Archive for May 23, 2014

Hanks Nichels 1954

A Book Excerpt from “Conversations of a Winner – The Ray Nichels Story”

By: Wm. R. LaDow

Section Title: The 1950’s – Triumph and Tragedy

Chapter Title: 1954 – Indy, Firestone and a World Record

©2014 – LaDow Publishing

Firestone, one of the premier automobile tire suppliers in the world, was very active in racing across America. For years they had their racing headquarters set up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and were in fact the key supplier of race tires for the annual Indy field.

Historically, Firestone had done its Indy car race tire development by renting cars from various race teams on a per day basis for tire testing.  In 1954, Firestone decided to acquire a new Indy car to be used solely for tire testing. They purchased a Kurtis-Kraft KK500A, chassis No. 379-54 and had it shipped to Indianapolis. During this period, Firestone also forged an alliance with the Chrysler Corporation, which at the time was trying to develop a successful Indy 500 racing engine. Then the brand new Kurtis chassis and a brand new Chrysler 331 cubic inch A311 Hemi engine were shipped individually to Indianapolis to be used as the new test car.

It was at this time that Firestone’s Bill McCrary looked up Ray Nichels. 

nichelslogo_edited-1Chrysler and Firestone were about to stage a major public relations event on June 16th at the newly constructed Chrysler Corporation Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, not far from Detroit.  Chrysler invited the top four finishers of the 1954 Indianapolis 500 to bring their cars and race teams to Chelsea and be the first to establish benchmark speed records at the proving grounds complex. 

As part of that event, Firestone wanted to unveil its new Chrysler powered Kurtis-Kraft Roadster to the media. There was only one problem. The car wasn’t completely assembled. Bill McCrary had come to Ray Nichels to see if he would be interested in going to work for Firestone spending the next few weeks getting the car ready for Chelsea. Ray agreed to look over the car and engine and see if it was possible. Once Ray saw the car was in parts, he knew he could never get it put together and in racing trim in less than 10 days. He agreed however to do what he could, but first he made McCrary promise that no one would expect the car to run at the June 16th Indy event. Secondly he told McCrary that he didn’t think Firestone would pay him enough to join them full time, so this would be a one-time deal. “We’re in a bind,” McCrary said, “Whatever it takes.”

FireIndyNichels went to work and was able to get the car somewhat assembled and shipped to Chelsea. Once at the proving grounds he made the car presentable, and when June 16th rolled around, the Firestone display with the new Kurtis chassis and Chrysler engine looked quite impressive.

As part of the day-long program introducing the facility to over 600 members of the press, the four top Indy 500 finishers, Bill Vukovich, Jimmy Bryan, Jack McGrath, and Troy Ruttman, took turns putting their Offy powered Indy cars through the paces on the vast 4.7 mile oval track that was the centerpiece of the world’s largest (4,000 acres) and most modern automobile proving grounds. It was McGrath who took the day’s top honors, setting a new closed-course world speed record of 179.386 miles per hour.

Following the establishment of the new record, the press was served food and spirits as the day came to a close. It was then, while manning the Firestone test car display, that Ray Nichels was approached by Raymond Firestone and Walt Lyons, the key Firestone executives in attendance at Chelsea. Lyons, eyeing the beautifully prepared Firestone test car, was the first to speak, saying, “Can this car break the new Chelsea record?” Nichels’ reply was, “Sure.” Lyons again questioned Ray, “You’re sure?” Ray replied, “Absolutely!” Lyons then said “Well, I understand it’s your position that Firestone is too cheap to hire you?” Nichels smiled and said, “I just didn’t think you were prepared to offer any real money to get this job done.” Lyons asked, “What would it take to get you on board and set the new record with the Firestone car?” Ray quickly stated, “$200 bucks a week and expenses.” Lyons shot back, “You’re hired as of now. When will you have the car ready?” Ray answered without hesitation “Give me a couple of weeks.”

fire1With that, Nichels went to work.  He stayed at the Chrysler Chelsea Proving Grounds to get the job done. In an effort not to upset members of the auto workers union, Nichels worked on the car in a shed adjacent to the track. Toiling day and night with the help of two engineers from the Firestone staff, he completed the job. On June 29th, Ray took the newly assembled Chrysler Hemi powered Kurtis-Kraft roadster out on the Chelsea oval. The first run was in traffic to check for wheel stability and oil leaks. Chrysler staff then shut down their testing on the track and gave Ray the entire track to put the car through its paces. Not running hard at all, Ray was clocked at 165 mph. With that, he put the Kurtis in for the night and waited for the arrival of the driver that Firestone had hired to pilot the car on the following morning. None other than defending AAA National driving champ and Nichels’ buddy Sam Hanks was the chauffeur hired for the task.

That evening when Hanks’ flight came in, he headed to meet Ray and the crew members at a restaurant in Jackson, Michigan.  Over dinner, Hanks asked Ray if the car was ready.  He was assured it was.  He then took a serious tone with Ray and asked, “Do you honestly think we can break the record tomorrow?” Before Ray could answer, one of the Firestone crew replied, “If you don’t, Ray will.  He’s been going 165 miles per hour himself.” Sam looked Ray in the eye and said, “Really?” Ray’s reply was, “I didn’t even have to play race driver. I just put her through the paces. I’m telling you Sam, she’s ready!”

Chelsea SSThe next morning, on June 30th, Sam Hanks took the Ray Nichels prepped, Chrysler Hemi powered Kurtis-Kraft Firestone test car out and set a new world’s closed-course speed record of 182.554 miles per hour. When Hanks came in off the track, he was immediately asked by a Firestone representative, “Just how fast can you run?” Hanks’ reply was, “I don’t have to run any faster than I just did. Let someone break my record and I’ll come back.” Firestone management was elated with Sam and Ray’s accomplishment. Nichels probably summarized the episode better than anyone when he said later, “The Chrysler Hemi ran smooth as glass and the Kurtis-Kraft just glued itself to the Chelsea track. Sam Hanks flew into town, ran a few laps, set a world’s record, and made about five grand. Now that’s good living.”

By: Wm. LaDow

The Post-Tribune – Chicago Sun-Times News Group
Originally Published in May 2007

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May 27th, 2007 marked the 91st Running of the Indianapolis 500, the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But more than a “Racing Spectacle” it is a time honored tradition and on a more personal note, a Hoosier tradition. Since 1911, the finest racecar drivers, mechanics and engineers have come to Indianapolis to participate in the most important auto race on the planet. There has been one unique aspect that has made the Indianapolis 500 the largest single day sporting event in the world. That aspect is that this race from its very first running, has been one open to all comers. To race at Indianapolis all you have to do raise the money, buy the equipment, and pass the Rookie Orientation Program. Your reward? Simple. Win the race and you became a racing immortal. The purse of almost 2 million dollars notwithstanding.

Since the early days, young racers have fought their way to the Brickyard. The stories of these Indy racers and the hardships they endured along the way and finally the accolades that they won are truly inspiring.

Over the course of the next few weeks, leading up to the 2007 Indianapolis 500, we are going to focus on some of those unique men, especially those who came from our own “Calumet Region.” The men we will tell you about led mostly quiet, reserved, hard working lives here in the Region. But in American racing circles, they were highly respected competitors, who in many cases were honored across the nation

EarlFrenchySirois 

Frenchy Sirois

Earl Sirois was known mostly around his community of Shelby, Indiana as the proprietor of a Farmall Tractor and Implement business and later as the owner of a hardware store, both businesses in which he had partnered with his father, Samuel. Earl or “Frenchy” as he was later known, was born and raised in Shelby, along with his brothers, Samuel, Jr. and Ernest

What most people didn’t know when they happened into Sirois’ businesses for equipment, parts repair or general hardware items was that they were talking to a man who had won the Indianapolis 500, not once, but three times.

A respected businessman, “Frenchy” was also known as an excellent mechanic, almost methodical in his approach to working on engines. Though active as a racing mechanic for many years, his most prolific period for racing success began quietly in the mid-1930’s when he joined forces with Murrell Belanger, the owner of automobile and implement businesses in Crown Point and Lowell. Belanger had first ventured to Indianapolis to participate in the 24th running of the Indianapolis 500 in May of 1936. Sirois and Belanger quietly toiled in speedway racing circles for the next 15 years before their race team started to draw attention. Over the years, they spent many days during the month of May, trying to qualify for the 500, sometimes successful, many times not. Legendary drivers such as Duke Nalon and Jimmy Snyder drove for them, but never to the winner’s circle. After World War II, American auto racing began to grow by leaps and bounds, with Belanger and his top associate Sirois perfectly positioned for the opportunity. They then added the very driver they needed to ratchet up their performance, Tony Bettenhausen from neighboring Tinley Park, Illinois. Bettenhausen had been running the midget racing circuit for Rudy and Ray Nichels in Highland and had been searching for a “Speedway” ride for sometime.

Sirois worked on a series of Belanger-owned cars; a Miller-Offy, a Stevens-Offy, and a Wetteroth-Offy, all the time trying to wring out more speed from the heavy, oversized race cars. He also went on the road with Bettenhausen, running selected parts of the AAA Championship IndyCar schedule, gaining the occasional solid finish. In 1950, Frenchy and the Belanger team scored a 12th place finish in the 500 with Duane Carter behind the wheel, while Bettenhausen had raced for one of the pre-eminent teams in Indy racing, the “Blue Crown Special” crew owned by Indy 500 multiple winning owner Lou Moore.

In 1949, big changes would begin to shine more light on Sirois’ successful racing endeavors when Murrell Belanger purchased a unique Frank Kurtis creation, known as the Meyer & Drake No. 99. The car manufactured in 1949 for Meyer & Drake (M&D), producers of the Offenhauser (Offy) engine and the most dominant powerplant in racing, was campaigned midway through the AAA Championship season. M&D, a long-time suppler to Belanger, asked that Frenchy Sirois and Dale “Tiny” Worley (from Lowell) campaign the car as a testing program for the new, smaller and lighter designed car. The car immediately began to race among the leaders. With Bettenhausen behind the wheel, it didn’t take long for the other racing teams to begin protesting loudly about the conflict of interest of Meyer & Drake racing their own car against other race teams, M&D’s primary customers.

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Driver Paul Russo along with Chief  Mechanic Ray Nichels (behind car on right). On the left, behind Russo, is Frenchy Sirois.

So impressed with the M&D No. 99, “Region Racers” Ray Nichels and Paul Russo, while at the August 20th AAA race at Springfield, Illinois, immediately began to beg their then car owner, Carmine “Tuffy” Tuffanelli, to purchase the car, then reportedly for sale. They were rebuffed over the course of the next two months, so much so, that Ray Nichels left Tuffanelli’s race team and with Russo, went on to build the Russo/Nichels Special (later to become known as Basement Bessie) in Russo’s Harrison Street basement in Hammond.

Much to Frenchy Sirois’ delight, Belanger purchased the M&D No. 99 and labeled it the Belanger No. 99 during the winter of 1949.

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When it was all said and done, the Belanger No. 99, won the 1951 Indianapolis 500, the 1951 AAA National IndyCar Championship and went on to become the winningest Kurtis-Kraft built, Offy-powered race car ever. It now rests in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall-of-Fame Museum.

But that wasn’t the end of Frenchy Sirois’ career, due to a partnership he had forged with Meyer & Drake Engine Mechanic George Salih while wining the 1951 Indianapolis 500, the two gentlemen stayed close over the next several years as Sirois continued to toil on Murrell Belanger’s race cars.

In 1957, after Belanger had decided to stop competing in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Frenchy’s good friend, Salih asked him to join his crew for the 1957 Indianapolis 500. Salih had designed a unique racecar. It was a “laydown” roadster, with the Offy engine installed on its side, rather than standing vertically. Salih built the frame of his laydown roadster in his home workshop in 1956. Quin Epperly did the bodywork and with the unique approach to the engine installation they created a car that held its speed in turns, crucial when running Indianapolis. Salih obtained sponsorship from Sandy Belond (who had been Ray Nichels’ sponsor in the 1953 and 1954 Indy 500s) and labeled his laydown roadster the “Belond Exhaust Special”. With Frenchy Sirois beside him, Salih didn’t win just one Indy 500.

He won two!

In a row!

With the same car!

1957SamHanks-2214

First, Sam Hanks piloted the No. 9 Belond car into the winner’s circle and promptly retired, knowing it could never get any better for him in his racing career. A year, legendary Jimmy Bryan rewarded George Salih and Frenchy Sirois with another Indy 500 victory.

From then on, Sirois stayed active at Indianapolis Motor Speedway every May till the mid-1960s, when the rear-engine revolution took place.

Earl “Frenchy” Sirois passed away in October of 1974. With him went a legacy of 19 IndyCar victories, a national IndyCar championship and standing in the winners circle for three Indianapolis 500’s. Any way you analyze his career, it clearly makes him one of the best in a long line of “Region Racers.”

Leon DurayJiggerSirois

Jigger Sirois - 1969

Born in Shelby, Indiana on April 16, 1935, the son of the Earl “Frenchy” Sirois, Leon was labeled early. Named after 1920’s driver Leon Duray, it also didn’t take long for him to be nicknamed after another Indy veteran, riding mechanic, “Jigger” Johnson.

Although not pressed by his father to go into racing, “Jigger” Sirois soon learned he had the support of his family and other “Region Racers” like Dale “Tiny” Worley, Johnny Pawl Jerry Govert, Minnie Joyce and Ray Nichels. He began racing in 1956, with his first contest being a Jalopy race at Illiana Motor Speedway in Schererville. That same year, the next challenge he accepted was racing midget racecars in the United Midget Auto Racing Association (UMARA) for car owner Jack Sims of Crown Point. Racing at the Joliet Memorial Stadium in Illinois was then considered by race fans to be some of the finest midget racing in the country. Jigger’s midget racing travels also took him to O’Hare Stadium in Chicago, and Raceway Park in Blue Island, Illinois.

By 1961, Jigger’s reputation had grown considerably as a reliable, smooth and competitive driver. He took a new ride with Larry White of Lockport, Illinois and never looked back. Behind the wheel of the No. 82 car, Sirois made his mark winning the UARA Season’s Championship, winning 8 features out of the 49 race cards he appeared on. What was most impressive was his 46 race finishes, coupled with winning 17 heat races and 6 trophy dashes.

SiroisRacing1961

Jigger moved to the USAC National Midgets Schedule in 1962, driving for Harry Turner in the No. 21. He got off to a great start almost winning the 100 lap “Night before the 500” contest at Indianapolis Raceway Park, before losing a tire after leading for well over 60 laps, eventually finishing sixth. It was that evening that the vast majority of the Indianapolis 500 community saw what Sirois could do. Something very important to Jigger as his ultimate goal was racing in the Indianapolis 500.

Four months later, Jigger lay in a hospital bed after a spectacular wreck at the quarter-mile track at Springfield, Illinois. After being in critical condition for almost a week, he began the long road back. Serious head injuries, burns, a broken collar-bone and assorted other injuries required months of rehabilitation. Unbelievably, he was back racing the following season.

Jigger raced midgets and sprint cars for a variety of sanctioning bodies; USAC, IMCA and others over the next few years. He mixed it up with the likes of A.J. Foyt, Johnny Rutherford and other racing greats of the era, winning his share of races.

In 1967, IndyCar rides began to surface with Sirois attempting to qualify at tracks such as Indianapolis, Trenton, Milwaukee, DuQuoin and Springfield. But in every case, the equipment he was in was not competitive, stunting his ability to move up the IndyCar racing ladder. In 1968, he qualified for four IndyCar races. At Michigan International Speedway, he ran with the leaders for much of day, before losing a clutch while in 2nd place in the Inaugural USAC IndyCar 250 mile race.

In 1969, his best opportunity presented itself at Indianapolis. Sirois who was convinced that this was the opportunity he had been waiting for, quit his crane operator’s job back in the “Region,” and settled in as he prepared to chase his dream. On Friday, May 16th, Jigger drew the first spot in qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 to be held on the following day.

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With the skies threatening rain, Jigger Sirois in his No 14 Quaker State Oil Gerhardt-Offy went out on the track and did what he did best, he “stood on it”. His first lap clocked in at 161 miles per hour, next was a 162 mph, and then the third lap a solid 162.5 mph. But as he headed back into the first turn for his final lap, his car owner, fearing Jigger’s effort wouldn’t be fast enough overall to qualify, unexpectedly pulled out the yellow flag, indicating that the team was waving off their qualifying attempt. Before the next car could get out on the track, it started to rain. It rained the entire weekend wiping out all of speedway qualifying. Had Jigger’s race team allowed him to finish his fourth lap, Sirois would have been the pole winner until qualifying the following weekend. Because of a quirk in the 1969 rules, it was logical that Jigger would have been the first pole winner ever “bumped” the following weekend. But what was even more disheartening was when Sirois went out on the following weekend to claim a spot in the 500, his engine blew after a single lap. To add insult to injury, the slowest Indy 500 qualifying effort was by fellow rookie, Peter Revson, who copped the last spot with a 160.851 mph run. Had Jigger’s car owner not waved off his first qualifying attempt the previous weekend, Jigger’s projected speed of 161.535 mph would have put him in his first 500.

What happened after that, showed what kind of man, Sirois really is. Jigger refused to second guess his car owner stating that “I don’t believe in being bitter. A lot of people have a lot worse things happen to them. I was upset, but life is too short to be bitter.” He later said “Indianapolis is special. It is the ultimate test. If that’s where you’re going, you’d better be ready. If you aren’t, you should take your helmet bag and go home.”

Jigger retired from racing in 1977, relocated to Williamsburg, Virginia and has since retired from the American Oil Company (AMOCO).

Following his racing days, Sirois tackled another great challenge in his life, a life-long stuttering affliction. Jigger had battled with public speaking during his racing days and in 2000 pursued help with his inability to communicate by doing what he did on the race track, battling it. He was victorious and since has won several public speaking awards. In fact, in 2002, after declining for many years to be the host speaker for the annual American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association breakfast held during the Month of May, when the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association  (AARWBA) presents it annual winner of the “The Jigger Award” so named as the hard-luck award, Leon “Jigger” Sirois accepted their invitation and proceeded to give an inspiring speech.

As the years have passed, Leon “Jigger” Sirois has become one of the storied legends of the Brickyard and although his notoriety initially was because of a bad break, his legacy has since become one of class and integrity.

Making the starting field of the Indianapolis 500 can go a long way toward making a driver’s career — missing the field however, can weigh heavily on a man’s spirit for many years to come. 

In 1969, one Region Racer proved he had more character than anyone could have imagined and since then, he’s proved it by a life well-lived. 

That is what makes him one of the great “Region Racers.”

IMS 1909— Improved strategy in place for 2014 Indianapolis 500 —

INDIANAPOLIS, Thursday, May 22, 2014 – An extensive review that included consultation with some of the world’s leading experts in innovative stadium strategies has produced a new gate entry plan that will allow fans attending the 98th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race to enter the facility with greater ease and efficiency than ever before.

This year, IMS will open 8 additional gates to fans entering the facility, as the open gate total goes from 18 in 2013 to 26 on Sunday. The opening of these 8 new gates will, in turn, increase the total number of entry lanes from 77 to 182, with 12 express lanes for those entering the facility without coolers or bags.

In order to support these new entry points, IMS has increased the number of gate staff from approximately 300 in 2013 to nearly 700 this year. Plus, IMS has changed the ticket stubbing process to ticket marking, thus cutting down entry time per person even further.

Much of this year’s plan was first implemented last summer during the 20th Running of the Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com. The new entry procedures and locations provided fans a smoother entry into the facility and additional modifications for this year’s Indianapolis 500 should decrease wait times significantly from 2013.

“In an effort to provide a safer experience for our fans, we are scrutinizing coolers and bags much more heavily than in the past and it can mean longer wait times,” said J. Douglas Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway president. “However, the wait time should be significantly less than 2013 with significantly more gates, lanes, and employees this year. We are also encouraging fans to show up earlier than 9:30 a.m. if possible to avoid the peak time at our gates, which usually occurs between 10 and 11:30 a.m.”

Gates open this year that haven’t been in the past include: 1A, 1B.1, 3 (size doubled), 5A, 6A, 6B, 7 & 9.

Express lanes can be found at the following Gates: 1, 1B.1, 3 (two express lanes), 6 (two express lanes), 6A, 7 (two express lanes), 8 and 9 (two express lanes).

As far as getting to the track, fans should plan their routes ahead of time for an easier, more efficient drive to the track. Now in its third year, the KNOW YOUR ZONE program is designed to help Speedway guests identify the best driving routes to parking lots located near their respective seating locations.

Click on Map to Enlarge

IMS Track MAP

“All Roads Lead to Indy” driving routes have been created by the Indiana State Police and match KNOW YOUR ZONE colors at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway:

• Orange: The southern end of IMS.

• Red: The northern end of IMS.

• Green: Between the Orange (southern) and Red (northern) zones.

With the track opening at 5:30 a.m. on Indianapolis 500 Race Day and the race beginning at noon, officials suggest fans arrive in Marion County no later than 8:00 a.m. to ensure getting to IMS in time to experience all the traditional pre-race activities and the start of the race.

For more information about the KNOW YOUR ZONE program, including details about special ticket and parking packages, visit http://www.indianapolismotorspeedway.com/knowyourzone.

This year’s entry plan also includes “air traffic control” on the roof of the Paddock Penthouse to help direct pedestrian traffic to less crowded gates via real-time audio communication to fans, and the separation of will call, general admission and reserved seat purchasing locations on the north end of the facility. Improvements in print-at-home ticket scanning at IMS also will assist in smoother traffic flow at all future events.

Other items to note for Indianapolis 500 race day …

• Georgetown Road will be closed at 7 a.m. to all vehicular traffic between 16th Street on the south and 25th Street

• Those race patrons with placards accustomed to entering IMS Gate 7 will have to enter through Gate 2 (W. 16th Street) or Gate 10 (30th Street)

• Upon completion of the race, Georgetown Road will remain closed to vehicular traffic until the vast majority of race pedestrian foot traffic clears from the roadway (approximately 1 hour after the race)

• No coolers larger than 18 inches by 14 inches by 14 inches can be brought into the facility on Coors Light Carb Day or Indianapolis 500 Race Day – this will be strictly enforced

• Fans will be allowed to bring one cooler and one standard backpack or book bag per person

2014 ticket information: Ticket information is available for the remaining three events in 2014 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the Indianapolis 500, Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard and Red Bull Indianapolis GP.

Fans can order tickets at www.ims.com/tickets, by calling 800-822-INDY or 317-492-6700 between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday or by visiting the Ticket Office at the IMS Administration Building at the corner of Georgetown Road and 16th Street between 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. (ET) Monday through Friday.

Tickets for groups of 20 or more also are available. Contact the IMS Group Sales Department at (866) 221-8775 for more information.

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