One of American Auto Racing’s Unsung Craftsmen …

Posted: March 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

Jerry Govert David Nichels

By: Wm. R. LaDow

Published by the Chicago Sun-Times Newsgroup

You could sit next to Griffith’s Jerry Govert for a couple of hours in a breakfast joint and not even know he was there.

That’s not to say he wasn’t memorable — Jerry was a good-looking gentleman, six feet tall, possessing an engaging smile and had stood straight as a rail since his youth.

But Jerry was quiet, very quiet, and polite almost to a fault. So unassuming that even in the smallest of crowds, he could go unnoticed — virtually invisible.

If you were to engage Jerry in conversation, you might learn that he was the father of 8 children, had 14 grandchildren, 9 great-grandchildren, and loved garage sales.

But more than anything, you’d probably sense that Jerry Govert was a very humble man.

So humble that he lived his entire life among us in the Calumet Region and only his closest friends and family knew of his time serving in the US Navy aboard the USS Raby, a Buckley-Class Destroyer Escort that earned 3 battle stars patrolling the waters near the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific on what was to become one of the most successful anti-submarine actions in the Pacific Theatre during World War II.

Lastly, one thing that you would probably never know from a brief conversation with Jerry was that he was one of the most successful auto racers that the Calumet Region ever produced.

You see, he didn’t drive racecars.

He built them.

Boy, did he ever !!

When he returned from World War II to the Calumet Region, he settled down and began his career as a tradesman at what was then the Standard Oil Company of Indiana, in one of the largest oil refineries in the US the works at Whiting.

Then in the very early 1960s, an opportunity presented itself to Jerry to join a young auto racing concern based in Highland, Indiana, called Nichels Engineering.

Over the next decade, with his superbly skilled hands and an eye for perfection, Jerry Govert and the team at Nichels Engineering built some of the fastest stock cars to grace this planet.

Jerry was an integral part of the Nichels team that built stock cars that won at Daytona six times. His carefully crafted speedwagons also won at Bristol, Rockingham, Riverside, the Milwaukee Mile, DuQuoin, Langhorne, Talladega, Sears Point, Mosport, Michigan, Charlotte and Darlington’s just the shortlist.

He helped build Pontiacs and Dodges that captured four national stock car championships.

There isn’t enough space here to write about all of the national speed records he and Nichels Engineering garnered, at the likes of race tracks named Daytona, Darlington and Talladega, to name just a few.

Not only were the cars that Jerry built fast, but they were made to last.  So well constructed that many a stock car driver from that era owed his good health to Jerry’s craftsmanship.

If you doubt that statement, give Paul Goldsmith a call. He put one of Jerry’s 1964 Plymouth Belvedere’s upside down at almost 180 miles per hour on the high-banks of the Atlanta Motor Speedway and walked away in one piece.  Not too much later, Paul once again put a Nichels Engineering Plymouth skyward at Riverside, in the same turn that had cost Joe Weatherly his life.  Goldy was racing again in a matter of weeks.  Mario Andretti put his Nichels Engineering Dodge Charger on its roof during qualifying at Mosport in 1967, got out of the car and was ready to head home to Nazareth, Pennsylvania, just glad to have his body in one piece. After hours of Nichels crew repairs, Andretti got back into one of Jerry’s built chassis’ and just about won the race day trophy.

After Glenn “Fireball” Roberts died at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in a Holman-Moody built Ford in the 1964 NASCAR World 600, Jerry was called into action to begin applying Firestone’s new rubber-lined fuel cell technology.  He responded by being one of the first to make them work, installing them in an entire fleet of Nichels Engineering Chryslers running in NASCAR, USAC, ARCA and IMCA.

I was fortunate to know Jerry … first as the father and uncle to several of my childhood friends (make that lifelong friends) and specifically over the last decade as a close friend and confidant of another friend of mine, racing Hall-of-Famer, Ray Nichels.

Whenever Jerry and I would cross paths, he would greet me by calling me by my late father’s name; (Robert, who passed away in 1969, but his peers always seemingly called me Bob for as long as I can remember.)  After Ray Nichels chided him on a handful of occasions that my name was Bill — Jerry would, from that time on, just play safe and call me “LaDow,” … all the while with a slight smile on his face, revealing that it really wasn’t important what I was called, just that he knew who I belonged to, and I appreciated that.

But it didn’t matter that he couldn’t quite remember my name — I knew his — and at one time or another, so did A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Bobby Isaac, Harry Hyde, Ronney Householder, Bobby Unser, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, Charlie Glotzbach, Fred Lorenzen, Gordon Johncock, Don White, LeeRoy Yarbrough, Rodger Ward, Junior Johnson, Jim Hurtubise, Cotton Owens, Banjo Matthews, Sam McQuagg, Joe Leonard, Len Sutton, Dave Marcis, Ramo Stott, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Ernie Derr, Bobby Johns, Jimmy Pardue, James Hylton, and Butch Hartman. They knew him as the confident, silent, superbly talented, hard-working car builder at Nichels Engineering.

One could search the Nichels Engineering Archives for hours (and I have) before finally coming across a handful of photos of Jerry at work at the Cline Avenue shop in Highland or the “Go-Fast Factory” on Main Street in Griffith.

That, in a nutshell, summarizes Jerry’s racing career.

During the most prolific era of racecar building in the Calumet Region, Jerry Govert didn’t need photos or publicity to describe what he did … his work alone spoke volumes about his skill and work ethic. That and four National Stock Car Championships, six wins at Daytona, and a host of race track records across America.

That and the wonderful family he raised.

Godspeed Racer …

Jerry Govert, age 83, of Griffith, Indiana, passed away on February 26, 2010.

Jerry Govert Hemi

© LaDow Publishing 2010

  1. Yes, Brad’s dad, as I knew him to be, was just as you described. He was quiet, and he would recognize me as a Hochstetler, just not sure of my first name. Didn’t matter, he was always pleasant, smiling, and respectful. Because of his quiet nature, I really had no idea the depth of involvement he and Niichels Engineering had in auto racing. It wasn’t until my late teen years when Brad, and a few friends drove up to the Miller 200 in Milwaukee that I learned the extent of this. We had Pit passes. I didn’t question how, just went along. There I saw Mr. Govert and Brad’s brother Dave working as crew for not one, but 2 cars. Cool! That wasn’t the moment though. My attention was suddenly pulled away from staring at the always cute Phillips girl, whose father worked along side Mr. Govert. Roaring into the pits comes one of the cars. It’s a very hot day, and stretching out of the window in search of some cool water was Bobby Unser. What?! Then another car pulls in behind Bobby. Same thing, driver pokes his head out of the hot car for water, it’s Johnny Rutherford. Huh?! And Brad is treating this like it’s all normal for him. To me these were celebrities, and the closest I’d ever been to one. Build em’ solid, make em’ go fast.

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  2. Randy Myers says:

    I spent a winter in Highland working for ray and Paul and was on the trip with Paul at Riverside when he tried to fly that Plymouth. I vaguely remember Jerry but I can attest to the craftsmanship of his trade. Sorry to hear of his passing but glad to see some folks remember good people and their legacy. I’m sure Paul thanks him to this day.

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