Calumet Region’s Connection to the Indianapolis 500 touched many …

Posted: May 25, 2008 in Uncategorized

Region Racers at the Indianapolis 500

By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published by the Chicago Sun-Times News Group
Speedway, Indiana

Indianapolis Motor Speedway has long been the destination of many world-class racers. The 2 and 1/2-mile Mecca of American motorsports is where young boys and now young girls dream of racing their way to Indianapolis 500 glory. The path to Indy comes from all corners of the Earth.  Few realize, however, how many of those traveling to racing immortality has made a stop in the Calumet Region during their respective eras of racing greatness.

 WmLaDow PhotoThe most commonly recognized example is New York state’s Lee Wallard taking the reins of the Lowell-based Belanger No. 99 in 1951 and driving the legendary Kurtis-Kraft to the winner’s circle for owner Murrell Belanger.

Hammond’s contribution in the late 1940s and early 1950s was resident Paul Russo, who also drove in 14 Indianapolis 500s and was recognized in his time as one of the best “shoes” in the business. Russo’s partnership with legendary race mechanic and car builder Ray Nichels gave the region one of the most beloved mounts in Indy 500 history, the Russo/Nichels Special, affectionately known by racing historians as “Basement Bessie.”

Racing fans know Tinley Park’s Tony Bettenhausen‘s two national championships and 14 entries in the Indy 500, driving much of his career for Belanger before Tony’s death in 1961. That success spawned a migration of top-notch drivers through the region for the next 22 years, all of them tied to Ray Nichels and Nichels Engineering.

Indianapolis 500 winner Johnnie Parsons, drove Nichels-wrenched Indy cars is 1953 and 1954. Parsons was then followed by Sam Hanks, who was hired by Nichels as part of Nichels Engineering’s management of the Firestone Racing Tire Test program.

Hanks and Nichels set a closed-course world speed record in 1954 of 182.550 miles per hour with a Nichels prepared Kurtis-Kraft Roadster powered by a 331 cubic-inch Hemi engine. Hanks won the 1957 Indianapolis 500 and retired in victory lane.  

Hanks Nichels 1954

He was followed by national sprint car champion, Indy 500 pole winner and Monza, Italy, world record holder Pat O’Connor, who drove for Nichels from 1954 through 1958 before he lost his life in the 1958 race.

Next was Rodger Ward, test driving for Nichels in 1958 and then driving USAC stock cars for Nichels Engineering in 1961 & 1962. Ward won the Indy 500 twice, 1959 & 1962.  Ward was joined at Nichels Engineering by A.J. Foyt, who drove for Ray from 1961 through 1964 and again in 1971. Foyt is a 4-time Indy winner, capturing the 500 in 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1977. The USAC stock car team Nichels assembled with Foyt & Ward included 2-time national stock car champion and 6-time Indy 500 entrant Paul Goldsmith along with 7-time Indy 500 driver; Len Sutton.

Joe Leonard joined the Nichels Engineering stable in 1964 and won the USAC Rookie of the Year award in a Nichels stock car and then moved on to Indy, where he won back-to-back USAC national IndyCar championships in 1971 and 1972.

Nichels employed Bobby Unser from 1971-73 as one of his key stock car drivers in USAC. Unser is a three-time Indy 500 winner, with victories in 1968, 1975 and 1981.

cropped-nichelsjohncock.jpgDriving for Ray Nichels’ son Terry in 1972 was Gordon Johncock, who would go on to win the Indianapolis 500 six months later and then again in 1982.  Also driving for Terry Nichels in 1973 in the USAC stock car competition was Johnny Rutherford. “Lone Star JR” who would win Indianapolis in 1974, 1976, and 1980.

Make no mistake. although Northwest Indiana has only one Borg-Warner victory to its credit, drivers and mechanics who visited Indy’s victory circle, on many occasions, came through the Calumet Region to do it.

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