J.J. Hickle certainly made the most of his opportunity — one that arrived with an expiration date.
The 31-year-old Washington native produced a career-best season in 2021 that yielded six feature triumphs, including his first five with the Lucas Oil ASCS National Tour en route to a runner-up result and the rookie-of-the-year award during his first season with the series.
The campaign was a dream type of season for Hickle, who hooked up with Ivan and Jane Worden as their family-owned team aimed to end a successful run in sprint car racing on a high note.
“I drove for them probably eight times in 2019,” Hickle said. “At the end of the year, the owners asked if I wanted to live with them and race a full year. I said, ‘Absolutely! That’s all I want.’ Then the COVID thing happened. We felt kinda trapped and we didn’t get to race like we wanted. 2020 was supposed to be the final year, but they didn’t want to end on COVID. They just wanted to do one more real year of racing. That was going to be the end of it. Their grandkids are getting older.
“They’ve been in the racing thing for a lot of years,” Hickle continued. “It’s time for them to take the next step. Jane approached me and said she’d like to go racing one more year but would like to avoid California because of the COVID situation. I told them I wanted to run the ASCS National Tour.”
The partnership clicked from the start with successful runs during select outings in 2019 and when they were able to compete during the pandemic-hampered 2020 season. Yet nobody expected the electric start to the 2021 campaign that Hickle and Co. produced.
Hickle bested 35 other drivers during the opening night of the 48th annual Devil’s Bowl Spring Nationals at Devil’s Bowl Speedway in Mesquite, Texas, during March. The following night he made a late-race move to sweep he season-opening weekend for the Lucas Oil ASCS National Tour.
“Honestly, I’m not going to expect to sweep the weekend, but we were really confident,” he said. “We were coming off a big win in California where we won a race against 55 cars. I enjoy big, fast race tracks. Still, to sweep the opening weekend with the tour like that was a pleasant surprise.”
Hickle returned to victory lane three months later, winning the Fred Brownfield Classic at Grays Harbor Raceway in Elma, Wash.
“That was the biggest one for me,” he said. “Fred helped me get started in sprint car racing. That’s one I’ve always wanted to win and had circled. I grew up racing at that track. We crashed a car the first night. To show up and win the way we did was a really good team effort. That was the most prestigious one for me being a Washington guy.
“You can’t discount the Hockett win, though. Getting to stand in victory lane with Jesse’s dad was really special.”
Hickle scored another marquee victory in September when he captured the 11th annual Jesse Hockett/Daniel McMillin Memorial at Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Mo. The three-day event was his first time at the track and he capped the tripleheader by earning the $10,000 top prize.
“The first night I definitely struggled and we had to come out of a B main,” he said. “The second night we made the front row of the feature and fell back a few spots. We had a hard time getting a hold of it. The track was a little bit different the final night. It was a little less slick. That definitely came to us.”
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