It was arguably one last opportunity at glory for the legendary Rich Bickle but also a lot of money at stake for Michael Atwell, too.
Those were the stakes before Atwell outdueled Bickle during a two-lap shootout to determine the Bill Bigley Jr. Memorial 128 on Saturday night at 4-17 Southern Speedway in Punta Gorda, Florida. Everything prior to that moment was just as dramatic too.
Atwell and Bickle only had a chance to race for the win because Steve Dorer and Nick Neri had crashed each other out of the lead approaching the white flag. Prior to that, Jesse Dutilly seemed like a runaway winner to the tune of a five-second lead getting eliminated by a broken water pump belt. Before that, pole sitter Ty Majeski broke a left front upper control arm while avoiding an accident after a redraw forced him to start fifth.
The uncertainly began even sooner than that with national contender Stephen Nasse withdrawing after losing an engine during practice on Friday night.
In other words, a lot happened to put Atwell in position to contend from a ninth place starting position, but the driver of the No. 51 capitalized when given the opportunity to go one-on-on with Bickle for $20,000. Atwell also had a potential $5,000 bonus if he could win as a Florida driver.
Atwell chose the inside on the restart and it was on.
"We knew we were lining up against a stout guy. He came across our nose five or six times. I wasn't too worried if we rubbed a little bit there. We got a good start, a good launch and couldn't clear him out of (Turn 2) but gave him a little room beat him into (Turn) 3."
Bickle didn't have as rosy of a depiction of what happened between them. The legend, making the penultimate start of his storied career, said he was pushed up the track and into the wall by Atwell and lamented how younger drivers race these days.
He confronted Atwell in Victory Lane. In response, the Florida crowd defended their native son by viciously booing Bickle, who shrugged them off.
"When we came off (Turn) 2, he never even tried to turn left and ran me into the wall," Bickle said. "Look at the right rear wheel. Its ground right off the car because he ran me into it all the way down the backstretch. If I hook him into Turn 3 like I wanted to, guess what, I would have got disqualified.
"I guess taking second was the right thing to do. I just don’t understand racing this way. I don’t know the kid and it doesn’t matter. I’m glad I’m about to retire because it’s just sad if this is how you have to race."
Bickle warned Atwell 'just wait until the Derby.'
For his part, Atwell was adamant that the contact was Bickle’s fault.
"He drove over me about four times trying to get down," Atwell said. "So, I’m not too worried about it."
It ultimately didn’t matter as Bickle was disqualified in post-race technical inspection for an unapproved carb booster.
While the crowd was booing Bickle and serenading Atwell, there was a fight in the pits between Dorer and Neri’s dad, Martin.
The initial incident between Neri the younger and Dorer occurred in Turn 2 while racing for the lead inside the final five laps. Neri had tried to find several ways around Dorer. At one point, Dorer blocked high and pinch Neri into the wall. When Neri finally got under Dorer, he stayed on the gas and broke Dorer’s traction to take the lead. In retaliation, Dorer straight-lined into Turn 3 and spun Neri around.
Race director Ricky Brooks sent both drivers to the rear of the field.
On the final lap, Dorer intentionally drilled Neri hard into the wall where Turn 4 transitions into the backstretch.
Neri declined comment and said it would be for the best if he didn’t talk about it.
Dorer didn’t deny intent.
"Everyone saw what happened," Dorer said. "I’m the kind of guy that if you draw first blood, typically, I end up with last blood."
Dorer conceded that he pinched Neri in the wall once, but said he was extra careful not to do it again.
"He had all the outside there was," Dorer said. "I gave him plenty. I did squeeze him in the wall once and once my spotter told me that, I gave him all the space in the world. He never took a shot at it. Instead, he jacked me up and jacked me up. We ended up with two torn up race cars. If given the chance to do it again, I would do the same thing."
All told, Dorer was disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct. Neri was disqualified for a crew member running onto a hot track immediately after the retaliation on the backstretch. Unrelated, Michael Goddard was disqualified from his ninth-place result for hitting another car under caution earlier in the race.
Once the literal and figurative dust had settled, Atwell picked up the biggest win of his career and takes that momentum to the Snowball Derby, where he could win another $25,000.
"I can’t thank these fans enough for showing up and having my back in victory lane like that," Atwell said. "We’re going to do everything we can to keep short track racing growing in Florida and we’re going to see if we can do it again this week in Pensacola."
BILL BIGLEY SR. MEMORIAL 128
- Michael Atwell
- Albert Francis
- Anthony Sergi
- George Gorham
- Jared Irvan
- Dustin Dunn
- Patrick Staropoli
- Michael Hinde
- Adam Briggs
- John Nutley
- Steve Gill
- Ander Jackson
- Colin Allman
- Jesse Dutilly
- Boris Jurkovic
- Corey Crisafulli
- Hudson Halder
- Daniel Webster
- Jonathan Guy
- Brandon Anderson
- Dylan Bigley
- Wayne Anderson
- Ty Majeski
- Keith Roggen
- Rich Bickle (DQ)
- Michael Goddard (DQ)
- Steve Dorer (DQ)
- Nick Neri (DQ)