By T.J. Buffenbarger
(January 1, 2024) — Finding out legendary sprint car driver Rick Ferkel had passed away this morning was an extremely sad way to start out a new year. The loss of Ferkel is one that is felt literally around the sprint car world. There are very few places around the world with sprint car racing that Ferkel did not visit as a driver, crew chief, or official.
Ferkel has been influential in the sprint car world during my entire existence. I remember as a small child seeing a rare television ad for Ionia County Speedway touting that Ferkel would be appearing at a race that coming week. Somehow my father telling stories of watching Ferkel having the first World of Outlaws championship slip through his grasp at Eldora. Stories like that along with the countless racing periodicals around our house were able to convey Ferkel’s importance in sprint car racing to me even as a very young child.
I only got to catch the end of Ferkel’s driving career and never actually recall seeing him win a race (I was likely asleep on a bleacher board if he did up here in Michigan, but remember how thrilled some long time Ferekl supporters were we used to camp next to at Fremont Speedway that were able to witness Ferkel’s last All Star win at Fremont, a moment I’ve been told that created a roar capable of blowing the roof off the Sandusky County Fairgrounds legendary covered grandstand.
In some ways I’m appreciative of missing out on some aspects of Ferkel’s driver career, because I was able to see first-hand what he did as a car owner, official, and crew chief that had such of huge impact on the sport that will remain for decades to come.
Ferkel guiding Doug Kalitta’s efforts during his successful USAC National Sprint Car Series tenure set the stage for Ferkel being in demand to be a crew chief and advisor to young drivers for several more decades.
In one of Ferkel’s last regular driving stints with Bob and Heath Miller around the 360-sprint car circuit in Ohio, I was at Limaland one night when Ferkel was racing. I walked up to track photographer Mike Campbell, who seemed busier than normal. When I asked what was keeping him so busy, all the regular sprint car drivers at Lima were requesting copies of photos with them side by side with Ferkel.
My first actual interaction with Ferkel came when he oversaw the Gumout Series for the World of Outlaws. Maybe it’s because I had such close exposure to the situation, but I feel Ferkel’s work with this series along with Rex LeJeune, Lenny Ferguson, and for one year Kendra Jacobs before her career working in NASCAR took off, was possible the most influential on the sport.
Working with that Gumout Series crew was so enjoyable when covering races. The coolest part though was getting to know Ferkel and his wife Cathy. It’s often said you don’t want to meet your heroes, but Ferkel was the antithesis of this phrase. Not only would you want to meet him, but he also exceeded my expectations of what a great human being he. He didn’t mind a young reporter tagging along, sleeping on the floor of a hotel room with his other officials, and giving great background and perspective to situations.
Ferkel was there on the road to not only officiate and run the series, but he was a built-in sounding board for a series designed to groom future stars for the World of Outlaws. Craig Dollansky, Brad Furr, Ronald Laney, Kraig Kinser, Paul McMahan, Jason Meyers, Jeff Shepard, Shane Stewart, and a host of other drivers were groomed for bigger and better things with the Gumout Series and can assure you Ferkel had a lasting influence on each and every one as I often saw them consulting him or sometimes finding themselves being sought out by Ferkel himself if advice was needed.
Later, Ferkel fielded a team regularly around Ohio and was known for putting young talent in the seat of his zero car. One of those drivers was a kid from Oklahoma named Christopher Bell that not many of us had heard of before he came north to drive for Ferkel. While Bell’s talent likely would have gotten him to the NASCAR ranks without Ferkel’s help, it did help expedite the process and Bell has always spoken of how much Ferkel meant to his career.
As he got older, and his health became an issue, Rick and Cathy moved up here to Michigan at one point to be near his son Ricky. I ran into them at a Sunday evening World of Outlaws show at Eldora, ironically dominated by Bell, where they told me they had moved north. I had also started seeing them pop up at SOD shows with Ricky behind the wheel, which all the local drivers still thought having Rick Ferkel was in their pit area was awesome.
From coast to coast and country to county I would be hard pressed to find someone more influential in the roles of driver, official, crew chief, and car owner as Ferkel. Every single person from fan to participant owes Ferkel a debt of gratitude for helping shape the sprint car world we see today.