It all began at Rudy’s Place …

Posted: May 17, 2010 in Uncategorized

Region Racers at the Indianapolis 500 – Rudy Nichels

By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published in the Post-Tribune – Chicago Sun-Times News Group — May 17, 2010

Rudys Place 1.jpg

In 1908, a 10-year-old boy crossed the Atlantic Ocean. He and his father journeyed from Austria with the intent of settling in America.

Though his last name was Puja when he entered Ellis Island, it was soon changed. It’s unclear whether in his pocket rested a few coins or perhaps he was cared for by a kind immigration worker who gave him some change to get a meal, but from that day forward his last name was Nichels.

After establishing their residency in Chicago, a teenaged Rudy could often be found at the corner pool hall, or participating in a local “game of chance.” But a few years later, Nichels settled down, got married and eventually started a family — a daughter and three sons.

Nichels was a born entrepreneur and quickly sensed that the American automobile was fast becoming more of a necessity than a luxury. He made it a point to get involved in any auto-related businesses he could find.

In time he was able to parlay his savings into the purchase of a small Fisk Tire store on Ewing Avenue in South Chicago. So small was the shop that an automobile couldn’t be completely parked under the roof while having its tires changed. Using the slim profits from this business, Nichels in 1930 purchased a restaurant located at the intersection of Fifth Street and Highway Avenue in Highland.

With his wife, Gladys, doing the restaurant cooking, Nichels turned his efforts toward another business, a gasoline service station and auto repair shop.

In 1936, he purchased a second restaurant and tavern just two miles east, on the corner of Ridge Road and Cline Avenue. Soon, he had a service station, an auto repair garage, a restaurant and a tavern all on the northeast corner of that intersection, which he christened “Rudy’s Place.”

With his early investment in restaurants and auto repair shops starting to pay off, he began a search for another moneymaking opportunity and uncovered midget car auto racing.

The more Nichels heard about midget car racing, the more he thought it might be a good fit with his other businesses. On Oct. 10, 1937, Nichels decided to take a look at this potential business venture and with his oldest son, 14 year-old Ray, visited the newly constructed Hammond Raceway located at the junction of Sheffield and Calumet avenues. With another 7,000 fans in attendance, Nichels witnessed his first midget car race. It would not be his last. A few weeks later, Nichels purchased his first race car.

From that day on, Rudy threw himself whole-heartedly into auto racing, owning several cars from 1938 through the late 1940s, giving drivers such as Ted Duncan, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnnie Parsons, Paul Russo, Ray Richards and Mike O’Halloran some of the finest midget race cars in the business. All of these drivers eventually became members of the Midget Racing Hall of Fame after capturing a series of track championships racing for Nichels Service. Johnnie Parsons used his 1948 Midwest Championship driving for Nichels as a springboard toward winning the 1950 Indianapolis 500.

Nichels established “Nichels Service” shop at the corner of Cline and Ridge Road as the cornerstone of Midwest auto racing. Working with racing equipment suppliers from across the country he built a superb reputation for racing expertise. Nationally known drivers such as Ronney Householder anchored their race teams and equipment at Rudy’s Place when barnstorming across America.

The racing business was so profitable that Nichels began promoting and sanctioning races at tracks throughout Illinois and Indiana.

It was during this time that his son, Ray, went out on his own and entered IndyCar racing, eventually competing in 15 Indianapolis 500s and building a Hall of Fame career as one of the nation’s finest mechanics and race car builders.

Rudy Nichels died in April of 1955, leaving a lasting legacy of being one of the first in a long line of region racers.

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