By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
It’s often been said that for those who have driven race cars, nothing else in their lives ever quite measures up to the thrill of competing in an automobile race.
It’s like an addiction with no antidote, and many a driver, even some of the all-time great ones, continue to hang onto the steering wheel long after their winning skills have left them.
Dick Berggren, the longtime racing editor and broadcaster who retired from the FOX team after last Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway, knows how those drivers feel. But he’s also managed to put together a remarkable career after his own driving days ended, and he’s not done yet.
“I’m not retiring,” Berggren said. “I’m still heavily involved in Speedway Illustrated and also heading up a group intending to build a museum to capture history of New England auto racing that will be at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.”
It’s a fitting project for a 70-year-old New England native who has carried on a lifelong love affair with auto racing, an affair that began when he was eight years old and his father took him to a race at Stafford Springs Speedway.
“It was love at first sight,” Berggren said. “I walked in, and I just thought it was the most exciting thing I could have ever imagined, never mind seeing.
“It just took hold, and it’s still got a hold on me.”
Rice Brainard won that race, driving a cut-down car powered by a straight-eight Buick engine that overwhelmed the rest of the car, and young Dick anxiously awaited return trips to the track.
“My parents figured out it was the way to control me as a child,” he said. “If they needed the lawn mowed, put Dick on the job and we’ll let him go to the races on Saturday night.
“My childhood was doing things so I could earn the money to get admission to the speedway, doing things so my mom and day would take me to the speedway on the weekends.”
As he got older, he began hanging around race shops, bumming rides to the tracks and planning on ways to get his own race car one day.
He went from being a poor student in school to an excellent one, his thinking being that an education was the ticket to the funds needed to race.
While in graduate school, he bought his first race car.
“I got impatient,” he said. “I bought a car, and off I went.”
He ran his first race at Stafford, the same track where he first saw a race.
“I ran the last couple of races that were ever run there on the dirt, in 1965,” he said. “I was pretty awful. The second race I went into the wall and broke my hand. It’s the only bone I’ve ever broken in my whole life.”
But his driving skills improved, and soon his racing life came to be in conflict with his academic life.
He was teaching psychology at Emmanuel College, at that time an all-women’s school in Boston.
One weekend his racing schedule forced him to drive his ramp truck, with his mud-covered sprint car on back, to work on Monday morning.
“I pulled into faculty parking lot and about 10 minutes later, there was a page: “Dr. Berggren, report to the president’s office.”
The president informed him that dirt track cars wouldn’t be tolerated on campus. Berggren refused to park his rig on the street. Neither party budged, so at that point, he shifted to a full-time career in motorsports.
“That was the end of my professional teaching career,” he said.
Although most people know Berggren from his media roles, he also was a credit to the sport as a driver.
Asked to rate himself as a driver, Berggren said: “In my best days driving a sprint car I was pretty darned good.”
He wasn’t so good at other forms of racing, but the radical sprint cars suited his style.
“If it was a really nasty, overpowered car that you could throw around and be violent with, I was really good,” he said. “I was no good with the kind of cars that you had to drive well to move up in almost any kind of professional racing. I was a terrible pavement driver. I wasn’t smooth.”
A meticulous stat keeper in his media career, Berggren wasn’t that way about his own racing.
He figures he won somewhere around 20 main events.
“I never wrote any of that stuff down when it was going on,” he said.
His broadcasting and magazine duties eventually began to take time away from his driving, and he began to look forward to running celebrity events where he didn’t have to worry about preparing a car.
It was in one of those events, at Boone Speedway in Iowa, that his driving days came to an end. It was the track’s biggest race of the year and fans had overflowed past the area where they were protected by guardrails.
“I got to the end of the backstretch,” he said. “Somebody hit me in the back, turned the car, and I was headed to the pits.
“I hit a dirt bank, and as soon as I did I saw people starting to scatter. I closed my eyes. I was always afraid I was going to hurt someone else driving a race car. When I landed, I was fortunate enough not to hit anybody or hurt anybody.
“I decided right then and there, it was the most frightening thing I’d ever had happen to me in my life. I didn’t want to go through that again. I got out of the car and I never raced again.”
He said he’s had second thoughts to this day, but he stuck with his decision and moved over to the media side of the sport on a full-time basis.
But like any other driver who no longer races, it’s just not quite the same for him.
“Nothing has given me as much satisfaction as driving that sprint car when it was hooked up,” he said. “That’s been the best part of it. To step on the gas, see the front end pick up off the ground, pass people and see the checkered flag waving. You’re in front. You’re the big winner on a Saturday night at a local speedway.
“That’s been the highlight for me, bigger and better than announcing as a part of the best announcing team that has ever been at the Daytona 500.”