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.
Chrysler 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.”
Nichels 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.”
With 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!”
The 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.”