February 12, 2014 — Audio and story by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Speed77 Radio and Race Chaser Online — Photo credit Don Thompson — NAPA, CA — James Bickford didn’t even expect to get a chance in 2014.
Instead, he ended up with an opportunity beyond his wildest imagination.
Bickford, who will turn sixteen next month, was tapped to pilot the championship-winning No. 6 entry from Bob Bruncati Racing for 2014, the same car that Derek Thorn won the NASCAR K&N Pro Series West (KNPSW) championship a season ago. The young man out of Napa, California, cousin to four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, will be making a run for both Rookie of the Year honors and the season-long championship in 2014.
“It’s a huge honor and a privilege to be able to drive for a car owner the likes of Bob Bruncati in 2014,” Bickford expressed of his new team for 2014. “We had hoped to run one or two K&N races this year, and that was in my wildest dreams. Now we’re running the full season in one of the best cars out there. It’s crazy!”
Bickford began his racing career at age five driving quarter midgets in California, but quickly began traveling across the country, chasing excellence in locales including Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Washington, Oregon, Nevada and his home state of California. Bickford claimed fifteen quarter midget championships, including one dirt Grand National title, and won more than 200 feature events in his time in the QM ranks.
From there, the progression took off. Bickford moved to Bandoleros in 2010 and tackled Legend Cars in 2011, winning INEX Rookie of the Year and setting a Legends track record at his home track, All-American Speedway (AAS). In 2012, Bickford started strong and was a threat to win the Legends track championship at AAS before encountering a setback in August that ended his season.
The day before he was scheduled to be fitted for a late model seat, Bickford broke his arm playing high school football.
“I ended up at the bottom of a pile,” Bickford said of the incident. “That day, as soon as I tried to get up I knew I broke it.”
“The last thing (the car owner) said before we set up the fitting was ‘don’t get hurt,’” Bickford laughed. “Looking back, maybe that jinxed me. I learned two things from that whole deal. Don’t get jinxed, and don’t ever play football if you’re 5’3” and weigh 120 pounds.”
After recovering from his injury, Bickford made the transition to the NASCAR WHELEN All-American Series (NWAAS) Late Model division at All-American, and proved that being related to the driver tabbed as “Wonder Boy” in the late 1990s pays dividends. The young Californian notched his first NWAAS win in just his fourth start in May of 2013, becoming the youngest winner in the history of the late model division at AAS to win a main event.
Bickford followed that up with a stunning run of excellence through the summer months, notching six wins in total over the final eight races, including a win on the final night of competition to secure the track championship by a scant nine points over Ron Chunn.
With the win, Bickford became the youngest titlist in track history, and says he expected to contend, but that the finish to the season was something even he didn’t expect.
“It was truly a special night for all of us,” said Bickford, who presented his sponsor, Buff Bredehoft, of Buffship.com, with the flag following the event. “I knew all along we were going to have a chance at it, but even I didn’t expect that we were going to close the season the way we did. It was amazing, and it really proved how bad we wanted it this year. I’m just so proud of what we were able to do and I hope it carries over to this year as well.”
Bredehoft, a staunch supporter of both Bickford and cousin Gordon, passed last month just days after the announcement that his driver would pilot the Bruncati Racing No. 6 in 2014.
“It was tough on us,” Bickford admits. “Buff backed our family for a long time, and it’s going to be tough going to the race track this year without him being there. But the goal is to succeed and to overachieve, because he would have wanted me to do just that.”
Even before the deal came together, Bickford was insistent on racing in the K&N Pro Series for 2014. The team had hoped to race a handful of events last season, but funding never materialized, though they had everything but a motor.
Last fall, Bob Bruncati reached out to Bickford about the possibility of racing one of his cars for 2014, with Derek Thorn’s departure imminent. Bickford then went to Irwindale Speedway to test for Bruncati in early December, and immediately impressed, nearly setting an unofficial track record in the K&N car.
“The test at Irwindale was phenomenal,” Bickford said. “I didn’t know anything about the track except for racing it online.”
“I went out and on the first lap I thought to myself, ‘This is pretty easy’. It was a lot different than racing my Late Model though,” Bickford chuckled.
“At the end I ran a really fast lap (18.41), and I came close to beating the K&N Series track record at the track. It was just awesome.”
Despite worries about a lack of funding, perseverance from Bickford’s father Tom and the rest of his supporters led to enough to warrant a signed contract from Bruncati and the Sunrise Ford team.
Bickford got the text from his dad while he was in class, and said he nearly flew out of his seat he was so excited.
“I was in class, and all of a sudden I got a text. I look at it, and it’s from my dad, and he says, ‘It’s you. You got the seat with Bruncati.’ And it was all I could not to jump up and shout; that was just, one of those moments that everything’s electric and you’re flying on Cloud Nine forever afterwards.”
Now, the young Bickford and the team look to the KNPSW season opener at Phoenix International Raceway on Thursday, February 27th as their first test of the 2014 season. The Casino Arizona 75 will race as an undercard to the NASCAR Nationwide Series and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events that same weekend.
Bickford says he is confident that he can win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year Award in the K&N West Series, but admits the championship would be a tall order. He said in the end, he will be satisfied to just have a good overall season.
“My goal for this year is just to go out and do what I’ve been doing up to now, and that’s perform. Hopefully we can win Rookie of the Year, and grab a win this year. That would be a great season in my mind. If we can contend for the championship, that would be even more amazing. I know this team is capable of that, and I want to try and give them that if we can run strong.”
“But for me, just this whole situation is already more amazing than I could have ever scripted. I’ve been walking on air the last month, and I’m ready to get this season underway. It’s time to go out and see what we can make of it.”
Listen in to our full interview with James Bickford as he talks his history in motorsports, his outlook on his rookie K&N West season, and his interactions with cousin Jeff Gordon: