Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Bickford Steps Up At All-American

Jeff Gordon’s 15-Year-Old Cousin Gets First NASCAR Win

June 5, 2013 - 3:28pm

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — James Bickford is spending the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of high school just as he has for the last 10 summers. He’s getting ready for his next race.

His father, Tom, figures the 15-year-old has competed in about 600 races since he started driving at age five. He won 68 of 75 races entered in just one of three different quarter midget divisions he raced in during 2007.

Young Bickford started his career in quarter midgets the same as his cousin, four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon. Bickford placed third in his first race, one-upping Gordon’s first-ever race finish of fourth. Tom Bickford’s brother John is Gordon’s stepfather.

James moved to full-size race cars this year. He’s a rookie in NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Late Models at All-American Speedway, a third-mile paved oval at the Placer County Fairgrounds in Roseville, Calif. He cleared a huge hurdle May 11 when he won his first career NASCAR feature. It was a huge improvement over the uncertainty he felt in his first late model start only a few weeks earlier.

“I practiced a couple of times, but there was no competition on the track,” Bickford said. “Opening night I knew how to drive the car, but I didn’t know how to race it. I had a lot of it figured out by the end of the night. I learned a lot but still have a lot to learn.”

He finished fourth in his first Late Model feature. Three race nights later he didn’t think he had a chance on the night he won.

“We qualified ninth fastest and started in the back of the feature. I thought the car was terrible. It had a huge push. All if a sudden car started coming in. It must have been the tires. I slowly started working my way toward the front. I got some breaks and I was in the right place at the right time.”

Bickford took the lead on Lap 44 of the 60-lap feature race and held onto it through a restart with three laps to go to take the win.

“We got to Victory Lane with no scratches on the car,” Bickford said.

The Napa, Calif., driver and his family team raced about 48 weeks a year for a decade. He worked his way from quarter midgets through bandoleros and then legends. In total he’s won 30 championships, 15 of them in quarter midgets.

Bickford knew he wanted to drive race cars by age three. He was born in 1998, the year Gordon, from nearby Vallejo, Calif., won his third NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

“James begged me to take him to the races when he was three,” his dad said. “Then he started begging me to drive race cars.”

He got his first quarter midget as a belated fifth birthday present.

After a lot of success in quarter midgets, Bickford arrived at a crossroad in 2009. It was time to advance and bandolero cars were a natural next step. The expense of a new car and equipment exceeded the ability of a reasonable family budget.

“I told James we just couldn’t do it anymore,” Tom Bickford said.

“Dad said if I could come up with the money we’d keep racing,” James said. “I was desperate to keep going. My racing career was about to end.”

He was an eleven-year-old in need of about $5,000 to keep racing. He did some entrepreneurial thinking and devised a plan in 2009 to raise sponsorship funds. He organized, promoted, marketed and hosted a golf benefit he called the KGA (Kids Golf Association) Tournament. The event was held at Vintner’s Golf Club in Yountville, Calif. Bickford’s mom Teresa waited in the car while the boy walked into the club’s office to sell the idea to the general manager. After the second meeting, Bickford walked out of GM Jason Boldt’s office with a sweet deal to use the course and facilities. Boldt said the fifth grader was professional and determined in his sales pitch and event planning.

“We had a $50 entry fee and sold hole sponsorships for $100 each,” Bickford said, noting that cousin Jeff chipped in as a hole sponsor and was a donor to a fund-raising raffle.

With capital in hand, Bickford was soon behind the wheel of a pre-owned Bandolero car. One of the golf tournament sponsors, Buffalo’s Shipping Post, became a car sponsor. The Napa, Calif., company specializes in wine shipping, and is a retailer of Jeff Gordon-brand wines. Bickford went on to post six wins in 12 Bandolero starts in 2009. He moved to Legends cars 2011-12.

Bickford had an unexpected setback late last August that ended his legends season and disrupted his plans for 2013.

The day before he was to be fitted for a seat in a late model that was under consideration for this year, he broke an arm playing high school football.

“I ended up at the bottom of a pile,” Bickford said. “As soon as I tried to get up I knew I broke it.”

“The last thing the car owner said to me when we set up the fitting was ‘don’t get hurt,’” Bickford said. “Maybe that jinxed me. I learned two things from the experience. Don’t get jinxed, and don’t play football if you’re 5’3” and weigh 120 pounds.”

Although sidelined from driving, Bickford attended the last five races of his legends’ racing season.

“When you’re racing legends, you feel like you’re part of a community,” Bickford said. “I wanted to support everyone else. It was the proper thing to do.”

During the layoff, the Bickfords decided to field their own late model in 2013 with primary sponsorship from Buffalo’s Shipping Post.

In five starts this year, Bickford’s record at All-American includes the win, four top-fives and five top-10s. He’s second in track points, 31 behind leader Ron Chunn. Late Models are NASCAR Finalist Division IV at the track.

Bickford’s Chevrolet is based on a Lefthander chassis and powered by a used crate engine. Tom Bickford is car owner and co-crew chief. Rich Fields is co-crew chief and spotter. Mark Olson rounds out the crew. In addition to Buffalo’s Shipping Post/, sponsors include Redline Synthetic Oil, Eibach Springs and Catch Your Eye MotorSport Graphics.

Bickford is hoping for more wins while learning as much as he can this year.

“We’re second in track points, but we’re about 30 points behind,” Bickford said. “The point race is way in the back of my mind. The biggest thing is to keep learning.”

By Paul Schaefer, NASCAR

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