By Shawn Wood
For The Daily Item
Rick Eckert began his late model racing career at Selinsgrove Speedway in 1984 while still a senior in high school.
Two wins and a fourth-place finish in points that year was not enough for Eckert to win Rookie of the Year, an award that instead went to local racer Robbie Smith.
Twenty-nine years later, Eckert, the 2011 World of Outlaws late model champion, still feels like an outsider despite winning the last two straight late model opens at the track.
“I was reading in the racing paper that I got lucky in winning those two races,” Eckert said. “The story read like I’m still an outsider. I don’t care — I’m still coming to race there any way.”
Eckert, 47, is in 10th season racing full-time with the Outlaws.
He’ll be racing with a heavy heart this year following the February death of his mother, Charlotte. She was 80.
“My dad (Junior) drove trucks for a living and when were kids, she raised us and taught us everything; she straightened us out when we went wrong,” he said. “We went racing when dad got home on the weekend and sometimes, he would race two of three nights a week at Lincoln or Williams Grove or Selinsgrove.”
Eckert started his racing career in Figure 8 racing at Trail-Way Speedway before moving to late models.
“My dad got hurt in 1972 at the Grove and had his foot cut off; we didn’t go to the races for 10 years,” he said. “Dad came back in 1982 and raced street stocks at Lincoln and Susquehanna speedways and we were back at it again.”
A year after winning his first-ever WoO title, Eckert scored five wins last year while finishing second in the points to Darrell Lanigan.
“Darrell had one of those years that you dream about,” he said. “When he had a ‘bad’ night, he was finishing third of fourth.”
Lanigan, who has three Outlaw wins this year, lead the points from start to finish last season. He set Outlaw records for single-season wins (15), consecutive wins (six), and won three 100-lap features. Along with his five wins, Eckert recorded 20 top-fives and 34 top-10s last year.
“I was surprised that we finished second,” he noted. “We had a bad month in June. We lost a couple of motors — we had to borrow one and that broke and then our truck broke down. It was a surprise to us that when August came around, we were still in second place.
“In the last four points races of 2012, we beat Darrell in three of them.”
With his mother’s failing health, Eckert flew home during Florida speedweeks to visit her which kept the team from doing more racing.
“We had some mechanical issues in Florida and I didn’t have our cars very good,” he said. “By the end of the speedweeks, we were much better (he scored back-to-back runner-up finishes).”
Through the first eight races of the 2013 WoO season, Eckert has three top fives and seven top-10s. He is fourth in points, 62 behind leader and two-time champion Josh Richards.
“Darrell’s the man to beat again this year and I am optimistic that we have a shot at the title and winning a bunch of races,” he said. “If we beat Darrell, we’ll be OK. Everybody we race against has stepped up their program. It’s getting a lot harder to win and that’s why we are here.”
Eckert will also run 14 shows locally for Paul Crowl Racing in 2013.
After last weekend’s cancellation for cold weather, the Outlaws return to action with the $20,000-to-win Illini 100 on April 5-6.
Eckert is excited about the two-day WoO Labor Day weekend show at Selinsgrove this year.
“Selinsgrove is such an aggressive track that when it gets slippery, it doesn’t slow down as much,” he said. “It wears you out at the end of the night. With most of your big race tracks, you have a chance to relax and hit your marks. Whereas on a small track, you have to be aggressive all the time. Selinsgrove is a big place that races like a little track. You have to be up on the wheel all the time. It would be nice to see them hit a home run with this show.”
Eckert has six career wins at Selinsgrove and he would love nothing more than to add to that total over the Labor Day weekend.
Perhaps as a subtle reminder he began his late model career at the track.