Ray R. Nichels
Ray R. Nichels
1922 - 2005
This page is dedicated to the memory of our friend Ray.
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In 1938, at the age of 15, Ray Nichels, went on the road as a midget car crew chief, racing at tracks across America. From 1938-1948, the drivers of the Ray Nichels prepared midgets (campaigned by his father Rudy Nichels) were Ted Duncan, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnnie Parsons, Paul Russo, Mike O'Halloran, and Ray Richards (All members of the Midget Racing Hall of Fame.)
Following his time midget racing, Nichels moved on to Indy cars and eventually participated in 12 Indianapolis 500 races, as a chief mechanic and crew chief. In those twelve 500's, Ray Nichels won one Pole (1957 w/Pat O'Connor), garnered two top-five finishes (a 3rd and a 5th w/Paul Goldsmith), and five top-ten finishes. Most notable of his top-ten finishes was the 9th place showing in the 1950 Indianapolis 500 of the Russo-Nichels Special. Paul Russo and Ray Nichels constructed this car in the basement of Russo's Hammond, Indiana home during the winter of 1949-1950. Qualifying in the 7th row, the Russo-Nichels Special captured the imagination of the American racing public by running with the leaders for much of the day, before the rain-shortened race ended at 345 miles. The Russo-Nichels Special soon became affectionately known as “Basement Bessie” as it was campaigned on the AAA Championship Trail during the 1950 season. In December, Nichels with Johnnie Parsons behind the wheel, won the first ever Indy car race at the newly built Darlington Raceway. On the season, Ray Nichels and Paul Russo and their hand-built "basement" creation missed the chance to win the National Championship only after a season-ending injury to Russo in the November AAA Indy car race in Phoenix.
Nichels then toiled as chief mechanic for Johnnie Parsons’ entries in the 1953 and 1954 Indy 500 races. In June of 1954, Ray Nichels joined the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company as its chief mechanic for all race tire testing. In their first test together, he and driver Sam Hanks teamed up to set a new world's closed-course speed record of 182.554 mph at Chrysler Corporation's newly built Chelsea, Michigan proving grounds in a Nichels prepared Chrysler Hemi-powered Kurtis-Kraft roadster. It would be the first of many world speed records that Nichels and his cars would set over the next 20 years.
In 1957, Ray Nichels and Indiana-based Nichels Engineering won the pole position (with Banjo Matthews) and won the race (with Cotton Owens) at the NASCAR Grand National Beach Race at Daytona. Two months later, Nichels traveled to Monza, Italy on behalf of Firestone, and set a series of world speed records on the world's highest-banked oval with driver Pat O'Connor behind the wheel of the Chrysler Hemi-powered Kurtis-Kraft roadster. Nichels and O'Connor then returned to the United States where they won the Pole position for the world's most important race, the Indianapolis 500. It is believed Ray Nichels remains to be the only mechanic to ever win the pole at both Daytona and Indianapolis in the same year.
With his 1957 Daytona win, Nichels expanded his stock car racing business becoming the "house" racecar builder for Pontiac from 1956-1963. Working directly for Pontiac Gen. Mgr. Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, Nichels managed Pontiac's involvement in stock car racing from his operations in Highland, Indiana. By 1961, under Nichels’ guidance, Pontiac dominated American stock car racing. Nichels Engineering driver, Paul Goldsmith captured the USAC National Championship with 10 wins, 7 poles and 16 top-five finishes in 19 races. Overall Pontiac performance in USAC was 14 wins, 10 poles and 38 top-five finishes in 22 races. In NASCAR, overall Pontiac performance was 30 wins in 52 races. In 1962, Pontiac's dominance under Nichels became even further evident as Nichels and Goldsmith won their 2nd consecutive USAC National Championship with 8 wins, 6 poles and 15 top-five finishes in 20 races. Overall Pontiac performance in USAC was 10 wins, 10 poles and 34 top-five finishes in 22 races. Four Nichels Engineering drivers (Goldsmith, A.J. Foyt, Rodger Ward, and Len Sutton) finished in the seasons Top Ten. In NASCAR, overall Pontiac performance was 22 wins in 53 races, with Joe Weatherly winning the National Championship driving a Nichels Engineering built, Bud Moore-prepped Pontiac.
In 1961, Nichels Engineering prepared and ran two 1962 Pontiac Catalinas, setting one lap, 500 mile and 24 hour world stock car speed and endurance records at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway. The Nichels Engineering driving team consisted of Rodger Ward, Paul Goldsmith, Len Sutton, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly and Marvin Panch. Nichels mechanics for these historic speed and endurance runs were Ray Nichels, Dale “Tiny” Worley, Bud Moore, Cotton Owens and Smokey Yunick.
In 1963, Nichels and driver Paul Goldsmith delivered one of the most lopsided victories in Daytona Speed Weeks history, in the Challenge Cup 250, when Goldsmith piloted the Nichels Engineering #50 Super Duty 421 Pontiac LeMans to victory, beating 2nd place finisher A.J. Foyt by over 5 miles.
Later in 1963, Ray Nichels and Nichels Engineering became the "house" racecar builder for all of Chrysler Corporation. Nichels role with Chrysler was identical to his with Pontiac. Working for Ronney Householder, Nichels was commissioned to build the fastest and safest stock cars in the business, disseminate racing knowledge and design technology to all Chrysler teams in support of their collective racing efforts. Working with legendary stock car racers Cotton Owens, Ray Fox, Harry Hyde, Norm Nelson, and Petty Enterprises, Nichels Engineering did just that. It is no coincidence that the most prolific period in Chrysler stock car racing history was 1964-1970. Nichels Engineering-built stock cars won national stock car championships in USAC, NASCAR, ARCA and IMCA, several years running, setting speed records at tracks across America.
Ray Nichels and Nichels Engineering won three (3) National Stock Car Championships in USAC. Paul Goldsmith and Ray Nichels combined to win titles in 1961 and 1962. Then in 1967, Nichels and all-time winningest USAC Stock car driver Don White teamed-up for the USAC national championship.
In 13 years of NASCAR competition, Nichels Engineering campaigned cars raced 223 times, garnering 89 top-ten finishes, 62 top-five finishes, 12 Poles and 11 victories. Nichels Engineering was a winner at tracks such as Daytona, Bristol, Rockingham, Michigan, and Talladega. Nichels also won NASCAR pole positions at Daytona, Talladega, Charlotte, Rockingham, Darlington, Michigan, and Riverside.
Nichels Engineering was a seven (7) time NASCAR winner at Daytona from 1957-1970. Winning drivers were Cotton Owens, Bobby Isaac, Paul Goldsmith (2), AJ Foyt, Sam McQuagg and Charlie Glotzbach.
The list of drivers who piloted cars built by and/or campaigned by Ray Nichels and Nichels Engineering is synonymous with American racing excellence .... they are Bobby Isaac, A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Bobby Unser, Al Unser, Roger Penske, Paul Goldsmith, Rodger Ward, Don White, Tony Bettenhausen, Richard Petty, Dan Gurney, Junior Johnson, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison, Gordon Johncock, Pat O'Connor, Paul Russo, Mario Andretti, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Jim Hurtubise, Fred Lorenzen, Charlie Glotzbach, Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Marvin Panch, Cotton Owens, Banjo Matthews, Sam McQuagg, Joe Leonard, Len Sutton, Darel Dieringer, Troy Ruttman, Dave Marcis, Richard Brickhouse, Ramo Stott, Ernie Derr, Jimmy Pardue, James Hylton, Butch Hartman, Roger McCluskey, Bobby Johns, Ray Elder, Norm Nelson and Lloyd Ruby
On April 25th, 1996, Ray Nichels was inducted into Mechanics Hall of Fame within the International Motorsports Hall of Fame located in Talladega, Alabama. On the same day, Indiana Governor, Evan Bayh, awarded Ray Nichels the “Sagamore of the Wabash,” the highest distinguished service honor bestowed upon an Indiana citizen by its governor.
Ray Nichel's resume stands up with the best in American racing. Midgets, Indy cars, and Stock cars, Ray Nichels and those who toiled with him at Nichels Engineering in Highland and Griffith, Indiana built some of the fastest race cars to grace the American racing landscape for over 40 years.
Cotton Owens accepts the trophy for winning the 1957 NASCAR Grand National Beach Race at Daytona. Owens drove a '57 Pontiac for Ray Nichels to Pontiac's first win in NASCAR history.
Banjo Matthews (my other grandfather) won the Pole at Daytona Beach in 1957 for Ray Nichels. Cotton won the race.
Ray Nichels and Paul Goldsmith are accepting the First Place trophy for winning the 150-mile USAC race at Milwaukee in August of 1962.
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.
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.
Paul Goldsmith and his #1 Nichels Pontiac Catalina bang their way past Milt "Uncle Milty" Curcio's Ford to a win at Milwaukee
The '61 USAC Stock Car Champion Paul Goldsmith and '61 NASCAR Champion Joe Weatherly are shown during a promotional tour for the record-setting Nichels Engineering Pontiac Teams. Shown in the middle is a teenage Linda Vaughn, Miss Pontiac.
Paul Goldsmith began his last season driving the Nichels Engineering Pontiacs by taking the pole at the NASCAR race at Riverside. By the middle of the '63 race season he made the change to Chrysler.
Copyright © 2005 -- Wm. LaDow / LaDow Publishing www.RayNichels.com