By Scott Whitmore Special to The Herald
On a Saturday night in late July, as he had so many times in the past, Ricky “The Kid” Deitz packed up his car after racing at Evergreen Speedway.
Unlike other Saturday nights, this time Deitz did not hang around in the infield talking to other drivers from the Figure Eight Auto Racing (FEAR) club, reliving the night’s events or races from years gone by.
Deitz had someplace else to be.
A love of racing brought the Arlington man to the track, but even as Deitz was winning the 100-lap feature race that night, he had something else on his mind.
His 5-year-old daughter, Nikki Harding, was camping with her mother in Oregon, and Deitz would make the long drive from Monroe to join them as soon as he could.
“I’ll be involved in racing for the rest of my life,” Deitz said recently. “But there are things in life, as I get older, there are things more important than racing.”
At 40, The Kid is no longer a youngster, and Deitz is determined to be as involved in Nikki’s life as he can. That’s the opposite of the way things were when she was a newborn. Back then, Deitz stayed as far from Nikki as he could, but not because he didn’t love her.
Four years ago, he was heavily into methamphetamine, and Deitz said he avoided his daughter to protect her “because I was involved with some scary people.”
“It was a smart decision at the time, but I missed out on so much of her life,” Deitz continued. “I can’t get that back.”
Going wide through the turn
Like his father before him, Deitz is a Super Figure Eight racer at Evergreen Speedway. A three-time champion, Vern “Crazy Cajun” Deitz became a member of the FEAR Hall of Fame in 1995, his 25th year of racing.
As a teenager, Ricky Deitz began to race alongside his father and “the nickname (The Kid) was virtually foisted on him,” said Ben Chandler, a figure-eight racer for more than 30 years. “His dad was basically the grand poobah of FEAR.”
Unlike oval-track racing, figure-eight drivers turn left and right every lap, and they are often surrounded by other cars while battling to move forward. One wrong move — going too wide into a corner or contact in the intersection — and a driver can fall out of contention in the blink of an eye.
Getting involved with meth was like making a huge mistake on the racetrack, and Deitz slipped into an addiction that lasted five years.
He tried to quit a few times, but the drug kept drawing him back. Eventually he quit racing — “I knew it wouldn’t be right” to compete high, Deitz said — and his family and friends would have nothing to do with him.
At that point — either at rock bottom or with it clearly in sight — Deitz’s car broke down on the highway and longtime family friend and figure-eight racer Jerry Funden agreed to come help him. Funden also made one last attempt to talk sense into The Kid.
It was a pivotal moment for Deitz, who broke down in tears but listened to what Funden had to say, which was pretty much what everyone else had already told him.
“All I did was open his eyes — he complained about everyone hating him, his family hated him, his friends,” Funden said. “(Everyone had) facilitated his drug habit, but then they cut him off out of love. Basically that’s what woke him up.”
To get off meth, Deitz went cold turkey. Unlike earlier failed attempts to get clean, Deitz said he isolated himself from the drug crowd he was hanging with, moved to another city and “didn’t come out of the house for nine months.”
“He disappeared from the scene,” Chandler said of that period. “He had some tough things to overcome.”
Back on track
Clean for four years, Deitz is happier now than he has ever been. He loves working as a certified welder for Wesweld Corporation in Stanwood, and he is thinking of becoming a homeowner for the first time.
About a year after getting off drugs, Deitz returned to racing.
“That’s my family, the figure-eight guys,” he said. “I don’t hunt, don’t fish, don’t have a quad or a sports car. I race.”
This season has been up and down for Deitz, who built a new car but weathered a series of engine problems early on. With help from friends Marvin Boney and Paul Pedersen, Deitz was able to set a figure-eight track record at Evergreen Speedway on Aug. 22, turning a lap of 16.882 seconds to eclipse the prior mark of 17.182.
Although Deitz won’t win the figure-eight title this season — with just one race left, three-time champion John “Cowboy” Carlson has a comfortable points lead — The Kid will be back trying next year.
“I really am sticking around the figure-eight track to win a championship,” Deitz said. “I want to go down in history as the first father-and-son champions in FEAR.”
Deitz speaks openly about his past drug problem and what it has cost him, but he isn’t looking for pity. He accepted responsibility for his actions and says the biggest inspiration to stay clean is that he now likes the man he sees in the mirror.
That, and his daughter.
Deitz said Nikki has called him “dad” a couple times recently, and hearing it was bittersweet: He is becoming part of her life, but it hurts to think about how much of that life he missed.
“Having a family is a whole new thing in his life; he’s never had a girlfriend with kids or anything like that,” Funden said. “All that is exciting to him. … On drugs, the only exciting thing is chasing your next high.
“I imagine there are a lot more things Ricky will do with his life,” Funden continued, “now that he’s off drugs.”
Things like camping with his daughter.