Ray Nichels and his two Nichels Engineering Pontiacs are preparing to set a series of Stoc
In the fall of 1956, Pontiac Vice President and General Manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen convinced Ray Nichels to accept the challenge of managing the automaker's newly born racing effort. The partnership between these two visionaries resulted in Pontiac's meteoric rise to the top of American stock car racing. Just a few years later, Pontiac's dominance in USAC and NASCAR was stunning. In 1961, Pontiac won 14 of the 22 USAC races run, garnering 10 poles and 38 top-five finishes. The division's overall performance in NASCAR was just as staggering with 30 wins in 52 races.
To bring 1961 to a fitting climax, Nichels Engineering and its founder, Ray Nichels, M.D. (Doctor of Motors) would pursue what Ray would later label, "Pontiac Perfection."
While completing Pontiac research projects and endlessly traveling back and forth to Pontiac, Michigan, he was planning one final effort in 1961. Though his cars and engines clearly set the standard in stock car racing by winning races all over America, Ray wanted to further prove that Nichels Engineering did more than just build race cars and racing engines. He wanted to expand his high-speed automotive testing business to show others how to build better engineered cars that emphasize performance, endurance and safety.
For the 24-Hour Challenge, Ray Nichels selected six of the finest drivers in racing. From
With Goldsmith behind the wheel, Nichels' team of (from left) Smokey Yunick, Ralph Knopf,
Very early in the 24-hour run, Goldsmith cut a tire and hit the wall. The Nichels crew was
Over the previous seven years, Nichels had built up an excellent testing and engineering clientele. His primary customer was Pontiac, and business with the GM entity had never been better. However, the most actively growing of Ray's entities was testing and engineering for companies that supplied the auto industry. Nichels Engineering now counted several other world-class automotive companies as business partners. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Dow Chemical coolants, Prestolite batteries, alternators and voltage regulators, Standard Oil fuels and lubricants, Pedrick piston rings, Raybestos brake linings, Burton springs, Monroe shock absorbers, and Gould-National oil filters were among his partners. In turn, several of these companies became sponsors of Nichels Engineering-affiliated race teams, which allowed Nichels to pass on sponsorship money to his drivers. It was a win-win relationship for everyone.
Setting world records in the rain at Indianapolis.
Two of American Racings' best ... Cotton Owens and Bud Moore grab a late-night meal during
Hot work ensued during a Nichels Engineering 24-Hour Run Indy pit stop.
Nichels now wanted to parlay those business relationships into a quest for history by proving that stock cars built by his company could go faster and run longer than any other that came before. To achieve this goal, he went after the existing 24-Hour Speed and Endurance Records at America's palace of speed, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Since the 1920s, the Stevens Challenge Trophy was awarded to those who successfully attempted to set a 24-hour endurance mark for speed and distance. As part of the Stevens Challenge in 1954, Chrysler Corporation employed drivers Tony Bettenhausen, Pat O'Connor and Bill Taylor, and set the 24-hour record at 2,157.5 miles, with an average speed of 89.89 mph. In addition to the 24-hour record attempt, Ford Motor Company, with drivers Johnny Mantz and Chuck Stevenson, established the 500-mile record at the speedway, running 111.916 mph, as well as the one-lap speed record of 117.832 mph.
It was Nichels' intention to have his company capture all three records and set a new benchmark for stock car speed and endurance. After some negotiation, virtually every one of his parts suppliers joined the project. Nichels solicited a specific dollar figure from each one for the attempt and persuaded them to double their investment if he was successful in setting new marks in all three categories.
Nichels Engineering handled all of the public relations and photography, and contracted USAC to certify the Indy effort. There was only one hitch; one customer demanded motion picture footage of the attempt before he would invest in it. Nichels replied, "Sure, no problem." When he returned to Highland, however, he learned that filming the attempt would probably cost him more than he had solicited from his suppliers. But for Nichels it wasn't about the money; it was about the challenge. He and Paul Goldsmith found a small motion picture company in Detroit and purchased it outright just for the Nichels Engineering effort. (Author's note: Nichels retained the original 16 mm films, and through the efforts of LaDow Publishing and Rare Sportsfilms, Inc., [www.raresportsfilms.com] these were completely restored and converted to video and DVD in 2003.)
NASCAR's Joe Weatherly and USAC's Len Sutton review the record-setting run at Indy.
The Nichels Engineering Pontiacs take the green flag at Darlington en route to setting mor
The Nichels Engineering record-setting team at Darlington. Kneeling in front of the driver
The PersonnelOn November 1, 1961, Nichels Engineering issued a press release announcing its intent to pursue the speed and endurance records at Indianapolis. The target date for the effort was November 16th. Two days later, on November 3rd, the company publicly announced its driver lineup for the two-car effort. It was an all-star cast that included the 1961 USAC National Stock Car Champion Paul Goldsmith, past Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward, and Len Sutton, champion midget car driver, well-respected Indy Car driver and two-time Nichels winner on the USAC stock car trail during the 1961 season. The other three drivers came from NASCAR, and they could arguably be labeled the best in the business-defending Daytona 500 winner Marvin Panch, Joe Weatherly, the driver with the most wins in NASCAR in 1961, and NASCAR star Glenn "Fireball" Roberts.
On the mechanic's side, Nichels Engineering assembled a virtual "who's who" of mechanical geniuses-Dale "Tiny" Worley, Cotton Owens, Bud Moore, Banjo Matthews and Smokey Yunick. In addition, Ray employed his Nichels Engineering championship mechanic staff of Ernie Dascenzo, Ralph Knopf, John Johnson, Don Aspy, and Terry Jones.
The PontiacsTwo brand-new Pontiacs were shipped to the Cline Avenue shop. One was a red '62 Catalina hardtop, the other a black-and-white '62 Police Enforcer post coupe (sold by Pontiac as a cruiser to law enforcement agencies across the country). The cars were to be "stock" with the only modifications performed for safety concerns. Nichels craftsmen installed a steel-moly rollbar, an aircraft-type shoulder harness and belt system, and beefed up the suspension components with Burton coil springs and Monroe shock absorbers. The steel wheels used were double-plated, spindles were high tensile alloy steel, and safety hubs (made from an aircraft alloy) were employed. In addition, 3.23:1 axle ratios were used and Super-Duty axle shafts were reworked for the safety hubs and paired with 8.00/8.20x15 Goodyear Blue Streak racing tires.
Here is certification by NASCAR confirming the world speed and endurance records set by Ni
Nichels purchased a motion picture company just to film the Nichels Engineering world-reco
Ray Nichels accepting the award for setting the 24-hour World Speed and Endurance Records
Power was provided by 389 cubic-inch Super-Duty V-8s that utilized a forged steel crankshaft, Super-Duty pistons and Pedrick piston rings. These Pontiac engines were set up with a McKellar No. 10 cam and low-restriction dual mufflers. The engine speed range was expected to be 4,800 to 5,000 rpm in Fourth gear. Both cars were equipped with four-speed synchromesh transmissions and were shifted only when going into and out of the pits. Nichels also had a revolving red light installed on the roof of the Police Enforcer, which helped identify the car during the night section of the run.
When the time came, both the Police Enforcer and the Catalina were prepped and driven over the highway for roughly 150 miles to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Following the 24-hour record run, they were driven back to the Chicago area for a USAC teardown and technical inspection.
At IndyNichels set up his operation in Indy's Gasoline Alley using Bill Ansted's Garage No. 19, a spot in which Nichels spent many hours as an Indy car mechanic. His hope of running on Friday, November 16th, was lost due to foggy weather. In the interim, both Sutton and Ward were scheduled to head to Phoenix for the season-ending Indy car race on Sunday, so the plan was altered. The next window opened on Tuesday, November 20th.
Colder temperatures slipped into the Indy area over the weekend, however. Nichels knew that rain and sleet would be in the forecast for the next several days. He desperately wanted to get this project wrapped up so he and the teams could be home by Thursday for Thanksgiving. But Nichels had another decision weighing on his mind. After the record attempt at Indy, he committed the team to repeat the feat at Darlington in a couple of weeks under the sanctioning of NASCAR.
Ray couldn't second-guess himself any longer. He invited the press and held a cocktail party and dinner for his drivers and crew, where he predicted that his team would break all three records.
The morning of Tuesday, November 20th, was dry but cold when Nichels made the decision to begin the run at 3 p.m. From a standing start, USAC's Goldsmith in the Enforcer and NASCAR's Panch in the Catalina took the green flag. They quickly picked up speed and were running 117-120 mph in the early laps. Goldsmith made the first Nichels Engineering statement by setting a new one-lap speed record of 118.953 mph on only his second circuit around the storied Brickyard.
The CrashThen, before anyone had a chance to settle in, Goldsmith came into the fourth turn hot with his throttle stuck wide open. Trying to manhandle the out-of-control Pontiac, Goldy grazed the concrete wall and slid along it far enough to destroy his right front tire and bend up a lot of sheetmetal before regaining the car's composure. He pulled into the pit, hoping that he hadn't ruined the run for the record. Nichels quickly surveyed the damage and debated whether to repair the car now, start the run over again, or try to systematically make repairs during the upcoming pit stops. As it was a race against time and distance, long pit stops could prove to be disastrous over the course of the next 24 hours.
Its front bumper was curled around into the right front tire, which shredded it. The right front headlight assembly was completely destroyed, a section of the windshield was cracked and the side of the car was bent in considerably at both wheelwells. The team was somewhat fortunate, though. Goldsmith had saved the car by sliding it along the wall rather than having a direct, angled impact. Nichels talked it with over with Worley, Owens and Moore and decided to go for it..
They got the car running as soon as possible and then repaired one particularly damaged area during each pit stop. It would be dark soon and the headlights had to be operational by then, or the drivers wouldn't be able to see, as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had no lights. Along with the headlights, the drivers relied on oil-burning smudge pots strategically located around the track as guides to where the "groove" was.
Back On The Track At IndyQuick body repairs and new tires put Goldsmith back out on the track in 4 minutes and 47 seconds. Instead of wasting time to put the whole headlight assembly in at once, one piece at a time was hung during every pit stop. By the time the sun went down, the headlight assembly was fixed.
In the interim, Panch was running flawlessly in the Catalina. When Goldsmith went out with his wreck, he had been averaging 118 mph. When he got back out on the track and up to speed, he initially was averaging about 107 mph. As the laps began to add up, the drivers started their rotations, taking turns in both cars. Setting the first record was the Catalina hardtop at the 500-mile mark. Running at a speed of 113.292, it eclipsed the 500-mile record in 4 hours, 24 minutes and 48 seconds. Drivers responsible for the Catalina's success were Panch, Sutton, Roberts and Goldsmith.
Following his stint in the Catalina, Roberts proved to everyone that the Nichels Engineering team wasn't about to be denied, setting a single-lap record of 122.132 mph on the 205th lap, in the previously damaged Pontiac Police Enforcer. Ironically, Nichels made an error in believing that the Enforcer still had a shot at breaking the 500-mile mark, too, and thinking Roberts was on his 197th lap, he signaled him "to carry the mail." Fireball responded by destroying Goldsmith's previous one-lap record by over three miles per hour.
The USAC and NASCAR stars drove through the night. With the cold weather making pit stops terribly difficult and keeping warm and awake the utmost priority, the Nichels team hammered out mile after mile.
Then at 4 a.m., the worst possible scenario was realized-it began to rain. With the 2.5-mile asphalt oval now glistening in the moonlight, Nichels' long years of race tire development with Firestone paid off handsomely as his team immediately began installing Goodyear tires with a softer compound designed for just this eventuality. The Pontiacs averaged around 110 miles per hour through the night. At daybreak, the Nichels Pontiacs were running so well in the rain that in one instance Nichels ran onto the track to raise hell with Sutton, who had just been clocked at 114 mph.
Despite the fact that the last 11 hours of the 24-hour quest were run in the rain, with snow and sleet appearing periodically, the performance of the drivers, pit crews, cars and tires proved flawless. Pit stops in particular were designed with speed in mind, as the Nichels team constructed a plate across the front end of a fork lift, which raised the entire car to the optimal height for fueling, changing of tires and exchanging drivers. The team also designed a pressurized fuel filling system that forced excess air and a trace of fuel to exit through an overflow vent when the tank was full. Impact wrenches were used for tire changes, and without exception, the tire changers were always done before the fuel fillers.
At 10:56 a.m., Nichels Engineering's team was rewarded for all its efforts when the previous 24-hour distance record was shattered with over four more hours to go.
In the end, the black-and-white Nichels Pontiac Enforcer (which caught and passed the red Catalina during the night), with Rodger Ward behind the wheel, took the checkered flag, traveling 2,586.878 miles or 1,034.750 laps during the 24-hour run, for an average speed of 107.787 miles per hour. Nichels' Catalina with Sutton crossing the finish line ran 2,576.241 miles or 1,030.496 laps during the 24-hour run, for an average speed of 107.343 miles per hour.
The Calumet Region's own Nichels Engineering had come to Indianapolis to break three separate speed records. Upon returning home for Thanksgiving, they owned all three honors. The new standards for the 24-Hour Speed and Endurance Runs were established with an average 24-hour speed of 107.787 mph, a 500-mile average speed of 113.292 mph, and the one-lap record at a sizzling 122.132 mph.
At DarlingtonNichels didn't stop there. On December 8th and 9th, his world-class team went to Darlington International Raceway, in South Carolina, and did it all over again. Under the sanctioning auspices of Joe Epton and NASCAR, Nichels' cars were certified to challenge the current Darlington records.
This time there was no rain, sleet or snow; just sunshine, and the Nichels Engineering team made the most of it. Darlington Raceway was roughly half the size of Indianapolis and required twice as many laps and turns. But that didn't stop Goldsmith, Sutton, Ward, Panch, Weatherly and Roberts. From a green flag standing start, both cars hit 100 mph in less than a lap, and by the second lap, they were traveling at 118 mph. At the 500-mile mark, both cars were averaging in excess of 109 mph and running like the finely tuned machines they were.
When the Nichels team left Darlington, they had set new 24-hour speed and endurance records for that track, as well. A new one-lap record speed of 116.580 mph was set and they ran 500 miles in a record time of 4 hours, 34 minutes and 52 seconds, at an average speed of 109.247 mph. Lastly, in 24 hours, the Nichels team ran 2,612.500 miles at an average speed of 108.819 mph.
Darlington track President Bob Colvin personally awarded the trophy signifying their record-breaking efforts to Nichels. (Author's note: That trophy resided in Ray's office until the day he passed away.)
The world-class performances of the Nichels Engineering Pontiacs ended up being Nichels' going-away present of sorts for his close friend and mentor Bunkie Knudsen. Nichels' racing partner Knudsen did what many thought was the impossible and was recognized for "turning around" the Pontiac division of GM. For the first time ever, Pontiac earned the third spot in national sales in 1961 and the Tempest was named Motor Trend's "Car of the Year." Knudsen's reward for Pontiac's successes was being named head of GM's flagship brand, Chevrolet.
It appeared that Knudsen was right all along... "Win on Sunday; sell on Monday."
Editor's Note: Conversations With A Winner - The Ray Nichels Story is scheduled for an early 2008 release. Go to www.raynichels.com to order.