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Life at full speed
Chances are that if you challenge Newberg resident Reb Wickersham to do something, he'll take you up on it.
If it's any kind of competition, it's almost assured that Wickersham will be game for it and, even at 83 years old, there's a still a chance he'll beat you at it.
It's that spirit that got him into drag racing, boat racing, professional waterskiing, marathons, ultra-marathons and, most notably, NASCAR stock car racing in 1960.
A Florida native, Wickersham worked at the Ed Cooke Oldsmobile dealership in Sarasota when he attended the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 with Cooke and some of his co-workers. The whole group was in a sour mood after witnessing the controversial finish, which initially and incorrectly awarded victory to Iowa native Johnny Beauchamp's Thunderbird over North Carolina native Lee Petty's Oldsmobile.
It was bad enough to get beat by a "damn Yankee," but to also finish second to a Ford had Wickersham so incensed that he boasted about returning to Daytona to race an Oldsmobile in the 1960 race.
Chided by Cooke that the 500 was "for the big boys" and challenged by one of his co-workers that he wouldn't show up, Wickersham was determined to prove them wrong and did just that, purchasing a 1960 Oldsmobile Super 88 hardtop at cost from his boss and placing 33rd out of 68 cars in the 1960 Daytona 500.
That experienced launched Wickersham into a five-year run as a independent racer in which he raced in 41 NASCAR Grand National events with four top-10 finishes before he retired following a gruesome crash at the Southern 500 in 1965.
"I was only going to run one race," Wickersham said. "I just wanted to run Daytona to prove myself because I'd been dared. You don't want to dare me or tell me I can't do something because I'll usually do it. I did it and I got it in my blood."
In Wickersham's day, NASCAR was practically the wild west compared to the polished and commercially-packaged spectacle it is today. Wickersham loves to tell stories about "the greatest part" of his life" to give others a glimpse of the sport's good old days.
According to organizers of the fifth annual Back to the Roots Daytona, which celebrates racing history, the "glow in his voice" when Wickersham reminisces is one reason it considers him a racing legend and presented him with the Clifford and Davie Allison Short Track Award last month.
The event was created to honor the life of Bill France Sr. and the legends of auto racing and takes place each year at France's old filling station on Main Street in Daytona Beach, Fla.
"I've done a lot of things in my life, but with NASCAR I still even have dreams of being back on the track," Wickersham said. "It was a great experience. I met a lot of great people, a lot of good friends. I drove with some of the best drivers in the world. Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough and all those guys."
A southerner through and through, Wickersham had done some drag and short-track racing before diving head first into NASCAR, but was also an active boat racer.
He called his boat "The Flying Rebel," which is the original source of his nickname.
When he was having his shiny white 1960 Oldsmobile painted for the Daytona 500 qualifying race, Wickersham joked that the painter wouldn't have enough room on the roof if he used his full name.
"So somebody said, 'What's wrong with Reb?'" Wickersham recalled. "That sounded good to me, so it used to say "C-Reb Wickersham" on the car and I've been Reb ever since.
The Roots Daytona biography notes that 1960s race fans probably don't know the name Charles Wickersham, but mention Reb "and the recognition is immediate.
"If somebody calls me Charles, I don't know who they're talking to," Wickersham added.
As an independent driver, Wickersham was at a distinct disadvantage against racers with full-time rides because he didn't have the resources behind him that come with big sponsorships. Not only was his pit crew as new to NASCAR as he was, but because his team had to build the engines and make repairs themselves back in Sarasota. they couldn't simply drive from race to race to hit every stop on the circuit.
That disadvantage was lessened when Wickerhsam raced in Daytona, even for his first races there, beginning with the 100-mile qualifying race for the 1960 Daytona 500.
After qualifying in 25th, fortune shone on Wickersham when he was approached by Autolite, which offered to install their spark plugs and tune his engine for free as the company was the small kid on the block at the time compared to Champion, which sponsored most of the full-time teams. Goodyear was in a similar position compared to Firestone and also offered him a few sets of tires for the race at no charge.
Those offers ended up making a huge difference in Wickersham getting going in the sport because after finishing highest among the seven Autolite cars in the race, the company sent him a check for $4,000, which was double what he originally paid to purchase the Oldsmobile at cost. Goodyear also paid out $500, so in addition to the official purse listing of $700, Wickersham made enough to split with his crew and pay off some of his biggest expenses.
"I don't think the third-place finisher didn't get as much as I made even though I finished way back there," Wickersham said. "So that kind of got in my blood."
Wickersham went on to compete in 16 races with the Oldsmobile before switching to a year-old 1962 Pontiac from fellow racer Len Sutton for his biggest season in 1963. It was then that he ran 14 races, earning his second career top-10 finish and placing a career-best 33rd in the points standings.
He raced in just four NASCAR events in 1964, three at Daytona, while driving three different cars, but added two more top-10 finishes in 1965, including his best-ever showing of eighth at the Daytona Firecracker.
That success came after teaming up with rising mechanic Bruce Bacon to drive the 1965 Ford owned by Bruce Underwood, but he was seriously injured in a crash at the 1965 Southern 500 at Darlington, which turned out to be the final race of his career.
True to his personality, Wickersham couldn't sit idly by and returned to boat racing while he was still collecting workman's compensation from NASCAR. He had great success, but found there just wasn't any money in it and tried a few times to get back in a NASCAR ride.
He missed his best chance to do so, and what could have been the opportunity of a lifetime, as he was the No. 1 choice to join a well-funded team and draw a six-figure salary for the 1966 season.
Unfortunately, when longtime NASCAR inspector Norris Friel called him to pass along the offer, Wickersham thought he had been calling to meet for coffee and chat, which they had already done several times.
While trying to find a ride at an Atlanta event that season, Wickersham ran into Friel and learned for the first time what he had missed out on, as the opportunity then went to legend Bobby Allison.
"Bobby Allison, that's how he made his big climb," Wickersham said. "It's kind of a coincidence that I end up getting the Clifford and Davey Allison Award. It was a good ride and she put a lot of money into the Ford factory team. But it was the old story: a day late and a dollar short. I should have called Norris and had a cup of coffee!"
In his career, Wickersham drove in the first races at some world-renowned race tracks, including Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina and Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Wickersham's experience at the debut race at Charlotte, the World 600, is a great example of how different the sport was. The race was delayed several weeks and many of the big teams did not finish the race because the asphalt was coming up off the track. Wickersham persevered, starting 50th out of 60 cars and finishing 26th because he rigged up chicken wire on the front end of the car to keep the asphalt from flying on to his windshield or tearing through his radiator.
Even his highest finish should have been seventh, but when another racer challenged him and claimed to be a lap ahead of him, he told him that was fine because he had to get out of there to see his girlfriend.
"I don't follow it that much anymore," Wickersham said of racing. "They've gotten away from what we call stock cars."
After stints ranching and raising wild cats, including cougars and leopards, Wickersham found that he was overweight and decided to take up running in 1978.
His first time out he tried to make it up the long driveway from his house to the road, but made it only a quarter mile, so he challenged himself to improve bit by bit.
He had gotten himself up to five miles before he entered his first race, a 10K.
"I thought I was going to die in that 10K," Wickersham said. "Then I did a 20K and then I did my first marathon."
That 26.2-mile race came at the Orange Bowl Marathon and even though he vowed he was done running and told his wife to throw out his shoes, it was too late. He was already hooked.
"Two weeks later I was up at the University of Florida running the Florida relays. I ran a marathon and knocked 36 minutes off my time. I got hooked on it and ran 24 marathons that year. I was trying to run one every other week. I missed a month, so I went out and ran five in a week."
Wickersham moved to Colorado in 1981 and upped the ante to ultra-marathons (any race longer than 26.2 miles; often 50 or 100 miles), of which he did 37 and eventually ended up setting an age-group world record.
While working for the Woodland Park School District, Wickersham set off on a 24-hour running challenge to help raise money for a school playground project. He ended up going 103 miles and raising about $3,000.
A year later, he decided to do it again and open the event to the public, drawing 60 runners. This time he ran just under 111 miles in 24 hours at 8,500 feet elevation.
"It was the highest anybody had ever run that long that high up, so they called it a world record," Wickersham said. "I held it for a year and a half and a guy beat me. I was 55 at the time and he was 35. He beat me by one hour."
Even having open-heart surgery and both knees replaced couldn't stop Wickersham, who moved to Oregon in 1988 and Newberg in 1989. He ran his last marathon in Portland just three years ago.
"My doctor told me he didn't want me running anymore because of my knees, so I went and did it just to prove I could do it. Then I turned around and did another one."
Although he has slowed down a bit in the past couple of years as he's cared full time for his wife, Gail, Wickersham still works out and sometimes can't help making it into a competition, even if no one else is aware of it.
"My ego gets me," Wickersham said. "I walk up and some guy half my age will be there and I'll ask to work in, then peg the machine down 100, 200 pounds and then they say they don't want to do that one that day. My wife says I'm just trying to rub it in. I love to compete."