The start of every racing season brings hope, nerves and giddy anticipation. In the 1989 movie Major League, radio announcer Harry Doyle, played by Bob Uecker, said as the Cleveland Indians went to bat in their season-opener, “A lot of people say you can tell how the season’s going to go by the first hitter of the year.”
If that analogy rings true in Sprint Car racing, Ryan Bickett was in for a long season in 2016. The Ramona, S.D. native pulled into Badlands Motor Speedway last May in hopes for a great run at the season-opening Silver Shootout. He had hoped to collect as many 10-ounce silver bars as possible, and he was primed to make a run.
He finished third in the 410 Sprint Car championship point standings in 2015 and his goals were high entering the 2016 season. He passed on some earlier races in the area, and the Silver Shootout on May 21 last year was his first race of the season.
But things could not have gone worse for Bickett and crew as they fired the No. 17B Sprint Car for the first time. As Bickett roared the car to life prior to hot laps to get heat in the engine, something was clearly wrong. The team had picked the car up from getting lettered earlier in the day, and started it for the first time in the BMS infield just hours before the start of the Silver Shootout.
“I could turn the car left with ease with my pinky finger,” Bickett said. “But it wouldn’t turn right for anything. I used both arms, and the biggest guy on our team reached into the side of the car and grabbed the wheel, too. It just wouldn’t turn right.”
The team was suffering from a steering gear problem and the car wasn’t getting the power steering that it needed. Time was an issue and with the start time nearing, the thought of hot lapping the disabled car was a risky move at best.
“Yea, that was not cool,” Bickett said with a chuckle. “And no, I don’t work out.”
Following hot laps, Bickett stood next to the car with beads of sweat and a look of concern covering his face. Clearly, the pre-season hopes were fading.
But as it is in racing, a competitor came to his aide. Fellow Sprint Car driver Troy Schreurs approached Bickett and offered to help replace the ailing steering gear. It’s a fairly quick remedy, and with the help of Schreurs, the team was able to make the adjustment before qualifying.
Bickett qualified 20th out of the 47-car field, and it looked like they had solved their problems before racing had begun. He started outside of the front row in the fifth heat race of the night, and again, his confidence and goals were high.
But as Bickett punched the throttle going down the backstretch to catch the rest of the starting field to form the traditional side-by-side starting grid, he knew something was wrong…again. While changing the steering gear, the team had knocked a fuel line loose, and Bickett’s fire-retardant uniform was soaked in fuel from the knees down.
He pulled the car into the work area, the team fixed the problem before the heat race started, but Bickett was now forced to start in the back, where he stayed. He finished ninth in the heat race, putting him in the 21st starting position for the B-Feature. At the end of the heat races, he was 43rd out of 47 cars, and the 2016 season looked to get started with a thud.
That’s when the biggest move of the season started. Bickett started dead last in the B-Main, but his charge to the front was memorable. There was a lot on the line as $100,000 in Silver Bars was up for grabs, but there was the thought process of not running the B at all. It was a brand new car, and Bickett’s girlfriend, Emily Bruns, wanted to be sure it was the right move.
“She asked me if I thought it was a good idea,” Bickett said. “I told her I was at least going to finish fourth, or you’re going to be pulling me out of the fence. At that point, I could have cared less.”
It was clearly the right move, as Bickett made quick work of the rest of the B Feature field. He passed 17 cars and charged to fourth place, moving him to the last row of the A-Feature, which paid just over $28,000 to win.
“I wasn’t able to look. We were going at such a fast pace out there,” Bickett said when asked if he knew he finished fourth by looking at the massive video boards on the backstretch throughout the race. “When I came around after the checkered flag, I finally got to look at the video boards and I saw the car in front of me was third. That’s when I knew I made it.”
From 21st to fourth…a solid outing indeed. But little did anyone in the BMS crowd expect what was next. After changing a left rear tire and some gearing between the B Feature and A Feature, Bickett started 24th in the main event, again dead last, but he had the 17B tuned for an historical run.
There was a battle up front as Mark Dobmeier eventually took the top spot from pole-sitter Terry McCarl. Dobmeier started seventh, and clearly all eyes were on the Grand Forks, N.D. native when he passed McCarl for the lead. Who could blame them? The two have combined for 14 track championships at BMS.
But while eyeballs were stuck up front, few saw the charge Bickett was making. Bickett went from a steering issue that Hercules couldn’t have solved, to breaking a fuel line and finishing last in his heat race soaked in fuel, to starting last in the B-Main. But here he was, now battling for a Top 10 finish with just a few laps remaining.
Bickett broke a rocker shaft with two laps to go in the A Feature, or he might have easily finished higher. But in the end, he passed 29 cars over the two Feature events, finishing 12th in the A-Main
“That’s when you experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, all in one single night,” he said. “It was a little luck with a little bit of skill. It was racing to a T. You need a little bit of luck to go with what you’re doing. Cars were just parting ways for me.”
Bickett will be back in 2017, with the same 17B, the same paint scheme, and the same desire to make a run at the Silver. If his 2016 performance is an indicator, Bickett will no doubt be in the mix on May 13.
“I’ve never had a night like before. That was tough field. The 47 cars that were there were all good cars,” Bickett said. “That gives a guy a good confidence boost. To be able to drive up threw there gives you motivation. It doesn’t matter where you start, if you’re fast and you’re in the top 24, you can win. Anything can happen at that place. You gotta do your best and have some luck.”
Discounted tickets for the Folkens Brothers $100,000 Silver Shootout – and all six races in 2017 – are on sale now at badlandsmotorspeedway.com, or at the Badlands Gun Range on Russell Street in Sioux Falls. The Silver Shootout is $27.50 in advance and $35 the day of the show.