Traditional Sprint Car FanSite

See You At The Races!!!

by Gary "Hammerdown" Costa

With Champion Molder John Bickford  

Thanks for taking the time to talk an old acquaintance.... 
Bickford: Gary, the pleasure is all mine!

What was your racing background before 1/4 Midgets?
Bickford: I got started at about 14 years old. I was messing around with Go-Karts a little bit, helping work on them, because I never could afford to buy one. Then I got started at Vallejo Speedway about 1962 or 1963. I had to sneak in just to go to the races. I was helping out on a car. I was just a kid rolling tires and hiding in the pits.
You've been around this deal a long time....
Bickford: About 44 years now I've been in it!
You've come along way since those 1/4 Midget days!
Bickford: Yeah, It's the same basic stuff. You know it's kinda fun, I'm going to be the keynote speaker at a 1/4 Midget banquet in January 2006 for some people in a region back there, that'll be fun!
Do you ever think of the days past? Racing in Hayward, Rio Linda, Baylands and all those 1/4 Midget and Go-Kart tracks?
Bickford: Absolutely! I have a picture on my office wall of a 1/4 Midget Jeff drove in 1981, that was one of my favorite cars. Everybody that comes in the office says "Oh wow, look at that!" I talk to parents all the time and to kids that are running 1/4 Midgets. They call me from everything on how to set a car up, to what should be the next step to do with their kids.
Jeff started racing at five. Who were some of the people that helped you get started?
Bickford: The first person I met in the sport was Jack Cook. Jack told me about a guy named Jim Paniagua. Jack told me where Jim was located in Sacramento. One of the first motors I had rebuilt I had Jim rebuild it. I didn't know much about rebuilding those motors, I hadn't learned much about it yet.
John, do you remember the "fuzz" car! (Race fans, the "fuzz" car had a coating of nylon fuzz)
Bickford: Oh yeah! I have plenty of pictures of the "fuzz" car. We haven't been able to locate it though. I lent it to a guy who was an old racer from Vallejo, Ca. Unfortunately, the old timer I lent it to passed away. We're still looking for it. It was last seen in the Oroville, California area about 1982.
Jeff has the smallest Simpson Driving suit ever made....
Bickford: Yes! I still have it. He weighed about 32 pounds!
Even as a kid Jeff was so focused at the track. He always had his game face on. What are some of the things you did to keep him so focused?
Bickford: What we did was we practiced more than some of the other kids did. The single biggest little deal that I did was that he never raced the other kids, he raced the stopwatch. Kids have to get frustrated with something. Typically the parents are always telling the kids what to do and telling the kids how to do it. If you remember when I helped you I asked you what you needed to go fast. I didn't tell you how to drive the car. I said "what do you need to go faster?", and you said "I'm afraid to do this, I can't hold the gas down!" I said, "well why is that? Don't hold the gas down, don't worry about it. Just go around there until you're comfortable and try to drive like this. And I'll see if I can make the car feel better to you."
Man John, I can't believe that you remember saying that to me! Now you've got me going on a trip down memory lane, please continue...
Bickford: Then what I would do with Jeff is, he would go out and I would show him the stop-watch, and he would say "OK, let's see if I can go faster" OK, to go faster you have to be smoother, etc. So he would go out, go around, come in and I would show him the stop-watch. And when he wasn't any faster he would get mad at the stop-watch instead of getting mad at me. He then looked at me as his partner to beat the stop-watch. The stop-watch was the enemy, the bad guy, not Dad. In so many families the dad's telling the kid all the bad news; You're not very fast, you're not this, or you're not that. Then they never work together. There becomes this big spar as opposed to being a team.
Many, many parents race the other kids on the track. They're only trying to be faster than this kid or that kid. We never really focused in on being faster than the kids. We focused on being the fastest car on the track. We usually related it to track records or something like that. We felt if you can get your car to be the fastest car on the track, chances are you would have the best shot at winning the race. Also, I think it's a good way to keep advancing the child to constantly do better, better, and better. Qualifying was a number that everybody knew, and if you remember we put a lot of energy in to making sure Jeff was getting quick time at most of the races.
Yes, and he was blazing fast!
Bickford: Thanks Gary, we did well at that!
Even as a kid, Jeff always had his game face on. What was home life like for the upcoming super star....
Bickford: Some of the smaller kids like Jeff's size, their mom and dad would put their gloves on, zip their jacket, buckle up their helmet. What we did at home with Jeff was, he would practice putting his helmet on and off, put his gloves on and off and his jacket all by himself. I always told him, "You're going to be a professional someday". I also told him that you have to act like one. You have to set yourself apart just a little bit from the other kids. Be a pro, do it like the pros do it. We had a little ritual he would practice at home. He would put his jacket on, he'd put his helmet on, get his helmet fitted tight, put his chin strap on, he'd also put his gloves on. Never, not one time EVER, in 1/4 Midget racing did anybody ever get him dressed.
When Jeff was racing 1/4 Midgets, did you have a plan for him?
Bickford: I believed that if we conducted ourselves as professionals, and I approached it from a professional level, and I helped coached him as if he were a professional, then there was a chance of becoming a professional. If I just haphazardly went about it, and didn't have the discipline, didn't focus in and stay focused the way your supposed to do it, I was either going to teach him bad habits or it's going to have to be re-learned, he would have a whole different value system about the racing. It was just as easy to conduct yourself as a professional. Their was a small amount of discipline that we had to maintain. We practiced, we wrote things down, we focused in on the races, and we worked as a team, and did well actually. I think it's proved to be a good plan!
How old was Jeff when you realized, hey this kid has got some talent?
Bickford: I think probably about 7. We had a lot of great, great kids racing with us. We were racing with Ricky Velo and Greg DeCaries who were great. You can kinda start to tell because some of the other 1/4 Midget guys that have been around for a while, they start paying attention. One of the things that was noticed most about Jeff was his rhythm. He had so much rhythm on the race track. When he was out on the race track, he could see a lap in front of himself. He would drive up to a guy, and he wouldn't follow 'em!, he would drive up, and he would make the pass real smooth. I recall some of the ladies that worked in the towers would always say, "you know watching Jeff race is like watching rhythm in motion", because he doesn't bump into the guy, he's just right there and he makes the pass.
So with recognizing the fact that Jeff had talent, what was your next plan of attack to make him faster?
Bickford: Again, he started showing that at 7, and that's when I started getting enthused. So I started advancing the program with him. Not with the kinda cars that he drove, but in the travel. We started traveling more and more. We felt that the best way to learn is to learn from other people. So if we constantly raced against tougher people, he would learn more. That's a big key even in today's world. You hear about the folks complaining about the Nextel Cup drivers being in the Busch series. When Jeff drove in the Busch series, we were eager to have Dale Earnhardt come and race, eager to have Mark Martin, Harry Gant and some of those guys race with us, because we knew they were THE best. And the only way you're going to learn, is to learn from THE best!
That's true John. When the 410 Sprint Car guys run with the 360s they are sometimes labeled as "cherry pickers". I don't necessarily agree with that, what's your opinion?
Bickford: If you're a real race car driver you learn every race. If you sat and talked with Jeff after a race, he would say, "so and so did this.", " I never tried that before! I've got to start trying that once in a while!". I mean you're always learning. I don't care who you are or how many races you've won, you're always learning. And if you're not always learning, and if you think you know it all, it's just a moment in time before you're going to become complacent and stop winning.
Do you get excited watching Jeff as much now as you did in the past?
Bickford: You know, one of the things about me is.... I never got excited! Although I was pretty excited the day he won his first Sprint Car race at KC Raceway in Ohio 1986, I was pretty excited that day! I was pretty excited when he won the Silver Crown Championship, and his first mile race. When we won "The Brickyard 400" I was pretty excited about that one! It's sort of a business type thing to me. You work hard, you do all the right things, you work all the strategies and everybody does their job perfectly, you're probably going to have a very good finish. I'm always so deep in concentration regarding all the aspects of the race, it's hard to get excited. It's just my nature I guess. Even around 1/4 midgets or whatever it was, it's just my personality.
What's your position with Jeff Gordon Incorporated?
Bickford: I run a number of different company's for Jeff. I'm the Vice President and General Manager. We have about 23 employees, and we're located at Hendrick Motorsports in Harrisburg, North Carolina. There is a total of about 500 employees on the campus.
Incredible! I still have visions of you pushing Jeff onto the track, and to see how far you both have come is absolutely mind blowing!
Bickford: It's cool isn't it! It sorta let's you know that no matter who you are, or no matter where you go, the guy that you're pitting next to, or the guy your racing against can someday be a 4 time Cup Champion.
Greg DeCaries still comes to the races. Paul McMahan still comes and visits Jeff and hangs out. Whenever we go to California, I see Jimmy Vasser and those guys from time to time. We're just a big family all grown up!
I've always rooted for Jeff, win lose or draw. How can I not?
Bickford: You raced with him! It's not that you forgot about guys like Bobby McMahan and all those guys that you raced with either!
You're so right. My dad still thanks you for helping push me around those 1/4 Midget tracks and of course how you lined us out in the Speedway Karts....
Bickford: Be sure to tell your dad I said hi!
I will. I Remember that one 1/4 Midget race in Rio Linda, California when you and my dad pushed me around the track, geez, John it seemed like 50 laps in that searing heat, and the dang thing wouldn't fire! Then after finally getting it fired, I flipped it over pretty good!
Bickford: (laughing!) I was worried if we couldn't get that thing fixed! I hate it when a poor kids out there and a car wont run!
Let's change gears. Tell me, how you got hooked up with Lee Osborne?
Bickford: We were racing 1/4 midgets back in Indiana. We were in Brownsburg, Indiana, and he was at Jamestown, Indiana. I decided I wanted to go Sprint Car racing. I've been doing Sprint Cars for years and years. I knew Hank Henry, and all the old time Sprint Car guys. I was looking around for a really good car, but a safe car. I didn't want a production car, so I asked Doug Wolfgang one time who he thought was one of the best Sprint Car builders in America. He said Lee Osborne. Lee only built 12 cars a year. So I went out to Lee's shop and I asked Lee if he would build me a car, and he said "Aren't you a little too old to start racing Sprint Cars! I said "no, no! it's for my kid here." He replied, "what's the kid 10!", no I replied "he's 13!" He said I was crazy, and that he wasn't going to build a Sprint Car for a 13 year old. I said, "what do you mean, he's a good driver. He's raced go-karts, he's raced 1/4 midgets and he's very successful at it, I think we could do this just fine." Lee said I was absolutely crazy, their is no possible way! I really didn't want anybody elses car. I really wanted a safe car, and I wanted one that's put together correctly, and a good basic car for slick tracks.
I told him my plan, and he said, "you're serious!" He was unsure about doing it. I said OK, I'm going back home. Why don't you think about it, and I'll call you back in a week. So I called him back, and he again said, "you're serious!" I told him again, I would really like you to build a car for me. So he built a car for me!
A 13 year old Sprint Car shoe!
Bickford: (laughing) Yeah, I wouldn't recommend it! Kids need to go to school, and focus in on more things. It was what I needed to do at the time. Their was no Mini-Sprints at that time, and I didn't want Jeff to lose 2 or 3 years of not driving anything. In those days it was the right thing to do. I'm not recommending it at all. I tell people to try other forms of racing. When you're about 16 or 17 then do a Sprint Car for a while. But have a plan, kind of know where you want to go. If you want to be the best Sprint Car driver ever, maybe get started at 16 or 17.
To make it to the "Big Leagues" like Nascar. In your opinion what is the best route to go?
Bickford: You're not going to run any dirt with a Cup car right? So the dirt racing that you do gives you a sense of feel, control and self confidence in handling the car. At some point in your career, you're going to have to leave the dirt and get on the asphalt. Right now, there is a big push for drivers to come on somewhere between 19 and 23 years old. So that means you need to get on the asphalt sometime around 18 or 19. Carl Edwards is a little bit older, but Boston Reid is a little bit younger. I started Boston when he was 7. We started him in 1/4 Midgets, then from 1/4 Midgets to Mini-Sprints, from Mini-Sprints into Sprint Cars, Sprint Cars into Silver Crown cars. Then we got him some ARCA stuff and now he drives a Busch car for Hendrick Motorsports.
How did you and Boston get hooked up?
Bickford: Boston came up wearing a crazy pair of shorts, and he was standing next to Jeff's car. He asked Jeff if he can have his picture taken with him. "I said little guy what are you doing? How come you're dressed like that?" Boston replied, "Well, I want to be a race car driver!" I said, "you do?" I continued, "what makes you think you can be a race car driver?". "Because, I want to be just like Jeff Gordon!" I said "well come here, come hang out with me." We climbed up the trailer and watched the Silver Crown race at Indianapolis, and Jeff won it!, he proceeded to ask me "what do you think I should race first?." "Where's your dad?" I asked him. He found his dad, and I said go get a 1/4 Midget and bring it over to the house. They bought one, brought it over, and I started helping them.
Look at him now. Any other drivers that you've helped?
Bickford: Yeah, he's a pretty good kid. We've also helped Kenny Irwin, Kasey Kahne a little bit, we helped Stevie Reeves. Just kind of keeping an eye on all these youngsters a little bit. We had a lot of them come through the shop. Kasey Kahne is real good. I wasn't really able to do a lot for Kasey. He came by the office a number of times, I kind of helped him get hooked up Ray Evernham. Ray was looking for a driver, and he wanted me to get Kasey to call him. Kasey is a very talented young kid.
Who do you see as the next super-star?
Bickford: Oh, there are so many out there it's unbelievable. There is a kid that was born in Sacramento, California. His name is Bryan Clauson. His father is Tim Clauson, he used to race Sprint Cars, and I believe you raced with Tim. His son is unbelievable, unbelievable! He is one of the most talented drivers I have ever seen.
Yes, I raced with Tim! What is it that you see in Bryan?
Bickford: He's got the ability to concentrate well. He takes direction and reads the car. He's very, very smart on the race track, very smart. He never puts himself in a position to get in trouble and he's got patience. He goes fast when he needs to go fast, and he takes his time when he needs to take his time. Bryan goes fast when he can, when he can't go fast, he's saving his equipment. You've got to know how to do that!
Jack Hewitt played a role in Jeff's racing career. Can you explain how?
Bickford: Jack was one of the early guys that we ran with in 1985. Jeff saw Jack as a hero figure. We weren't racing with Kinser that much, and his favorites were; Steve Kinser, Doug Wolfgang , Brad Doty and Jack Hewitt. We raced with Jack all the time, and Jack was the kind of guy that he'd talk to Jeff, and Jeff would go talk to him. You know, he was the tough love kind of guy. I remember he told Jeff one time, "when you first started, I thought you were pretty dang good" Jack continued, "you're driving crazier than Haudenschild!" Jeff came over to me and said, "I don't think Jack likes me anymore" I asked him why,and he said "he told me I'm crazier than Haudenschild!" I told Jeff, maybe he likes you a lot. "Why's that?" Jeff asks, I told Jeff "because how many guys have told you when you're getting a little crazy on the race track?" Jeff looks at me "only you", "well I like you!"
Well a while down the road, Jeff was driving better. Jeff won this one night and he says to Jack, "Hewitt!" "What do you want Gordon?","I'm not driving like Haudenschild anymore am I!" and Jack just started laughing! He's a good guy. Jeff's won a couple of races side by side with Jack. Jeff has a huge amount of respect for Jack Hewitt, he's an icon in the sport.
No doubt! Can you share a funny moment between Jack and Jeff?
Bickford: Jeff won a heat race won in April of 1985 in Findlay, Ohio. It was also his first All-Star feature that he started. Jeff grabbed the lead, and Jack is standing on the back straightaway signaling Jeff. Jack's holding his hands apart so Jeff would know how much he was leading. Gary! Jeff kept driving that thing in the corner, I mean driving it hard into the corner! And Hewitt's trying to slow 'em down! He wins the race, Jack goes over to congratulate him, and Jack's telling him Jeff you've got to slow down. Jeff asks Jack "why did you have hands held apart?", Jack told him "I was trying to to tell you how much of a lead you had!" Jeff said, "I thought you wanted me to go faster!"
John, I know those two have had to have some wild races...
Bickford: I'll tell you, Jeff and Jack have had some wild races at Findlay. One time their was this big cushion about 12" high, and they are just gettin' it! I mean they're changing the lead, 1st and 2nd, back and forth! Jeff hammers the cushion and he slides across the track in front of Jack. Jeff picks up the lead, and hammers the cushion again! But this time it jams the header into the cable throttle system we had, and the throttle was jammed wide open! Jeff jumps up over the cushion and sails the car out of the race track like a helicopter. Hewitt went on to win the race, and it was the wildest thing you've ever seen! Jeff and Hewitt, they've had some good times.
Let's talk about Rollie Hemling and his involvement with Jeff and yourself....
Bickford: Rollie is really sharp with the Midgets. I was making parts for Bob East at the time. And we wanted to get Jeff in a Midget. We went down to Louisville, Kentucky to watch the car run. The car got killed on the last lap, while running last by the driver at the time! We introduced Rollie to Jeff. Rollie ordered a new car from Bob. I worked literally night and day for a week to build that car. Our first race was The Night Before the 500 at the Indianapolis Raceway Park. Jeff proceeded to set a new track record and won the race. It was his first time in a Midget!
In a couple of sentences, can you tell me some of the important keys to maintaining sponsorship?
Bickford: To maintain the sponsorship it takes to support the race car, you've got to do everything right. You can't lose control, you've got to maintain concentration and focus.
You know The Baily Brothers out in California pretty well don't you John?
Bickford: When Fred and Sam were getting their Company started, we were all in High School together. They had a place called Wasco Speed Center and Western Auto in Napa, California which is where I grew up. In 1968, I think they moved into the facility where they're currently at. I helped them move there! We're still good friends. Every car I've ever raced, every motor I've ever had, has been built by Sam. He really builds good motors, he builds a very fair priced motor, and if you work them right, they'll win you a lot of races.
Who were some of the guys that you enjoyed watching get after it!
Bickford: I really enjoyed watching Jan Opperman run. I also liked Dean Thompson and Jimmy Oskie, obviously Kinser. I liked to watch the guys up in Pennsylvania too. I'm a big Doug Wolfgang fan to this day, as well as a good friend. Foyt could certainly get a lot done in a race car. So could Andretti, I was around those guys all the time.

You seem like a master problem solver.....
Bickford: I think what happens is you learn and grow. You approach life with some basic logic, common sense. If you have a problem in front of you, think through it. You know, a lot of people in the world go and ask the other guy how to solve something. I've always been a guy that didn't have anybody to ask. So I just figured it out myself. If you just think you way through it, you can figure it out.
Any parting comments for the parents of aspiring race car drivers?
Bickford: Parents need to recognize that they are investing in their kids. If they make good investments, those investments will return. It doesn't matter whether you're from Napa or Vallejo California, Indianapolis, Charlotte North Carolina or Kannapolis. Champions come from every place in America. Ask the kids what they need, don't try to tell them. Most parents have never raced and the best thing to do is ask the kid what he needs to go fast, and try to give it to him. It doesn't matter if he's 33 years old in NASCAR or a 5 year old running 1/4 Midgets at Capital Speedway out in California. They still need to know; What do you need to go fast kid!
Thanks for your time buddy....
Bickford: Don't worry about, I enjoyed chatting with you!
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