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PETE BICKNELL GOING INTO DIRT MOTORSPORTS HALL OF FAME

BY DAVE ROBERTS

 

 

     When Pete Bicknell first got into a stock car in 1973, he never thought about what type of success he would have...both inside and outside of the cockpit.

     Bicknell, 56 of St. Catharines, Ontario, has been nothing short of spectacular through his long racing career, which will continue on for the 2012 season.

     Pete will take his 2012 election into the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame as a sign that his life in racing has been much better than he would ever have dreamed of.

     "I never even though of these things when I started racing," said Bicknell in a recent telephone interview. "All I really wanted to do is race. Going into the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame is a great honor. There are a lot of great drivers and individuals in there."

     To most of us, there was never any doubt. The surprise might've been that he's headed into the Hall while he's still an active driver. With the age 55 and over rule installed by DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame executives, he was a sure fit. Few of the current DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame members did make the list while as an active driver.

     When Pete begins the 2012 season, it will be his 40th season as a competitive racer.

     "Never really thought I'd do 40 years," laughs Bicknell. "The time passes so quickly. I've had a lot of success."

     That might be a serious understatement. Pete has three DIRTcar 358 Modified championships. Three Syracuse Super DIRT Week 358 Modified Championship as well as a pair of 320 Modified wins in the early 1980 at the Syracuse "Moody" mile.

      Locally in the Western New York/Southern Ontario region, he'll be remembered as the most successful racer of his time. Merrittville Speedway (21 championships); Ransomville Speedway (11 championships); Humberstone Speedway (10 championships) and at Weedsport Speedway where he picked up a 358 Modified title. Pete has surpassed 430 career modified wins.

      It's unlikely that any local racer will ever surpass what Pete has accomplished.

      In addition to that, Pete has become one of the more accomplished car fabricators in North America. With shops in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, NY and North Carolina, Bicknell Racing Products has been able to reach out to all forms of auto racing. The Bicknell Race Cars are sold all over the northeast and even go as far as Australia and if that's not enough, Pete and co-owner Randy Williamson purchased Merrittville Speedway in 2003...which they still own to this day.

      Up until he got into a Late Model in 1973, Pete and his brother Art were consistent followers of the Merrittville Speedway.

      Pete's first racing experience was at a young age with go-karts.

      When Pete first started racing stock cars, he made his living as a local mechanic. While his first four years in racing were in a Late Model, he moved into a modified in 1977. At that point, the Late Models were showing lower counts and were dropped from the area in 1978. Bicknell's first of many championships came in the 1970's when he was the Humberstone titlist. Humberstone was non-DIRT sanctioned until 1981. In 1980, he beat a stellar field at Ransomville Speedway for his first championship here. Bicknell did the trick with a 320ci motor under the hood and showed that consistency was the best was to win a title as he did the trick without a feature victory.

      "At that time, we were allowed to use those drag tires with the smaller motor. That was the difference."

      Pete also took his show on the road winning twice in 1981 and 1982 at Syracuse when the 320 event was only 20 and 30 laps in length. He was also starting to be a regular competitor with DIRT and it's traveling small block series events and continued to travel up until last season when a back injury stopped the St. Catharines racing star from his racing chores just after Labor Day Weekend. It would also be the first time that Bicknell would miss Syracuse in better than 30 years.

      Winning 21 championships at one track is just amazing. His first at Merrittville Speedway was in 1984. It sparked a seven year run through 1990 where he would take home the track's top prize. He again started up a five year run beginning in 1993 until 1997. He was virtually unbeatable at his "home track" and ran the place as he "owned" it...so to speak. At Ransomville Speedway, Pete had a streak of three in a row from 1990-1992.

      His success at Syracuse started up again in 1998 when he would win his first of three straight at the Syracuse Mile during Super DIRT Week. While Bicknell was well known for his high rate of success to that point on the racing surface, the Syracuse wins provided a large stage and he took full advantage of the opportunity.  

      The one thing Pete didn't ever expect to do was own a race track and when the opportunity existed it happened very quickly.

      Following the 2002 season, Merrittville Speedway was up for sale. An outside interest was ready to purchase the property but admitted that it would be given three years to make a profit. If it didn't, it might become something other than a Saturday night stop for the local race cars. This was a frightening thought to Southern Ontario race drivers and fans. When the outside interest couldn't come up with the dollars to buy Merrittville Speedway, Pete and Randy Williamson stepped right in to make sure that local racing was to stay in place for many years to come at Merrittville Speedway. Immediate improvements to the facility were made. The facility is a real showcase to local racing fans and one of the biggest entertainment fixtures in St. Catharines.

      Pete's family is heaving involved in the business as well. Pete's wife Nancy is busy with the track's fabrication and parts business as well as the race track. In fact, it was Pete who took Nancy to Merrittville for their first date. His oldest daughter Erica is Merrittville Speedway's General Manager and has done a fantastic job in that position since they took over the track in 2003. Pete's two other daughters Kristen and Darlene are also involved at the race track

      Starting the 2011 season, Pete was ready to make a full run at the Mr. DIRTcar 358 Modified Championship. Unfortunately, a back injury kept him at his local weekend stops of Ransomville and Merrittville Speedway. Despite spending much of the season in pain, Pete never missed a night at either track. He won the Merrittville title while finishing third at Ransomville, despite having the opportunity to win the championship on the final night.

      Pete will continue his effort at both Ransomville and Merrittville. However, he'll run just selected series events that are close to home.

      In addition to his election to the DIRT Motorsports Hall of Fame, he's also a member of the Canadian Racing Hall of Fame and the St. Catharines Sports Hall of Fame.

      While he continues to compete and build race cars, Pete Bicknell is already a legend in the sport of short track racing. Giving us all a show and imforming the younger drivers out there that he can still whip a race car around the race track.

      I hope those watching are also paying attention and learning as well.

 

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Pennsy’s Dianne Tobias to be Honored at HoF Ceremonies

By Buffy Swanson


Fabricator, mechanic, technical inspector, race car driver—Pennsylvania native Dianne Tobias has worn all these hats and more during the past 35 years. And because of her notable accomplishments in the “man’s man” world of dirt track racing, she will be recognized as a recipient of the annual Gater Racing News Outstanding Woman in Racing award during the 2012 DIRTcar Northeast Modified Hall of Fame ceremonies, Sunday, May 27 on the Cayuga County (NY) Fairgrounds.

The daughter-in-law of bigger-than-life legend Dick “Toby” Tobias and wife of the late, great Ronnie Tobias, Dianne admits she had no prior knowledge of oval track racing when she met her future husband in 1973.

“My friends and I used to go to the drags at Maple Grove back then. We called the guys who ran stock cars at Reading ‘dizzies,’” she recalled. “Then I started going to Reading with Ron and his dad. Toby had a big pit crew so I didn’t really help in the beginning. I got into it after Ronnie and I were married (in September 1977). Ronnie was a big help; he explained how everything worked. And it just came easy to me. I loved what I was doing.”

Dianne’s newfound love for the sport was sorely put to the test less than nine months later when Dick Tobias was killed in a USAC race at Flemington. It was Toby’s sudden death that thrust daughter-in-law Dianne into the back room and the fabricating end of the Tobias Speed Shop family business.

“With Toby gone, we felt we had to group together and get the whole family involved in the business,” she explained. “They really needed help in the machine shop, so that’s where I wound up. Ronnie started me out making bumper plugs, little brackets, nothing precision. Then I eventually worked my way up to doing everything: working the lathe, cutting pieces, anything that had to be done. Ron and I worked side by side in the shop for two years, until I was seven months’ pregnant with Michelle.”

More than a few customers were rendered speechless when they stopped in at Tobias Speed Shop to find not Ronnie or his brothers, but Dianne building their race cars.

During those early years, Dianne also served as crew for Ronnie’s racing efforts, doing everything from routine maintenance to engine work. “The thrill for me was always in maintaining the car, then going to the track, working on it some more and seeing it race,” she remembered. “What kept me hooked was knowing we had a competitive car… knowing we could win.”

And Ronnie racked up plenty of wins on the short tracks of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware, including championships at Bridgeport, Penn National, Port Royal, Grandview and SeaCoast speedways.

As if she didn’t have enough on her plate, what with working at the shop, helping to crew Ronnie’s car, manning the shop’s parts and tire truck at Bridgeport, Williams Grove and other tracks, working on and off at Penn National Speedway, as well as raising two kids (Michelle and Ron Jr.), in 1989 Dianne started driving her own race car—a 270cc Micro Sprint that Ronnie built for her. Over the next nine years, she won events at Path Valley, Hill Valley and Trail-Way speedways in Pennsylvania, Hagerstown (MD), Winchester (VA) and SeaCoast ((DE). She was a division champion twice at Path Valley and once at Hill Valley.

On the Micro Sprint circuit, she and Ron befriended a family from Australia and, in 1997, Dianne was invited to race a 600cc Micro in that country’s Formula 500.

And then her life fell apart. On September 6, 1998, at age 43, Ronnie suffered a fatal heart attack while racing at Susquehanna Speedway.

For two years after that, Dianne “did nothing,” she admitted. She quit racing. She left Tobias Speed Shop. She mourned.

Until that low point, racing had become her life. And eventually, she came to the realization that if she wanted to get back to living, she had to get back to racing.

Relying on her skills and her knowledge, Dianne reached out to some old friends and put her name back in the hat. Alan Kreitzer immediately hired her as a technical inspector for the Sprints at Williams Grove. She assisted in the pits at Grandview Speedway. Then she settled into a five-year stint as a tech inspector at New Jersey’s New Egypt Speedway, remaining until the Grosso family sold the place in 2007.

And in 2008, for the first time since Ronnie died 10 years earlier, she got back behind the wheel of a race car, returning to Australia to compete in a Micro for her “second family” from Down Under. “Believe me, I didn’t set the world on fire,” she laughed. “But I had a lot of fun and that’s what it’s all about.”

A resident of Coopersburg, PA, Dianne works at RTS Chassis in Reading, handling parts shipment and billing for the Micro Sprint and Quarter Midget set. She has been helping her brother-in-law Rich with his “Big Kahuna” promotions for SpeedSTRS and Slingshots, last year at New Egypt and this year at Path Valley, doing everything from scoring, handicapping, selling pit passes and distributing payout.

And it has come full circle: Her son, Ron Jr., will be competing in a 358 Modified on a limited basis this season at Big Diamond Speedway, his rookie attempt in the “big” cars his dad used to run. He and his wife Jill are expecting their first child in July.

On being named an honoree at this year’s Hall of Fame ceremonies, Dianne was quick to place the credit where she feels it belongs. “None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for Ronnie,” she stated. “He taught me everything I know. Growing up, I knew what they did at the Reading Fairgrounds but I couldn’t have cared less until Ron brought me into it.

I just wish Ron could be around to know what a difference he made in my life,” she regretted. “Whether he believed it or not, he was a really smart guy. This is all due to him.”