Archive for September 9, 2013

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By the time Hoosier Ray Nichels got around to the Month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1957, he had already set the racing world on its collective ear.

It started in February, when at the request of the Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, the head of the Pontiac Division at General Motors, Nichels and his team of Dale “Tiny” Worley, Pat O’Connor, Dick Rathmann, and Ed Oldert ventured to Daytona. Once there, the Nichels Engineering team performed in record breaking fashion. Nichels and his two NASCAR drivers, Banjo Matthews and Cotton Owens, captured the Pole (Matthews) and won the race (Owens.)

His chief racing partner through this period was North Vernon, Indiana native Pat O’Connor, who Ray was introduced to as his new driver in 1955. O’Connor had made his Indy debut in the 1954 race and gained the respect of his racing peers by virtue of his performance. On top of his initial Indy success, O’Connor had built a stellar career as an AAA sprint car driver winning back-to-back Midwest Sprint Championships in 1953 and 1954, a feat never before accomplished. O’Connor was intelligent, articulate, tremendously talented and most of all, one of the smoothest drivers on the AAA circuit.

Nichels and O’Connor’s next stop was at the behest of Firestone in April. The two Hoosier racers were directed to go to Europe to do tire testing for a terribly important race that was scheduled to be run on June 29, 1957. A year earlier, Duane Carter, Dir. of Competition for USAC, and Giuseppe Bacciagaluppi, President of the Automobile Club of Milan, formulated a plan to pit America’s 10 best open-wheel drivers against 10 of their European Grand Prix counterparts. A competition like this had never before been attempted. With World War II just a little over a decade past, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to pit the world’s best drivers against one another. It was officially labeled the “500 Miglia Di Monza,” but it soon became known as the “Race of Two Worlds” or “Monzanapolis.”

The site of this epic challenge was the Autodromo di Monza, located on the former palatial estate of the King of Italy, about 12 miles north of Milan. The speed complex consisted of both a road course and a newly built speedway. The new high-speed track was just over 2.6 miles long, with two long straightaways held together by two 38-degree banked turns. By comparison, the banking at Indianapolis was only nine degrees, and the turns at Darlington were in their mid-20s. This was clearly the world’s first truly high-banked super-speedway. It was constructed of reinforced, precast concrete sections that had been erected to form the race circuit. The concern among the racing community was that the high speeds on the terribly rough Monza track might be too taxing on the tires. A resulting tire failure at high speed could be catastrophic at a track so highly banked. That meant that Nichels and O’Connor, under contract to Firestone, had to conduct tire tests at Monza to gain an understanding of the challenges of racing on such a circuit.

Over the course of the few days that they toiled at Monza, the Ray Nichels-prepped Hemi-powered Kurtis, in the hands of Pat O’Connor, eclipsed a series of world speed records. Pat ran a total of 226 miles at an average speed of 163.377 mph and for good measure O’Connor set the track benchmark when he turned a lap at a staggering 170 mph. When the news reached the outside world, there was a collective gasp. In the weeks following, the European race driver community slowly began to withdraw their commitments to race at Monza. Pat O’Connor and Ray Nichels had run so fast, they had put a chill into the Monza air. It soon began to appear that the only racers who were willing to run the high banks of Monza were Pat O’Connor and his American teammates.

With that task completed Nichels and O’Connor returned to the United States to America’s palace of speed, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 41st running of the Indianapolis 500, where they started from the Pole, completing an extraordinary four month racing run by any racers measure.