“Region Racers” — Ray Nichels
By: Wm. LaDow
April 18, 2016
By the time Hoosier Ray Nichels got around to the Month of May at 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 Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen, 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)
This undertaking was accomplished at a record-setting speed of 101.541 miles per hour, on a race course just over 4 miles in length. One straightaway was the shore of the Atlantic Ocean and the other an asphalt strip known as South Atlantic Avenue, named so, due to its being part of Route A1A, that begins just below the Georgia state line and runs to the Key West International Airport.
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 stellar skills. On top of his initial Indy success, O’Connor had built a strong 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 one of the smoothest drivers on the AAA circuit.
Nichels and O’Connor’s next stop was at the behest of Firestone in the month of 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 June 29, 1957. A year earlier, Duane Carter, Director of Competition for United States Auto Club, 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. An auto racing competition like this had never been attempted. With World War II just a dozen years 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.” It later became known as the “Race of Two Worlds” and ultimately know as “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 they toiled at Monza, the Ray Nichels-prepped Hemi-powered Kurtis-Kraft, in the hands of 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 he 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 the race at Monza. O’Connor and 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 States. Next on Nichels Engineeering’s racing agenda was America’s palace of speed, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Nichels and O’Connor had been planning for this Indianapolis 500 since the final lap of last years race. In 1956, after starting on the front row, a failed magneto late in the race robbed him of his chance to finish with the leaders. In 1955, with just a handful of laps left, they were in a position to win the race. While chasing eventual race winner Bob Sweikert (who was running very low on fuel), O’Connor’s mount was felled by a failed fuel fitting worth no more than a couple of dollars.
For the 1957 Indianapolis 500, Nichels and O’Connor had a new car owner, a Terre Haute, Indiana industrialist by the name of Chapman Root. The Root family earned their fortune, first by being glass makers, beginning in 1901. The Root Glass Company earned their second fortune by being the glass firm that patented the design of the cocoa-pod shaped Coca-Cola bottle in 1915. The company was not only a major producer of glass bottles to Coca-Cola, they also reported received five cents in royalties for every gross of coca–cola bottles produced by any other glass maker. The Root family eventually left the glass manufacturing business and during the next 30 years, Roots’ Associated Coca-Cola Bottlers became the nation’s largest independent Coke bottler with plants scattered across the United States.
When Chapman Root came to race at Indianapolis, he came in earnest. He started with plans to enter three cars in the May Classic. For 1957, Root’s flagship entry was Pat O’Connor in the No. 12 Sumar Special Kurtis-Kraft 500G2-710 Roadster. Nichels personally oversaw the construction of the O’Connor’s car during the previous winter, spending several weeks working at the Kurtis-Kraft factory in Southern California, assembling the car himself before it was shipped east.
On Pole Day, May 18th, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway filled with an all-time qualifications record crowd, estimated at 150,000 fans, to see the greatest drivers in the world claim their place in the May classic. With 19 cars already in line for the 11am start for qualifying, it began to rain. For almost four hours it drenched the speedway. Then a break in the weather finally allowed qualifying to start. Nichels and O’Connor calmly waited for their opportunity. When it came, just at like Monza, O’Connor slowly pulled out of the pits onto the immense speedway. As Pat gathered speed, Nichels could hear the Offy running smoothly as he disappeared into the first turn. The engine sounded as strong as ever as O’Connor began to gain speed running down the backstretch. Following his warm up, O’Connor did what he had been doing all week, running smooth and fast. His best lap, at 144.046 mph, brought his four lap qualifying average up to 143.948 mph.
The rains finally ended the day’s qualifying with nine cars making the race. Irishman O’Connor could be seen smiling as he stood in the rain, realizing his childhood dream: being on the pole at Indianapolis. It was a dream shared by many, as O’Connor, Ray Nichels and Chapman Root had just become the first All-Hoosier race team ever to claim the pole for the world’s greatest race.
So impressive was his collective performance during the course this four month period, Ray Nichels was named Indianapolis 500 “Mechanic of the Year” clearly making him our best “Region Racer.”
Photos from the Nichels Engineering Archives and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway