Region Racers at the Indy 500 — The Russo-Nichels Race Team
By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune — May 26, 2007
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.)
But those years were just a pre-cursor to what became a legendary Indy and stock car racing career.
After he returned from World War II and married the love of his life, Eleanor Govert of Griffith in 1947, Ray already had his eye on Indy car racing. In 1949, Nichels joined the Indy car race team of Carmine “Babe” Tuffanelli, whose shop on Vincennes Avenue in Blue Island was home to two brand new state-of-the-art Kurtis-Kraft 2000 Indy cars. Charlie Pritchard, a salty, aging racing veteran, ran the Tuffanelli operation and hired Ray to be the chief-mechanic for Paul Russo’s Indy car, the No. 19 “Tuffy’s Offy.”
Russo and Nichels ran 11 races in the 1949 AAA schedule, but had a falling out with Pritchard, beginning with the August 20th race at Springfield, Illinois, when they first spotted the new Kurtis-Kraft built Meyer & Drake No. 99 car being campaigned by Murrell Belanger. Both were convinced that the design of this car was revolutionary and pushed hard to get Pritchard to have Tuffanelli to buy it. But Pritchard failed to grasp the coming changes of Indy racecar design and wanted no part of the M&D No. 99.
In less than a month, Nichels left the Tuffanelli team.
It was then that Ray made up his mind that he would no longer leave his racing future in the hands of other people, especially those who lacked vision. So Ray with his buddy Russo, decided that if they couldn’t get their hands on a car like the M&D No. 99, then they would build their own.
As 1950 began, Ray Nichels spent the daylight hours delivering heating oil for the Kovsi Fuel Oil Co. and Paul Russo earned his paycheck as a welder. But in the evenings, Nichels and Russo pursued their dream to race their own hand-built creation in the 34th running of the Indianapolis 500.
At night, the two could be found in Paul Russo’s Harrison Street basement in Hammond. After darkness set in, they became racecar builders. Some nights they were mechanics. Some nights they were engineers. Some of those nights they were chassis men. But every night, they were racers!
They started the project constructing the frame, thinking that if they could get it built, they might be able to lease an Offy engine on a percentage basis once they got to Indy.
Tools for the project were simple. For a layout table, they used the floor. For a blueprint, they used a large piece of cardboard with the plans drawn in pencil. When they needed to come up with alternate sketches, they used the floor and the walls. For a straightedge, they used the lid of a suit box. For a band saw, they used a hacksaw (and promptly went through 64 hacksaw blades cutting the frame.) Necessity was truly the mother of invention.
When it was finished, the Russo-Nichels Special had to be completely dismantled before it could make its journey to see sunlight. Then it was on to Indianapolis.
Once they got to the Speedway there were no garages left for them to house their car, so they set up operation in a small tin shed with a cinder floor near the Marquette Welding Shop and readied themselves to qualify.
Their first task was to find race wheels and tires, and they were fortunate that Firestone offered to loan them both. Once their presence at the Speedway was known, they were good-naturedly kidded by their friends in the racing fraternity. In the midst of great racing stories about the likes of Wilbur Shaw, Mauri Rose, Bill Holland, Sam Hanks, national champion Johnnie Parsons and others, the one story around the Speedway that wouldn’t go away was about the two guys from the Calumet Region who had to “take their car apart to get it out of the basement it was built in.” No less than Indy 500 veteran Russ Snowberger joked that when Russo and Nichels came to Indianapolis, “all they brought with them was some Magnaflux paper, and they had borrowed the rest!”
When they were ready to qualify, they pulled the Russo-Nichels Special in line. Wilbur Shaw, president and general manager of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, walked up to them and sharply asked, “What are you clowns doing?” With the look of two kids who’d just built a soapbox derby entry, they announced, “We’re here to qualify!”
Shaw gave the Russo-Nichels Special a long gaze, seeing no front grill, a temporary fuel tank and not a drop of paint anywhere. He paused and then said, “You don’t have a number. You can’t qualify without a number.” Nichels and Russo looked at each other for the longest moment and said, “Wilbur, we’re broke. We don’t have a buck between us. We can’t afford to have a number painted on the car in time to make the race.” In the true Hoosier spirit that is the Indianapolis 500, Wilbur Shaw said, “You boys qualify … then you get a number painted on this car right away and send me the bill.” That very afternoon the boys qualified for the most prestigious auto race in the world.
Starting in the seventh row the Russo-Nichels Special went on to capture the imagination of the American racing public by running with the leaders for much of the day, before the rain-shortened Indy 500 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, running 13 races, capturing two victories, seven top-fives and nine top-tens.
In December, Nichels with defending Indianapolis 500 Champion Johnnie Parsons behind the wheel, subbing for an injured Paul Russo, won the first ever Indy car race at the newly built Darlington Raceway. Parsons and the Russo-Nichels Special put on a spectacular show for all 10,000 spectators to witness. He lapped the field, finishing the 200-mile race in an impressive one hour and 54 minutes, for an average speed of 104.651 miles per hour.
One of the most incredible aspects of the 1950 season for Paul Russo and Ray Nichels was the season-long performance of their hand-built basement creation.
Had Russo not been injured with in the AAA race at Phoenix finishing his season and had been the driver behind the wheel for the last three races, Paul would likely have won the AAA Indy Car National Championship.
Had it not been for the need to use two other drivers to replace the injured Russo, “Basement Bessie,” would have worn the crown of a champion.
Born in a Hammond, Indiana basement, the Russo-Nichels Special now rests in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall-of-Fame Museum.