Here's Nichels and an assistant...
Here's Nichels and an assistant testing a Pontiac V-8 on the dyno. Note the reverse-flow cooling system, indicating a pre-'58 V-8 engine.
To many Pontiac fans under the age of 50, the name Ray Nichels may not ring any bells, but were it not for this pioneer of stock car racing, Pontiac's early factory motorsports efforts might not have been anywhere near as successful as they were. Nichels was a key part of General Manager Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen's reinvention of the ailing Division. After seeing Nichels in action, Pontiac's chief knew that Ray would be exactly the right man for the job. He also knew that the job wouldn't be easy. Nichels just made it look that way.
Ray Nichels was born on September 8, 1922, in Chicago, the second of four children. His father Rudy came to America from Austria in 1908 at the age of 10 and worked hard to achieve the American Dream.
A born entrepreneur, Rudy purchased a small tire store in Chicago and parlayed the profits from that business into others, including a restaurant in Highland, Indiana, near Griffith, where the Nichels family had moved just before the stock market crash of 1929. The entire family worked hard, with mother Gladys and older sister Grace operating the restaurant.
From there, Rudy opened a filling and service station in Highland, as well as a tavern. More service stations followed and the family's diligence was paying off.
The Nichels' work ethic was also passed on to Ray, who juggled jobs and education from grade school right through high school. He would eat dinner right after coming home from school and then go to bed. He would arise again at 11:00 p.m. and go to work at the garage until it was time for school. He would often repair cars outdoors, even during the bitter Midwestern winters.
With the family businesses being fairly diverse, the elder Nichels decided he needed an advertising plan that could effectively promote all of his businesses. After careful research, he decided that campaigning a midget racer would best fit his needs. He purchased a proven winner from Wally "The Human Cyclone" Zale and, after rebuilding it, put Teddy Duncan behind the wheel. The crewchief and one-man crew was none other than 15-year-old Ray Nichels.
This is Nichels Engineering's...
This is Nichels Engineering's car carrier loaded up with '62 Tempests prepped for that year's Pure Oil Economy Run. Super Duty versions of both four-cylinder and 421 engines were used.
Ray quickly learned the ropes and was put on the road with Duncan, campaigning the green #9 midget. They were very successful and the wins were paying off handsomely. With the racing going so well and his role as crewchief so important, Ray did not return to school for his junior year.
Rudy and Ray built another car after selling the #9 midget. It was an ultra-lightweight machine that was outboard-powered like #9 was. Soon, two more cars and drivers were added to the team and Rudy began focusing his energies on racing exclusively. In 1940, Rudy Nichels sold off his other businesses to concentrate on racing.
The invasion of Pearl Harbor came on December 7, 1941. Since the entrance of the United States into WWII put a ban on all forms of racing, the Nichels racing operation was put on hold. Ray enlisted in the Coast Guard and was awarded a second-grade mechanics license. He was initially stationed near his home, on Lake Michigan, on a fire-fighting tugboat based in East Chicago, which allowed him to come home on weekends. He met his wife Eleanor on one such visit. Later on he was on the East Coast and then Greenland.
When the war was over, the Nichels family jumped back into midget car racing, which was enjoying a huge surge in popularity. Rudy became heavily involved in promoting races and organized the Mid-West Racing Association in 1945.
In the years that followed, Ray Nichels began branching out from midget cars and fielded an entry in the '50 Indianapolis 500. "Basement Bessie," as it became known, was built in a Hammond, Indiana, basement with his lifelong friend Paul Russo. During the mid-'50s, he and drivers Sam Hanks and Pat O'Connor set a series of world speed records with the Firestone Kurtis-Kraft test car at Chrysler's Chelsea proving grounds and the high-banked oval of Monza, Italy. In 1957, he was named Indianapolis 500 Pole Mechanic of the Year.
Also in 1957, Pontiac, looking to strengthen its performance image, was interested in entering the NASCAR Winter Grand Nationals at Daytona. Knudsen asked Ray Nichels to help prepare a Pontiac for Daytona. Though only 35 at the time, Nichels had 20 years of crewchief experience under his belt and had amassed a huge amount of knowledge in that time. Driver Cotton Owens raced the Nichels-prepared Chieftain on Daytona's famed beach course. Much to everyone's surprise, and Pontiac's delight, he won.
This recent photo of Ray Nichels...
This recent photo of Ray Nichels with A.J. Foyt was taken at Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Speedway.
It didn't take long before Nichels found himself working nearly full-time on Pontiac's newly created motorsports program. Pontiac was considered an underdog, and when the car won, it gained a new respect within the racing world.
Soon, Pontiac was collecting wins on a regular basis, and its performance image was growing. In the time between the first win with Pontiac and the '63 GM Racing Ban, Ray had built Nichels Engineering into one of the most successful racing operations in the history of all of motorsports. By the time he closed his doors in 1973, Nichels' "Go-Fast Factory" had amassed an unbelievable number of USAC, NASCAR, IMCA, and ARCA national stock car championships in the hands of the greatest drivers of all times.
Now 82, and still living in Indiana with his wife Eleanor, Ray Nichels has broken his silence of more than 30 years and has agreed to an interview in HPP.
HPP: Were you interested in cars and racing before your father got involved with midget cars?
Nichels: No, I was only a little kid! I was born in 1922 and he got involved in racing in 1937.
HPP: It must have been exciting to be involved with all that as a kid.
Nichels: Well--coming through the Depression--just to get something to eat was exciting!
HPP: Pontiac really didn't have much in the way of a performance image like Olds or Chrysler. Did you ever doubt that Pontiacs could be competitive?
Nichels: I was just dumb enough to think that you could make anything go!
This vintage Nichels Engineering...
This vintage Nichels Engineering advertisement shows the exotic fuel-injected Pontiac V-8 engine that powered the Nichels Kurtis Indy car, which was used as a Firestone tire test car.
HPP: From a racing standpoint, what were the strong and weak points of the Pontiac V-8s?
Nichels: No, it was all bad! (laughs) We started working on them and everything started breaking. It's like working on a chain; every time a link would break, you make it better and eliminate the weak points. Eventually, you have all the links beefed up and you have a good one. You had to work with the stock pistons, stock rods, and all that. You had to sort through everything and pick out the good ones.
HPP: You were certainly able to make them winners though.
Nichels: It was really just a matter of working out the bugs.
HPP: You were already a seasoned veteran by the time Bunkie Knudsen came calling. How did you meet and why do you think he chose your operation to get Pontiac's racing activities underway?
Nichels: I met Bunkie down in Indianapolis. I was working for Bill Ansted [owner of the Ansted Rotary Engineering Special Indy team], and everybody was having oiling problems at the time with the Offy engines. We could run fast, but we couldn't keep enough oil in them. There were about six teams in the same position, so we agreed amongst ourselves that the first guy to find the problem would share it with the others. Bunkie was around there when that was all going on and I was lucky enough to find it first and share it with everybody. And then I didn't see Bunkie. I was under contract to Firestone and I'd run tire tests. Bunkie called me and wanted me to go to Arizona. He said they had Pontiacs out there trying to run high speeds but blowing oil. He thought of me and got a hold of me that way, and I told him, "I can't go out there. I'm under contract." (laughs) Right in the middle of it, he contacted Raymond Firestone who then called me and said, "Did you get a phone call from a guy named Bunkie Knudsen?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "What did he want?" I said, "He wanted me to go to Arizona 'cause they're having trouble with oil." Firestone then asked me, "What did you tell him?" I said, "I told him I couldn't go." He said "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm right in the middle of a tire test." He said, "Shut the test down and go to Arizona!" So that's how I got in with Bunkie.
HPP: You had some top-rate drivers working with you. Paul Goldsmith was amazing and you had greats like David Pearson and A.J. Foyt running in USAC back then. What was it like working with them?
Nichels: They were all great. Let's see, I had Penske driving one, and Rodger Ward, Len Sutton. I always had good chauffeurs.
In addition to their Pontiac...
In addition to their Pontiac activities, Nichels Engineering was also under contract to Firestone for testing and development. The fleet of test cars pictured here includes a '59 Catalina, a Pontiac-powered Kurtis Indy car, and a '58 Chieftain.
HPP: Besides Paul Goldsmith, do you keep in touch with any friends from your racing days?
Nichels: All of them. I talk to all of them occasionally. Of course, a lot of them aren't around anymore. They were all good friends. That was the tough part of doing the book with Bill--reliving all of the bad memories.
HPP: Was there a big learning curve developing the Pontiacs into competitive race cars? Did Pontiac provide any engineering support?
Nichels: I worked directly for Bunkie Knudsen, so I had a lot of support. I'd meet with the Engineering Department, though I didn't know all their names. I do remember Russ Gee. I guess he got to be a big wheel there. Real nice.
HPP: We did an interview with him recently. He's retired now, but he made it pretty high up the ladder at GM.
Nichels: He was a kid when I first met him. He was a Project Engineer at the time. Pontiac was very helpful with that sort of thing. We even had access to metallurgists. They were always willing to help improve things.
HPP: Back in the days with Pontiac, stock meant stock, and the cars raced were actual production cars. Other than engine preparation, what sort of work was necessary to make them competitive race cars?
Nichels: Mostly safety-related stuff. We'd put in rollcages and racing belts, that sort of thing. The cars really had to be stock back then.
HPP: I noticed that the injected engine in the vintage ad is the same engine that was featured in the April '60 issue of Sports Cars Illustrated [later known as Car & Driver] and used in your Firestone tire-testing Kurtis Indy car. It put out 475 hp. You had a lot of custom magnesium castings to get the weight down to 580 pounds. Did the Pontiac V-8 make a good sports car engine?
Nichels: This was the Indy car engine your talking about. It was fuel-injected, dry sump, and all of the parts were made out of magnesium.
HPP: It must have been a huge project getting those magnesium parts developed.
Nichels: Well, we didn't think it was that big. It never was a good sports car engine though. It was just too heavy.
HPP: Is the car or engine still in existence?
Nichels: They both are, but I'm not sure where.
HPP: It was suggested that you were prepared to build 25 such engines per year for customers. Did that actually happen?
Nichels: That never came about. We only built the one.
HPP: When Pontiac went to the 421 engine with the 3.25-inch mains, the bearing speeds went up significantly. How were you able to keep those engines together for 500 miles with the larger bearings?
Nichels: That didn't bother anything--not a thing. We didn't even blink an eye on that one.
Author's Note: Please join us next month for Part II of "Exclusive Interview: Ray Nichels." Conversations with a Winner: The Ray Nichels Story, published by Pitstop Books (email@example.com) is due to be on the shelves by June 2004. The 300-page, 300-photo/illustrated hardcover book is the culmination of four years' work by its author, Wm. LaDow. Utilizing the Nichels Engineering Archives that have been sealed for more than 30 years, this book offers a glimpse into the never before documented life of Racing Hall of Famer Ray Nichels. Containing interviews with such legendary American racing personalities as Cotton Owens, Chris Economaki, A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Bud Moore, Len Sutton, Bobby Unser, Don White, Ernie Derr, Paul Goldsmith, Shirley Muldowney, and Arnie "The Farmer" Beswick, to name a few, this volume promises to be the most wide-ranging narrative outlining Nichels almost-40-year racing career.