Race car driver James Bickford, 13, is moving on up.
The former multi-time Quarter Midget championship driver, who raced a Bandolero car in 2010, has moved up to drive a Legend car in the Legends of the Pacific Series for the 2011 season.
Like his cousin before him, legendary NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, this young Napa resident is determined to be the best at what he does.
Legend cars are among the hardest and most physically challenging cars to race. Matt Scott, the 2010 NASCAR Late Model champion at All American Speedway in Roseville — and a good friend of Bickford’s — gave him a heads-up about how hard it would be to make the switch.
“Going from Quarter Midgets or Bandoleros to Legends is a huge leap,” Scott said.
“A Legend car is the hardest car I have ever driven. If you can drive a Legend car, you can drive anything.”
After making the decision to race a Legend car for 2011, Bickford was offered a great opportunity to get the party started.
Visiting with Gordon during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Infineon last June, Bickford and his father Tom got into a conversation with Joe Custer, Tony Stewart’s general manager.
Tom had bought a Bandolero car from Custer in 2010. At the end of their conversation, Custer offered Bickford a chance to come to his home in Charlotte, N.C., and try out his son Cole’s Legend car.
In August, Bickford boarded a plane and headed to Charlotte for his new adventure.
“I have to admit, putting your 12-year old son on an airplane by himself, to travel across the country and drive a race car without being there, was a little scary,” his father said.
Bickford stayed in Charlotte for a week. During that time, he got to work in Stewart’s driver development shop. He worked on Legends, Ford Focus Midgets and Late Models. He was able to run over 100 laps in a Legend car at the nearby quarter-mile Concord Speedway.
“I really enjoyed going to Charlotte and meeting new people,” Bickford said.
“Driving the Legend for the first time was a great experience that I will never forget. The week was very fast-paced and I wish I could have stayed longer.”
Bickford said the transition from Bandolero cars to Legends has been exhilarating.
“The Legend has a lot more horsepower than a Bandolero,” he said.
“When I hit the throttle on the straightaway, it threw me back in the seat and that was a rush of excitement. I haven’t felt that since the first time I drove a Light B in Quarter Midgets back when I was eight.”
Bickford went on to say that you have to use the brakes a lot more when driving a Legend car, and make several more adjustments to the car.
“It is one of those cars you have to be very smooth with and you also have to have good throttle control. The tires don’t have much grip and it’s very slippery,” he said.
Bickford said another challenge racing a Legend car would be competing with a lot more cars on the track than he is used to.
He competed in his first Legends race April 2, at Stockton 99 Speedway. He qualified third and finished the race in eighth place.
“Getting third in qualifying was awesome, and I got to be in the Trophy Dash my first race,” Bickford said.
During practice laps before qualifying, his father told Bickford to take it easy and go slow while scrubbing in the new tires to break them in.
“He wanted me to run an 18-second lap and I got really nervous when he said that to me,” Bickford said. “I’m not used to other cars lapping me.”
Bickford said when the race finally started it was crazy because there were so many new things he had to think about.
He passed a couple of cars and raced side-by-side with Bob Kuebler for a bunch of laps. “He tried to run close to me down the straightaway, but I just held my line and eventually passed him,” he said.
As he was trying to pass Greg Baxter, two cars crashed into the wall right in front of them, causing Baxter to lock up his brakes.
Bickford bumped him with his right front bumper and tire. It knocked the toe out and his car was hard to steer the rest of the race.
“My arms got really tired,” he said, but when all was said and done, “It was all new and very exciting.”
Bickford raced his second Legend race this past Saturday, April 9, at Lakeport Speedway. He qualified fifth and finished the race in sixth place.
“Lakeport Speedway is a tough track to race on your first time,” his father said.
“It is like racing in a bowl. You are in a turn the whole time. James was very, very, tired after his first practice that was only 12 laps.”
Bickford went from a 14.8-second lap to a 13.8-second lap in just two practices. The track record is 13.527.
“Lakeport Speedway was very exhausting to drive, but it was fun,” Bickford said. “I was warned by other drivers how dangerous it can be. Many cars have been destroyed when they hit the wall. I tried to be careful all night and stay out of crashes.”
Bickford is looking forward to his next race, which will be this upcoming Saturday, April 16 at All American Speedway in Roseville.
“I am really looking forward to next week racing at Roseville,” he said. “I hear there are going to be 30 cars. I raced there last year in the Bando car and I like that track.”
When Bickford raced his Bandolero car at AAS last year he set the fast time, won the heat, won the dash and won the main.
It will be a big night of racing in Roseville. Along with Legend car racing, there will be a SRL Southwest Tour Series race, and the NASCAR K&N Pro West Series race.