Nichels Engineering burns up the Brickyard accomplishing Pontiac Perfection …

Posted: July 23, 2008 in Uncategorized

By: Wm. LaDow

Region Racers at the Brickyard — July 23, 2008
Published in the Post-Tribune – A Chicago Sun-Times Media Company
Speedway, Indiana

If you listen to the NASCAR PR dept. you might be led to believe that stock car racing in America began in 1972, commonly referred to as the “modern era”. But in reality stock car racing has been around since the 1940s and in the early years NASCAR was just another run-of-the mill sanctioning body in the business of stock car racing.

Although NASCAR staged their first race in 1949, it was the American Automobile Association (AAA) who was sanctioning stock car racing in the 1940s before NASCAR even existed. Following AAA’s decision to leave auto racing in 1955, the primary sanctioning body in America became the United States Auto Club (USAC). Sanctioning every type of auto racing from midgets to stock cars to Indy cars, USAC was the benchmark for the management of American auto racing.

For the next decade USAC and NASCAR vigorously competed for the right to call themselves the definitive rules maker in America racing. Although there were great political differences between the sanctioning bodies, by the early 1960s, there was one constant between the two.

That constant was that the premier racing operation in America was located inside a non-descript blonde-colored brick building at 8944 N. Cline Ave. on the border between Highland and Griffith. Its name was Nichels Engineering.

By this time in its young history Nichels Engineering had already raced in the Indy 500 ten times, garnering a pole in 1957, a fifth place finish in 1959 and a third place finish in 1960. Ray Nichels’ Indy cars had set world closed course speed records at both the Chrysler Proving Grounds in Michigan and the world’s most demanding high-banked super-speedway, the 38-degree banked, 2.6 mile long Autodromo di Monza in Italy.

Ray’s stock car operation was even more prolific, becoming the “house” racecar builder for Pontiac in 1956 and going on to capture both the pole and the race victory at Daytona in 1957 in just its first try.

By 1961, under Ray’s 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, Pontiac captured the manufacturer’s championship for the first time ever with an overall Pontiac performance of 30 victories in 52 races. To bring 1961 to a fitting climax, Nichels Engineering and its founder, Ray Nichels, M.D. (Doctor of Motors) pursued what Ray would later label as “Pontiac Perfection.”

Pursuit of the 24 Hour Speed and Endurance Records at Indianapolis

For some time, Ray had wanted to show others how his racecars put a premium on performance, endurance and safety. Nichels also wanted to parlay his high-speed automotive testing business with companies such as Pontiac, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Dow Chemical, Prestolite, Standard Oil, Raybestos and Monroe, into a quest for history, proving that stock cars built by Nichels Engineering could run faster and further than any other in history. Ray knew the best place in the world to pursue this quest would be at America’s palace of speed, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway,

Since the 1920’s, the Stevens Challenge Trophy had been awarded to those who successfully attempted to set a 24-hour endurance mark for speed and distance at the Brickyard. In 1954, as part of the “Stevens Challenge” Chrysler 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 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 capture all three records and set a new benchmark for stock car speed and endurance.

Nichels Engineering Race Team - 24 Hour

Nichels Engineering’s driver lineup for the effort was truly an all-star cast. First, from USAC, was 1961 National Stock Car Champion Paul Goldsmith. Joining him was past Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward. Filling out the lineup was champion midget car driver, well-respected Indy driver and two-time Nichels winner on the USAC stock car trail during the 1961 season, Len Sutton. The other three drivers would come from NASCAR, and they could arguably be labeled the best in business. First was defending Daytona 500 winner Marvin Panch. Joining him was the driver with the most wins in NASCAR in 1961, Joe Weatherly. Rounding out the team was none other than NASCAR star Glenn “Fireball” Roberts. On the mechanical side, Nichels Engineering assembled a virtual “who’s who” of mechanical geniuses. On his team were Dale “Tiny” Worley, Cotton Owens, Bud Moore, Banjo Matthews and Smokey Yunick. In addition, Ray employed his Nichels Engineering championship mechanical staff of Ernie Dascenzo, Ralph Knopf, John Johnson, Don Aspy, and Terry Jones.

Two brand-new Pontiacs were prepped for the challenge, a 1962 Catalina Coupe and a 1962 Police Enforcer. (sold by Pontiac as a cruiser to law enforcement agencies across the country).

On a dry, cold Tuesday, November 20th, the record-breaking attempt started at 3 p.m. From a standing start, USAC’s Goldsmith in the Pontiac Enforcer and NASCAR’s Panch in the Pontiac Catalina Coupe took the green flag.

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.

Then, before the team 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 beast, Goldy grazed the concrete wall and slid along it far enough to destroy his right front tire and bend up a lot of sheet metal before he got the car back under control. 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 and start the run over again, or try to systematically repair the car during the upcoming pit stops. This was a race against time and distance. Long pit stops could prove to be disastrous over the course of the next 24 hours.

Nichels talked it with over with Worley, Owens and Moore, and decided to go for it. They would get the car running as soon as possible and repair one particular damaged area during every pit stop. It would be dark soon and the headlights would have to be operational by then, or the drivers wouldn’t be able to see where they were going, as the Brickyard had no lights. The cars were going to use their headlights to see and rely on oil-burning smudge pots located around strategic areas on the track as guides to where the “groove” was.

Quick body repairs and new tires put Goldsmith back out on the track in 4 minutes and 47 seconds. As the laps added up, the drivers began their rotations, taking turns in both cars. Setting the first record was the Catalina Coupe at the 500-mile mark. Running at a speed of 113.292 mph, the Catalina 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 and now in the previously damaged Pontiac Police Enforcer, Fireball Roberts proved to everyone that the Nichels team was not to be denied, setting a single-lap record of 122.132 mph on the 205th lap. Ironically, Nichels himself had made an error and was of the belief that the Enforcer still had a shot at breaking the 500-mile mark, too. Thinking Fireball was on his 197th lap, Ray signaled Roberts to “carry the mail.” Roberts responded by destroying Goldsmith’s previous one-lap record by over three miles per hour.

At 4 a.m. it began to rain. As the 2.5-mile asphalt oval glistened in the moonlight, Ray’s long years of race tire development paid off handsomely as his team immediately began installing tires with a softer compound designed for just this eventuality. When daylight began to reappear, the Nichels Pontiacs were running so well in the rain that in one instance Ray ran onto the track to chew out Sutton, who had just been clocked at 114 mph.

The last 11 hours of the 24-hour quest were run in the rain, with snow and sleet appearing periodically.

At 10:56 a.m., Nichels Engineering’s team was rewarded for all of their 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 with Rodger Ward behind the wheel took the checkered flag, traveling 2,586.878 miles during the 24-hour run, for an average speed of 107.787 miles per hour. The Nichels Catalina Coupe with Len Sutton crossing the finish line ran 2,576.241 miles during the 24-hour run, for an average speed of 107.343 miles per hour.

Nichels Engineering once again proved it was the benchmark that all others would be measured by, as those records still stand to this day.

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