By T.J. Buffenbarger
KNOXVILLE, Iowa. (August 11, 2022) — Two blocks behind the hustle and bustle of the Knoxville Nationals in a nice, but modest shop J.J. Hickle with car owner Brandon Ikenberry are doing maintenance on their sprint car on Friday morning. The work was going at a relaxed pace due to an outstanding performance during the Thursday night program at the 61st NOS Energy Drink Knoxville Nationals presented by Casey’s that has him locked into the A-Main on Saturday night.
Knoxville is around 1,878 miles from Quilcene, Washington where Hickle used to call home. Hickle has been a well-known entity in the Northwest winning track championships at Skagit Speedway and Grays Harbor Raceway. Hickle has grabbed the attention of many onlookers with some outstanding performances on the ASCS National Tour with some high-profile victories in that series.
When Hickle’s time with car owners Jane and Ivan Worden came to an end, an online interview where Hickle mentioned he was looking for opportunities caught Ikenberry’s eye.
“It was a pretty crazy deal,” Hickle said while working on his race car. “I was fortunate enough to get to run that ASCS deal with the Wordon’s last year and had a breakout season. At the end of the year, I did a video with “the Chas,” funny enough, and Brandon Ikenberry was starting a new team and he had a few drivers last year and he was looking to kind of nail one guy down this year and really build something. He saw the video and heard that I was looking for a ride and gave me a call.”
After some discussions in November the deal was finalized and Hickle packed from Washington and moved into a small apartment in Des Moines to try and make the most out of his opportunity that would be focused on Knoxville Raceway. Hickle made the move to live in an area where sprint car racing had a higher profile.
The biggest thing is just coming into an area where everybody loves sprint car racing,” said Hickle. “At a lot of my friends I went to school with and stuff everybody thinks I drive dune buggies or go karts. Coming out here wehere sprint car race is life I’ll get my ID checked at a gas station and somebody will notice I’m from Washington and ask why I’m in Iowa and I’ll tell them that I drive sprint cars and they ask if it’s at Knoxville Raceway. I’ll be 100 miles from here and everybody knows about Knoxville and if you want to be a racecar driver, this is this is a great spot to be.”
Hickle has taken his lumps at times making the transition to 410 sprint car racing full time with six top 10’s and no top fives at Knoxville Raceway coming into the Nationals. His time on the ASCS National Tour was great experience to prepare him for this opportunity, Hickle
“Knoxville is unlike anything else, you know, you can be good everywhere else, and you come to Knoxville and it just doesn’t care unless you have laps and a good baseline,” said Hickle of his first full time season in the 410 sprint car division. “It’s been difficult. The locals here are extremely tough, obviously the best local competition in the Midwest. The PA guys come out here and they struggle like we do when we go out there. It’s just one of those deals where without laps it’s extremely tough.”
Hickle’s seventh top 10 finish of the season was his most important one because it took place in Thursday night’s preliminary feature. That top ten was the last piece of the puzzle to lock him into the A-Main at the Knoxville Nationals for the first time in his career.
The standout moment for Hickle so far at this year’s nationals occurred during his heat race on Thursday. After the first start was called back, Hickle made a move that propelled him from sixth starting position to the lead to win the heat race during a week when passing during the heats has been at a premium.
“My guys, they put a pretty good tune on the thing and our whole goal was just to get through turn one as good as we could,” said Hickle. “The first start went green, and the bottom row jumped a little bit. That put us in a bad spot, and I knew on the second one I just I had to go where they weren’t. If that first start stuck, we probably wouldn’t be talking to you right now.”
“So on the second one I knew I had to go where they weren’t it was just one of those things where a hole opened and those guys went to the bottom, and we just railed the top just perfectly. It’s one of those situations you kind of dream about seeing when you’re starting that far back.”
Hickle ended up dropping back from fifth to 10th in the feature, but that top 10 finish combined with his qualifying and heat race effort assured him a starting spot in Saturday’s finale.
It’s like a dream come true, a career defining moment for sure,” Hickle described making his first Nationals A-Main. “It made leaving everything at home and coming out here and like living alone and stuff worth it.”
With the preliminary program behind him and a day to prep Hickle still has high expectations for himself going into Saturday’s A-Main.
“We approach every race like we want to go forward like in a perfect world. I’d like to pick up a few of them in the first 25 laps, a couple more on the next 25, and see if we get ourselves up towards the front,” said Hickle. “Obviously it’s the most stacked field you’re ever going to race against, but we got a good car, and we do our jobs right I think we will be there at the end.”