Dick Trickle, a larger-than-life race car driver who created his legend on the short tracks of Wisconsin, died Thursday of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in North Carolina, authorities said. He was 71.

Trickle competed at stock car racing’s highest level but found his greatest success on the smaller tracks of his home state. The Wisconsin Rapids native won more than 1,200 short-track races, many in places such as the Slinger Super Speedway and Madison International Speedway.

“He was just a legend,” said Matt Kenseth, the two-time Daytona 500 champion from Cambridge who raced against Trickle. “Every short-track racer either knew Dick Trickle or knew of him.”

The Lincoln County (N.C.) Sheriff’s Office received a call believed to be from Trickle on Thursday saying that “there would be a dead body and it would be his.” Authorities tried to call the number back, but no one answered. His body was found near his pickup truck at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Boger City, N.C., about 40 miles northwest of Charlotte. Foul play is not suspected.

Trickle lived in Iron Station, N.C., for more than 20 years. But “Wisconsin was always home to him,” said Todd Thelan, co-owner of Slinger Super Speedway.

If that meant having to fight fender-to-fender against arch-rival Jim Sauter spinning around a relentless curve on a newly paved half-mile track at the La Crosse Fairgrounds Speedway on a hot summer night in the 1970s, so much the better. Or any number of roaring rural dirt ovals where his name evokes images of creaky $2 grandstand seats or hillside perches filled with T-shirted Marlboro-crushproof fans and crumbling squeaky Styrofoam boxes of chilly PBR, long before Calvin decals and mega-Ram trucks were cool.

“I respected him when I was a race fan as a kid,” Thelan said. “And when I started racing myself and raced against him, I respected him even more.”

Trickle was the Winston Cup series rookie of the year at age 48 in 1989 but never won a Cup race. He won two Busch Series races. He won more than 1,200 short-track races, usually on half- or quarter-mile tracks as opposed to the longer tracks of the NASCAR circuit that included the 2½-mile courses of Daytona and Talladega.

“Dick Trickle was one of the best race drivers of the ’80s. No one knew how many races he won,” said Humpy Wheeler, the former president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. “He was a product of the rich Wisconsin soil, where they race eight races a week in the season, and he could win all of them.”

Kenseth knew all about Trickle by the time he first raced against him as a teenager.

“Short-track racing was huge when I was a kid and Dick was incredibly popular,” Kenseth said. “Dick was a legend off the racetrack, too. You’d hear about him partying late into the night and not getting a lot of sleep.”

Before his national racing status was assured, “he was a guy who lived, ate and breathed racing for seven days a week in central Wisconsin,” Thelan said.

As a competitor, “he was a hard-nosed, clean racer, and by that I mean he was a guy who was going to race you as hard as he could without wrecking you,” Thelan said.

As Trickle’s reputation grew, he kept his local connections and was an accessible mentor.

“If anyone asked, he would help. What made him a good racer? He was just a natural. Back in the day he was one of those guys who, everywhere he went, everything he did was up front,” Thelan said.

‘This was his home’

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Thelan, who crewed for a Trickle racing team at one of the Slinger national races — a successful concept Trickle and the previous track owner came up with to help draw big-name racers mid-week — said the racer worked on his own cars and knew everything about them, a hallmark of old-school racing.

“His type of racer is no longer around,” Thelan said. “Hard to come by these days, when they are all looking for success in five years and if they don’t find it, they’re gone. He didn’t because this was what he did. He came back to these tracks in later years because this was his home.”

Trickle earned cult status away from Wisconsin, too. Former ESPN anchor Keith Olbermann was enamored of the driver’s name, and would regularly mention where Trickle finished after each NASCAR race, drawing snickers from fans.

Former NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine said there was only one way to describe Trickle.

“Fun,” Bodine said. “Just plain fun.”

“People everywhere knew his name,” Bodine said. “That’s why they used his likeness in that movie ‘Days of Thunder.’ He was such a character.”

The main character in the racing movie, played by Tom Cruise, was named Cole Trickle.

Trickle was never one to be told how to live his life. He was known for cutting a hole in his racing helmet so he could have a smoke break when the caution flags flew. One video clip shows him at the Winston 500, lighting up while driving his stock car with his knees.

“He always kept a cigarette lighter in his car,” Bodine said.

Kenseth said he last saw Trickle last year at the Slinger Nationals, which Kenseth won.

“He asked me how I was and if I had a beer,” Kenseth said. “That was Dick.”

It was too early to predict how the state’s racing world would officially react to Trickle’s death, Thelan said, but there would no doubt be some sort of recognition informally at Sunday night’s Alan Kulwicki Memorial race at the Slinger Super Speedway and at other speedways around Wisconsin. Trickle was scheduled to be the featured guest at a state racing hall of fame event this summer, Thelan said.

— State Journal reporters

George Hesselberg and Jane Burns and The Associated Press

contributed to this report.

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