Three generations of Bicketts hit speedway

THREE BICKETTS were in the infield at I-90 Speedway on Saturday night to battle sprint car drivers in a pair of classes. Pictured are (left) Ryan, Don and Dillon Bickett.

It seems like interest and skills in sports tend to run in families. That's especially true in auto racing. Take the Bicketts of Ramona. There have been dozens of father-son combinations in local auto racing circles, but three generations?

On the night of June 12 at I-90 Speedway near Hartford, fans had the rare privilege of seeing three family members in sprint car competition. Don Bickett, his son Ryan and his grandson Dillon were all racing. At one point in the program, all three aboard sprint cars toured the oval three abreast while fans cheered.

"It brought tears to my eyes," said Don's wife Melba, surrounded by family and friends in the grandstand.

It was actually Don's father who unwittingly launched the Bickett racing dynasty. A little speedway was carved out of a pasture and slough area a few miles southeast of Madison. Built by farmers, John Morrell workers and others during the fall of 1959, the high-banked and very fast 3/8ths-mile speedway initially called Interlakes Speedway held its first race before some 3,000 people. The late Harold Petree of Sioux Falls won the inaugural race. Fifty-one drivers competed at the track that first year.

"As a youngster, we seldom missed a race at Lake County Speedway," said Don.

He eventually became a pitman on a car owned by Steve Carmody. Carmody's regular driver decided to turn the driving chores over to somebody else. Carmody turned to Bickett and asked if he wanted to drive the stock car.

"I thought, why not?" smiled Don. Thus, the Bickett family race car driving tradition began.

Bickett built his own car in 1979 and throughout the '80s he and the Orange Peeler was soon a frequent visitor to victory lane. The car was painted orange and numbered 17. Don was a two-time stock car champion at the Madison oval. The number 17 has continued to be displayed on all of the Bickett-chauffered cars.

When son Ryan became of legal age to drive, there was little doubt about his chosen profession. But driving stock cars wasn't what he wanted to do. He wanted to climb aboard the fast and dangerous sprint cars.

"Maybe it would have been better for him to start with the stock cars," said Don. "I really don't worry about him." He and the other family drivers leave the worrying to grandma.

Everyone in racing knows it can be a violent and dangerous sport. The women associated with the sport know it best of all. But Melba Bickett, like so many other women whose men drive race cars, takes it all in stride. Worry? Yes. But they almost always are very supportive of the sport.

Ryan's introduction to racing came when Don finally relented and let his young son hot-lap his stock car. That's all it took. Ryan today is a traveling professional sprint car driver with the national Lucas Oil ASCS Touring Series, an organization that tours throughout the country, going from track to track.

Due to rain-outs, the series has only run about nine races this season and Ryan was still looking for his first win, which came last Saturday night at Hartford when he bested 22 of the top sprint car drivers in the region to win the feature race. Ryan is listed eighth in the national standings.

"Ever since I hot-lapped the sprint car of fellow Ramona driver Joe Riedel, it had to be sprint cars," smiled Ryan.

How is his season going so far? "Well, good and bad," said the personable sprint car pilot. "The good could have been better, but the bad hasn't been so awful, either."

He has turned into a smooth and very fast driver. His best years are yet to come. Who knows? Maybe the next step will be the elite World of Outlaws.

Then there is the youngest driving Bickett, Dillon.

"I always wanted to do it (drive sprint cars)," he said. Of course. He is a Bickett. Like his uncle Ryan, "I didn't really want to drive the stock cars. I wanted to go faster."

At just 18, the Madison High School football and basketball player is eager to spend the summers flying around a race track.

"Grandpa (Don) is helping me," he said. "Driving a sprint car can be a little nerve-racking, but I like it."

Dillon liked it so much that on this night all three Bicketts drove, he led his feature race for nine laps before the older, more experienced drivers caught up and passed him. Dillon finished ninth in the 305 winged sprints.

"I hope someday to be as good or better than Ryan," he smiled. That competitive spirit is there, even among family members.

"You've got to have knowledge and skill to win, and that takes time," said Dillon, a practical thinker. "Of course, I'd like to make a career out of racing, maybe even moving up to the World of Outlaws someday."

What does it take to "move up" in this sport? It takes knowledge of how to build, set up and drive the car. It takes money -- a lot of it. Auto racing is unique in this respect, because it just isn't a one-man effort; it takes a team -- mechanic, sponsors, pit helpers, etc.

And it can be dangerous. Although rare, accidents do happen and when they do, they are often violent. Hitting a cement wall or going airborne at 120 mph separates the men from the boys. That's why there are very few young men and women willing to tackle the demanding sport of auto racing.

But look out for the Bicketts. They are dedicated and determined to be racers.