds opened up the 5/8-mile speed plant. Over in Pennsylvania, the toughest track to win at was Heilderberg outside of Pittsburgh. Bickerstaff won at all of these race tracks along with track championships and taking the win in the most prestigous races.

Bickerstaff started racing in 1949, driving a 1936 Plymouth that was built complete for $150. The first track he competed at was Southington (Ohio) Speedway. The car lasted two seasons, the next four were spent in the service station in Japan. In 1955 he returned to racing. Warren and NASCAR champion Mike Klaypack was a big help in starting his racing career off in right direction, even buying a car from Klaypack to race with.

The rest is history. Bickerstaff won the Ohio State 500, five different 100-lap races at five different tracks in a row. He became the first driver ever to win two 150s at Heidelberg Speedway and the track championship in the same year. He also won the season-ending 250 against the best drivers on the east coast. He has been inducted to the Pittsburgh Auto Racing Hall Of Fame as well as Lorain Speedway’s Hall of Fame and the Twin State Auto Racing Hall of Fame. He won the Glass City 200 at Toledo Speedway, the Steel Valley 200 at Sharon, owns track championships at Cloverleaf, Canfield, Sharon and Heidelberg. Trenton, Charlotte and Pocono also were race tracks where he competed, along with a short stint in NASCAR Modifies were he also ran with the best. One of Bickerstaff’s proudest moments was beating Bobby Allison, the 1978 Daytona 500 winner, two years in a row at Midvale Speedway, south of Canton. The third year they both crashed out.

Bickerstaff continued to drive and win until around the early 80s. He was my hero for a lot of years of my life. Every time I went to a race track, if Jimmy Bickerstaff was there, the races that night were going to be better.

Thanks for the memories, Jimmy.

This past year was tough on old-time racers. First, Emmitt Reihard of Mineral Ridge (No. 12), who drove Fords to a lot of wins, left us last year followed by Bud Wilhelm (No. 77), a long-time tough driver who has a million racing stories. Next was Bob Blaney, ‘‘The Hartford Flash,’’ (No. 10) who won many races until his racing career was cut short due to a racing accident. John Martin of Girard was lost to us this past December, a winning driver who was better know for building winning cars. These were the guys I grew up watching race.


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