Nichels Engineering Thrived on his Dime …

Posted: May 28, 2010 in Uncategorized

Nichels Engineering 1957 Daytona Victory — (from left): Ray Nichels, Semon Knudsen, Harley Earl, Cotton Owens, Bill France, Sr. – Photo Credit: Nichels Engineering Archives

Region Racers at the Indianapolis 500
Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen changed the face of Region Racing

By: Wm. LaDow
Daily Trackside Reports from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway
Published by the Chicago Sun-Times News Group — May 28, 2010

Northwest Indiana has been blessed with a long list of Region Racers.

Born and bred here, they have gone on to great heights within the auto racing community. Some have been born in other parts of the country, even Europe, but when it came time to make their mark in racing, they adopted the region as their home.

This story is about a man who was born out East and spent a good part of his life in Detroit but is as much of a Region Racer as anyone.

Born in 1912, Semon E. Knudsen was the only son of William Knudsen, who later became the President of General Motors. Father and son were the best of friends and it was Semon’s father who nicknamed him “Bunkie.”

Early in his youth, Bunkie proved to be mechanically inclined, and by the time he was 14, he badgered his father into giving him a car. The older Knudsen, a true task master, delivered Bunkie’s new car to the house in hundreds of pieces, explaining if he wanted a car he would have to assemble it, which he did.

Young Knudsen graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1936 and after working for some smaller GM auto suppliers, joined the Pontiac Motor Division of General Motors in 1939. Knudsen was promoted to assistant manager of manufacturing at the GM-Allison Aircraft Engine Division in Indianapolis in 1953. Two years later he was promoted again, becoming the general manager of GM’s Detroit Diesel Engine Division.

It was during his time in Indianapolis, while on a tour of Gasoline Alley, he met a young Indy 500 crew chief by the name of Ray Nichels, who was prepping the No. 29 Ansted Rotary Special for the upcoming 500. After a particularly grueling day prior to qualifying, Nichels closed up shop and headed outside for a cigarette, and ended up in a conversation with one of the racing team’s guests. The two men talked about racing for over an hour. As they both decided to call it a night, the gentleman extended his right hand, offered his business card, and said, “My name is Semon Knudsen, my friends call me Bunkie. I run the GM-Allison operation over on 10th Street. If there’s anything I can ever do for you, just give me a call.”

Nichels later admitted that the young man had made a strong impression on him, but doubted he would ever run across Bunkie Knudsen again.

In 1956, Knudsen was named the head of General Motor’s Pontiac Division. He immediately made two major decisions; first, in a move to start bringing in young car buyers, he completely redesigned the entire Pontiac lineup and second, he decided to go auto racing.

He then contacted Nichels and tasked him with a list of engine problems that Pontiac engineers just couldn’t seem to overcome at their test facility. The next day, Nichels was meeting with the Pontiac engineering staff in Michigan. The day after that he was in Phoenix, Ariz., overseeing Pontiac’s high-performance testing program. Once there, Nichels uncovered the issue that he believed was creating the performance problems. He returned to Michigan, where he explained his observations. Knudsen didn’t believe Nichels’ assessment of the problem. He told Ray to go back to Phoenix and prove it. Nichels was told to build two Pontiac engines his way and run them until they failed like the other Pontiac engines had. Once the Nichels engines had failed, Ray was to call Bunkie personally and explain his observations.

Nichels did just that. He assembled two engines his way, installed them, and had the cars put out on the test track at Phoenix running full out. Two weeks passed. Nichels got a phone call from an angry Knudsen demanding to know why Nichels hadn’t called in his test results. Ray’s reply was simple, “You told me to call you when my engines failed. Well, they haven’t, they’re still running. The problem’s fixed.”

The following Monday, Ray Nichels became the head of GM-Pontiac Racing. He also inked a deal for Nichels Engineering to become the “house” builder for all of Pontiac racing.

Knudsen’s decisions were quickly rewarded in February 1957, when Nichels Engineering took the pole (with Banjo Matthews) and won the Daytona Beach Race (with Cotton Owens.)

The next six years, Knudsen invested millions of dollars in the Calumet Region economy by virtue of his business relationship with Ray Nichels. When Nichels thought of leaving auto racing following the death of Pat O’Connor in the 1958 Indianapolis 500, it was Knudsen who pleaded with Nichels to return to racing and introduced him to Paul Goldsmith, forging one of the most successful teams in American racing.

The business partnership of Knudsen and Nichels resulted in Pontiac dominating stock racing in NASCAR, USAC, ARCA, and IMCA until GM left racing in 1963.

He may have never lived in the region, but his investment in our racing heritage truly makes him a Region Racer.

Comments are closed.