JJ Hickle is blazing by so fast many in Sequim don’t even know one of the best up-and-coming sprint car racers grew up in their neighborhood.
The 22-year-old Sequim graduate and electrician has been behind the wheel since his early teens and looks to repeat as the Grays Harbor Raceway’s 360 sprint car champion in Elma this season.
Nikki Gamell, general manager of the Grays Harbor Raceway, said Hickle’s achievement as champion is outstanding especially for his age.
“Out of all the champions in the 360 Sprints within the last 10 years he is the youngest,” she said. “This is a very competitive class. There have been five different champions in the last five seasons.”
Hickle also was one of only two drivers to win more than one race in the 11 sprint car point races.
He and manager Lindsay Merrell find locals’ perception of racing as a whole to be only stock car racing.
“To me NASCAR is boring,” Hickle said. “This (sprint cars) is the most exciting racing you can watch.”
It’s hard to argue with Hickle after hearing the whir of engines and seeing the tension among drivers racing 100 miles per hour side-by-side at a slight angle on the 3/8-mile clay track.
Even for his championship run last September, Hickle kept people on the edge of their seats to the last race of the season.
He barely led fellow racers Reese Goetz and Henry VanDam in the overall point totals, but Hickle said he was confident.
“I led the race the whole way,” he said.
Gamell said the points battle was fast all night until Goetz’s car stopped with only a few laps to go.
Hickle finished with 1,534 points over Goetz (1,467), who took second.
His plan this year is to up his goals and compete in several races with the American Sprint Car Series Northwest, which features a touring circuit of some of the best sprint car racers in the Northwest.
Last season he competed against the ASCS’ national tour and placed sixth and seventh in Elma.
“I was right there with the best of them,” he said.
The most satisfying part about the races, Hickle found, was beating guys with full-time sponsorships and more expensive cars.
With hopes of going professional someday, Hickle remembers his roots fondly.
His home is filled with more than 200 trophies from his early days racing in more than 10 states.
Before that he grew up watching his dad, Joe Hickle, a logger in Forks, race stock cars at the Port Angeles Speedway. Since Hickle was 4 years old, he’s been driving quarter midget cars, what he describes as go-carts with suspension, until he was 14. He made the switch to the big boys’ cars.
Switching between the two, Hickle said, “felt like going from a small car to 700 horsepower.”
But he was never scared.
“I was pretty much always comfortable racing and didn’t need much adjustment,” he said.
To join the sprint cars league, Hickle had to tell a fib.
At the time he wanted to race, Hickle wasn’t old enough, so he made a fake birth certificate.
The announcer said Hickle was 16 each race that first year and then 17 the next, but the following year he went legit with his age.
Hickle said the announcer was confused: “‘I don’t know how to explain this, but he’s 16,’ he said over the intercom.”
He quickly caught other drivers’ and viewers’ eyes. In his second year, Rengen Motor Sports asked him to be its driver.
Over three years, Hickle worked his way up the ranks but decided to take some time off. He dropped off as Rengen’s driver and decided not to race at all in 2011.
The next season, he and his dad started Hickle Racing after buying a team and sprint car from another racer who wanted out of the business.
Hickle raced his way to the top in his first year but found he sacrificed a lot.
With himself and his dad as the only pit crew, he found racing on a tight budget is tough and he’d spend at least 10 hours a week doing maintenance on his car at his dad’s Quilcene shop.
But he saw the results.
“I’m racing against guys with corporate sponsors but still winning,” Hickle said.
In his opinion, how much he races depends on finding a new motor, which he said goes for around $30,000. He’s not outright looking for a new motor yet, but when he does get one, he can tack on more races.
For him to take the next turn in his career, Hickle said, he’ll need to make the ASCS national tour and find a corporate sponsorship to turn pro.
“I think I’m good enough,” he said.
Hickle and Merrell continue to look for ongoing sponsorships and Hickle encourages locals to make the trek to Elma for a race. There, people can buy a pit pass and get to meet him and watch up close.
He said a small group of people travel from Sequim for the races each week.
“With Port Angeles (Speedway) closed, it’s only a two-hour drive,” Hickle said.
Reach Hickle at HickleRacing@Yahoo.com.