Posts Tagged ‘Nichels Engineering’

Photo Credit: Nichels Engineering Archives

By Stan Kalwasinski

October 28, 2017

Griffith, Ind.—A group of friends, family, and well-wishers gathered at the St. Mary Hildebrandt Hall here Saturday afternoon as the Indiana Racing Memorial Association (IRMA) honored northwest Indiana racing legends Paul Goldsmith and the late Ray Nichels with the unveiling of their historical markers.

The historical marker project to honor the racing legacy of Nichels Engineering and it’s leaders Nichels & Goldsmith was the culmination of an 18-month effort by Wm. LaDow and Bob Gates (who represented IRMA.)

The markers, which will be permanently placed in the weeks to come, were the 29th & 30th completed in the state of Indiana by IRMA, which was organized in 2013. Goldsmith is the first living recipient of the honor.

Paul Goldsmith is congratulated by Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson after Goldsmith’s IRMA historical marker was unveiled at a luncheon in Griffith, Ind., on October 28. (Stan Kalwasinski Photo)

Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson was the event’s guest speaker and gave a detailed summary of the racing careers of both Goldsmith and Nichels, who passed away in 2005.  Nichels’ wife, Eleanor, and several family members were on hand for the occasion.

A native of West Virginia, Goldsmith, who became a northwest Indiana resident years ago, is a member of several halls of fame for both his motorcycle and automobile racing exploits – both stock cars and Indianapolis 500 competition. 

Goldsmith started racing motorcycles as a young man and went on to be a factory rider for Harley Davidson, winning a number of  ”national” events including races held at Daytona Beach, Florida, and Langhorne, Pennsylvania.

With Goldsmith trying his hand at stock car racing, one of his earliest victories was in 1958 on the old road/beach course at Daytona Beach, driving for mechanical innovator Smokey Yunick. Goldsmith and Yunick entered the Indianapolis 500 in 1958 – the first of six consecutive appearances by Goldsmith, which included a fifth-place finish in 1959 and a third-place finish in 1960 (both while driving for Nichels Engineering.)

Photo Credit: Nichels Engineering Archives

Joining forces with Ray Nichels, Goldsmith won two United States Auto Club (USAC) national stock car titles (1961 and 1962) and closed out his racing career, wheeling Nichels-prepared stock cars in NASCAR competition, posting three wins in 1966 for a total of nine career NASCAR victories.

Goldsmith was also an integral part of the Nichels Engineering 24 Hour Speed and Endurance Runs at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Darlington Raceway.

Legendary A.J. Foyt once called Goldsmith “the most unappreciated (underrated) driver” he ever raced against.  

Today, at the age of 92, Goldsmith is active in the ownership and management of the Merrillville-Griffith Airport in Griffith.

Growing up in the Griffith area, Nichels followed his father Rudy’s footsteps into automobile racing and was a top-notch racing mechanic before his 21st birthday.  Traveling the midget racing circuits of the Midwest beginning at the age of 15, Nichels soon became a mechanic-in-demand at the world’s greatest race venue, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. 

Eleanor Nichels along side of the IRMA historical marker honoring the racing legacy of her husband Ray – Doug Schellinger‎ Photo

For the 1950 Indianapolis 500, Nichels and his friend, Indy 500 driver Paul Russo built an Indianapolis race car in the basement of Russo’s Van Buren Street, Hammond, Indiana home.  The Nichels/Russo creation finished ninth in the rain-shortened event with the car becoming affectionately known as “Basement Bessie.”  

Nichels was a chief mechanic at the famed speedway for many years, initially with George “Babe” Tuffanelli’s team, then joining Bill Schindler’s team for the 1952 Indy 500. In 1953 and 1954, he was the chief mechanic for Johnnie Parsons and the Belond Equa-Flow Special. From 1954-1958 he managed Pat O’Connor’s entries, first with the Ansted Rotary Special and then Chapman Root’s Sumar Special, before fatally losing O’Connor as part of the ill-started 1958 Indianapolis 500.  Nichels was Goldsmith’s crew chief for the running of the Indianapolis 500 in 1959, 1960 and 1963.

Heading up Firestone’s racing tire test program since 1954, Nichels was signed on by Semon Knudsen to head up Pontiac’s stock car racing program in the autumn of 1956.  Nichels responded by capturing the pole and winning his first stock car race ever, with a record-setting performance at Daytona. Next, he would set a series of world speed records at Monza, Italy, finishing an incredible four-month run by taking the pole for the 1957 Indianapolis 500. 

Nichels Engineering, first located in Highland and then in Griffith, would build winning stock cars for many world-class drivers, with the state-of-the-art Griffith facility becoming known as the “Go-Fast Factory.”  

A multiple racing halls of fame member himself, Nichels first built winning Pontiac race cars and later, Chrysler products. Joining Nichels Engineering in the late summer of 1958, Goldsmith would be part of Nichels’ success in both Pontiac and Chrysler machinery. Their collaboration would result in a series of closed-course world speed records, a handful of national stock car championships and immense respect as the “house” builders for three of the most successful brands in American racing; Pontiac, Plymouth, and Dodge.

Nichels and Goldsmith would go on to be partners in several non-racing business endeavors in both the aircraft and automotive repair industries, with their crowning business achievement being the founding of the Griffith Airport and G & N Aircraft.

Francis “Minnie” Joyce and the late Jerry Govert Sr., who played pivotal roles in Nichels Engineering’s success, were also recognized during the proceedings with Joyce, his wife, Marilyn and their children in attendance, as were three of Jerry Govert Sr.’s sons; Dave, Jeff, and Chris.


Photo Credit: Nichels Engineering Archives

Photo Credit: Nichels Engineering Archives

The “Region Racers” Series – Rudy Nichels

By: Wm. LaDow

Rudys Place 1.jpg

In 1908, a 10-year-old boy crossed the Atlantic Ocean. He and his father journeyed from Austria to settle in America.

Though his last name was Puja when he entered Ellis Island, it was soon changed. It’s unclear whether in his pocket rested a few coins or perhaps he was cared for by a kind immigration worker who gave him some change to get a meal, but from that day forward, his last name was Nichels.

After establishing their residency in Chicago, a teenage Rudy could often be found at the corner pool hall or participating in a local “game of chance.” But a few years later, Nichels settled down in the Calumet Region’s Griffith, Indiana, got married, and eventually started a family — a daughter and three sons.

Nichels was a born entrepreneur and quickly sensed that the American automobile was becoming more of a necessity than a luxury. He made it a point to get involved in any auto-related businesses he could find.

FTIn time he was able to parlay his savings into purchasing a small Fisk Tire store on Ewing Avenue in South Chicago. So small was the shop that an automobile couldn’t be parked entirely under the roof while having its tires changed. Using the slim profits from this business, Nichels in 1930 purchased a restaurant located at the intersection of Fifth Street and Highway Avenue in Highland.

With his wife, Gladys, doing the restaurant cooking, Nichels turned his efforts toward another business, a gasoline service station and auto repair shop.

q_in_highland_nichel_471942In 1936, he purchased a second restaurant and tavern just two miles east, on the corner of Ridge Road & Cline Avenue. Soon, he had a service station, an auto repair garage, a restaurant, and a tavern all on the northwest corner of the intersection, which he christened “Rudy’s Place.” With his early investment in restaurants and auto repair shops paying off, he began a search for another moneymaking opportunity and uncovered midget car auto racing.

The more Nichels heard about midget car racing, the more he thought it might be a good fit with his other businesses. On Oct. 10, 1937, Nichels decided to take a look at this potential business venture. With his oldest son, 14-year-old Ray visited the newly constructed Hammond Raceway located at Sheffield & Calumet Avenues. With 7,000 fans in attendance, Nichels witnessed his first midget car race. It would not be his last. A few weeks later, Nichels purchased his first race car.

At the Hammond, Indiana Speedway 5/8th’s mile track are two Nichels midgets. The car on the left is the #25 driven by Mike O’Halloran and on the right is Teddy Duncan in the #2. Both drivers would eventually be elected to the National Midget Racing Hall of Fame. Kneeling between the Nichels cars are from left: Dale “Tiny’ Worley, Ray Nichels and Rudy Nichels – Nichels Engineering Archives

At the Hammond, Indiana Speedway 5/8th’s mile track is two Nichels Service midgets. The car on the left is the #25 driven by Mike O’Halloran, and on the right is Teddy Duncan in the #2. Both drivers would eventually be elected to the National Midget Racing Hall of Fame. Kneeling between the Nichels cars are from left: Dale “Tiny’ Worley, Ray Nichels and Rudy Nichels – Nichels Engineering Archives.

From that day on, Rudy threw himself whole-heartedly into auto racing, owning several cars from 1938 through the late 1940s, giving drivers such as Ted Duncan, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnnie Parsons, Paul Russo, Ray Richards, and Mike O’Halloran some of the finest midget race cars in the business. All of these drivers eventually became members of the Midget Racing Hall of Fame after capturing a series of track championships driving for Nichels Service. Johnnie Parsons used his 1948 Midwest Championship driving for Nichels as a springboard toward winning the 1950 Indianapolis 500.

Nichels established the “Nichels Service” shop at the corner of Cline and Ridge Road as the cornerstone of Midwest auto racing. Working with racing equipment suppliers from across the country, he built a superb reputation for racing expertise. Nationally known drivers such as Ronney Householder anchored their race teams and equipment at Rudy’s Place when barnstorming across America.

Rudy Nichels shop at the corner of Cline Avenue and Ridge Road in Highland, Indiana in 1947. Working on the two Nichels owned midgets in the front of the garage is 24 year old Ray Nichels. In the back on the right in the white tee shirt is Ronney Householder, who at the time was one of the most respected drivers in racing. He went on to manage Chrysler Corporation’s racing operations from 1955 thru 1972 – Nichels Engineering Archives

Rudy Nichels shop at the corner of Cline Avenue and Ridge Road in Highland, Indiana, in 1947. Working on the two Nichels owned midgets in the front of the garage is 24-year-old Ray Nichels. In the back on the right in the white tee shirt is Ronney Householder, who at the time was one of the most respected drivers in racing. He went on to manage Chrysler Corporation’s racing operations from 1955 thru 1972 – Nichels Engineering Archives.

Nichels began promoting and sanctioning races at tracks throughout Illinois and Indiana, the racing business became so profitable.

During this time, his son, Ray, went out on his own and entered IndyCar racing, eventually competing in 15 Indianapolis 500s and building a Hall of Fame career as one of the nation’s finest mechanics and race car builders.

Rudy Nichels died in April of 1955, leaving a lasting legacy of being one of the first in a long line of Region Racers.

By: Steve Lehto — An excerpt from Mr. Lehto’s new book — Dodge Daytona & Plymouth Superbird: Design, Development, Production and Competition


In 1968, Chrysler shipped two brand new 1969 Charger 500s to Hot Rod magazine for a press preview. One was a B-5 Blue 500 equipped with a Hemi and a 4-speed. The magazine took the two 500s to a drag strip where the B-5 knocked off a quarter mile in 13.48 seconds.


Shortly after Hot Rod brought the cars back from the drag strip, the B-5 was stolen. Later, it was found in a bad neighborhood missing its Hemi, its interior and driveline. The write up in Hot Rod was nice but Chrysler could not repair and sell the B-5 car. They decided to turn it into an engineering test car. The shell was shipped as essentially a body in white to Nichels Engineering in Griffith, Indiana.

Nichels rebuilt the car to NASCAR standards, including all of the knowledge Chrysler racing had developed for the Charger. They raked the body nose-down. They installed the bars inside the engine compartment from the firewall to the radiator support to stiffen the front end. They put in a roll cage, a race Hemi and matching drivetrain. Nichels then shipped DC-93 back to Chrysler. Incidentally, it was Nichels that designated the car “DC-93.” Indiana required cars to bear some sort of identification number and many of the cars in Nichels’ shop did not have VIN tags. Nichels simply numbered them sequentially with the letters designating the manufacturer and sometimes the model. “DC” stood for Dodge Charger.

As the 1969 Daytona 500 approached, Chrysler racing engineers were certain DC-93 was state of the art. They painted the car blue and put #99 on it. They offered to let Nichels Engineering field the car for the race. Paul Goldsmith drove it. It did not run on pole day but NASCAR had gone to its dual qualifying race format. Goldsmith ran it in the second qualifier where Bobby Isaac, Charlie Glotzbach and Goldsmith completed a 1-2-3 sweep in Charger 500s. Things looked promising. DC-93 ran the fastest laps that weekend but crashed out of the main race on lap 62.

It was at this point that Chrysler decided to go to the next level and install the ultimate aero package – the nose cone and the wing, making it a Charger Daytona.


All through 1969, DC-93 was used for testing the aero package. Many configurations were first tested on a “low speed” DC-74 and then tested on DC-93. Much of the testing was performed by NASCAR drivers like Charlie Glotzbach and Buddy Baker (above).

The team of engineers working on the problem now included rocket scientists from Chrysler’s missile division, some of whom had moved over and were working full-time on the aero cars. John Pointer fabricated and experimented with shapes of the nose cone and the wing at Chelsea. Bill Wright installed instrumentation on the cars, much as he would a rocket. Wright drilled a hole in the dashboard for the buttons and switch to control the instruments.

The test results convinced Chrysler higher ups to make the winged cars and sell them to the public so they could be raced in NASCAR. While Chrysler worked out the logistics of building the 500 cars necessary for the public, Chrysler racing made the wings and nose cones available to teams racing the Charger 500s. None of the teams would race actual Charger Daytonas; they would merely add the modifications to the 500s they were already running. The newly configured cars would make their first track appearance at Talladega in September 1969.

Larry Rathgeb brought DC-93 to Talladega for testing. Rathgeb would eventually bring DC-93 to every major track where the winged cars raced so Chrysler racing could gather its own data on setups for the cars. Once optimal speeds were achieved, the information was passed along to the race teams. Rathgeb feared that his creations would be shut out of the first big chance they had to race because of a threatened driver boycott. To make sure there was at least one wing in the race, he talked Nichels into entering DC-93 with Glotzbach at the wheel. Technically, a Chrysler-owned car could not race in NASCAR. As he had at Daytona, Nichels entered the car at Talladega as if he owned it. The car was outfitted to look like a Nichels-owned racer and the number “88” was applied to it.

The first day of practice at the track led to the headline: “200 MPH Certain At Talladega Track.” Practice laps by Glotzbach and Isaac were faster than 195 MPH. Isaac was driving the K&K Daytona and Glotzbach was driving DC-93. The qualifying speeds were blistering. Glotzbach led the way in DC-93 at 199.466 MPH. He predicted he would be even faster on race day. He was slated to sit on the pole – and then the Professional Drivers Association walked out. After reshuffling the starting lineup to account for the 30 drivers who were missing, Bobby Isaac was on the pole on race day. His 196.386 speed seems impressive – NASCAR’s previous top speed had been set that July at 190.706 – except that it had been slow compared to drivers who were sitting out the race. His qualifying laps were only sixth fastest at 196.386 mph.

Richard Brickhouse won the race in another Nichels Engineering car – not DC-93 – leading a top-five sweep by Chrysler products. Only Brickhouse and Isaac were driving the new Daytonas, however. All of the other Daytonas at the track had been parked because of the boycott. DC-93 had sat the race out.


On March 24, 1970, DC-93 ran its “transmission test” where here it broke 200 MPH with Buddy Baker at the wheel. The speed was a NASCAR record and world record for a closed course. After the Talladega record runs, the car was sent to Chelsea where Chrysler continued using it for tests.

For the rest of the 1970 season, Rathgeb continued bringing DC-93 to the major races where winged cars would run. A driver like Baker or Glotzbach would run practice laps with instrumentation in the trunk and engineers would crunch the numbers to find the best race setups for the cars at each particular track. DC-93 did not ever race again, however.

In May 1970, Bill France thought he might like to have DC-93 donated to the NASCAR Museum of Speed. He asked Chrysler if they were willing to donate it to his museum. It was an interesting question. Chrysler was still using the car but there were some people within the department who were less than happy with how France had treated Chrysler. France had never been all that welcoming to the winged cars and now he wanted one donated to his museum? There was already grumbling that France wanted to outlaw the winged cars altogether.


Chrysler racing also still had DC-74, the “low-speed” car from Chelsea which had been raced at one point as a 1968 Charger by Isaac. It had been given the Daytona treatment but was not being taken to NASCAR tracks for testing. It had been put out to pasture. Rather than commit to giving DC-93 to NASCAR, Chrysler decided it was more expedient to pull a fast one and donate DC-74, pretending it was DC-93. An internal memo described the plan.

[W]e will take our old No. 71 car, DC-74, paint it to look like the Engineering car No. 88 which was used in breaking the 200 mph speed record, and present it to NASCAR. This No. 71 car has outlived its usefulness and would be scrapped in the event we weren’t to use it for this purpose.

The memo noted the limited cost to Chrysler: paint and shipping. The upside: promotional benefits. “The car will be of considerable interest in the future as a part of the overall speed museum.” No explanation was given as to why NASCAR was being tricked. There is no question that some of the men who made the decision did it because they were unhappy with how NASCAR had treated Chrysler in the recent past. Years later, one of the men involved in the decision told this writer that the move was indeed intended as a way to give France “the finger.”

DC-74 was painted blue. In February 1973, at Daytona, a ceremony was held on the infield of the track to note the donation of the first 200 MPH car to NASCAR’s Museum of Speed. Chrysler vice-president Bob McCurry posed with France next to the car, along with Richard Petty and Buddy Baker. The shiny blue paint job hid the red paint on the former 1968 Charger.

Press releases of the event were distributed, accompanied by a confusing montage of photos. Along with the picture of McCurry, France, Petty, Baker and the car, there was one of a mock-up of a street Charger Daytona, white with a red stripe. Below that was a picture of DC-74, when it still wore red paint. The press release described the 200 MPH car – which was not in any of the three pictures – and the K&K car which set records at Bonneville. It, too, was not in any of the pictures with the release.

But that left the question: What happened to DC-93?

Don White was a driver best known for his USAC presence – he was USAC champion in 1963 and 1967 and that circuit’s winningest driver with 53 victories – he also raced occasionally in NASCAR for Nichels Engineering. White was good friends with Chrysler racing’s Ronnie Householder and wondered what would happen to DC-93 after it had outlived its usefulness to Chrysler. Householder offered to give the car to White. White accepted and took delivery of the car in late 1970.

Because USAC allowed cars to be run for one more year than NASCAR, White could race DC-93 in its Daytona treatment through the 1971 season. White’s racing operation was not that big and he had to be a bit more economical. On a shorter track, he would remove the wing and the nose cone and run DC-93 as a Charger 500. A couple of times, he even raced the car on dirt. Then, when he went to a bigger track, he’d reinstall the nose cone and the wing.

When the 1971 season ended, DC-93 could no longer run as a 1969 model. For the 1972 season, White removed the wing and also the front fenders and nose cone, which were welded together. He dumped the front end sheet metal in the weeds behind his shop. He put a 1970 Charger front clip on the car and raced it, even though the back window was wrong. NASCAR might not have allowed that but USAC didn’t complain. He raced his “1970” Charger for a couple of years in USAC.


He completely reskinned the car as a 1973 Charger when the “1970″ could no longer run. The later year Chargers were a bit wider than the 1969 Charger, so he had to finesse the sheet metal to make it fit. After a few more years of racing, he parked DC-93 by his shop and left it.

A Chrysler technician named Greg Kwiatkowski was fascinated by Chrysler’s racing legacy and often asked his coworkers about their knowledge of the company’s history. He spoke with Rathgeb and others who had been instrumental in the field. One day, Rathgeb mentioned to Kwiatkowski that the “88” car at the NASCAR museum was not the 200 MPH engineering car.

Where was the real DC-93? He eventually heard that Householder had given it to Don White. Kwiatkowski called White, introduced himself, and asked if he knew what happened to the car. Of course he did; it was sitting right outside his shop.


White described the car to Kwiatkowski and told him how it was now configured as a 1973. It had been parked since 1976 but was not for sale. Kwiatkowski told him that was fine; he was happy to learn as much as he could about the car and that it survived. He stayed in touch with White and during one conversation, White asked Kwiatkowski what he thought the car was worth. Kwiatkowski said he had no idea but if White ever sold it, he’d be happy to buy it. How much did he think it was worth? White said – after noting that the car was still not for sale – $5,000. Kwiatkowski told him he thought it was a fair price and to keep him in mind. A few months later, White offered to sell him the car.

Kwiatkowski had no doubt the car was real but he realized he had no idea what the car looked like. He asked White if he would take some pictures of it for him. He sent down some disposable cameras and some money for postage so White could mail them back. Kwiatkowski told him to just take as many pictures as he could of it. A short while later White sent back the cameras, along with the change from the money Kwiatkowski had sent for postage. After developing the film it was clear: the car was in rough shape but it was the right car.

Rathgeb had given him photos from the 200 MPH run and Kwiatkowski scrutinized them alongside the pics he’d gotten from White. Key details matched. The main hoop of the roll bar had flaking paint, underneath was blue paint. Kwiatkowski called White back and said they had a deal. He offered to send him a deposit even though White said it wasn’t necessary. He sent a money order for $500 and began making arrangements to get the car.

When he got to White’s Iowa shop three weeks later, White told him that another person had come by shortly after they had struck their deal and offered him $10,000 for it. Don told the man the car was already sold. The car was in rough shape from sitting outside. It was 1998 and the car had been outside for more than twenty years.

Kwiatkowski asked White if he had any of the old parts for the car. White suggested checking the woods out back. There, he found the front clip. The fenders and nose cone were welded together and now plants were growing up around them. It took four men to haul it out. It was awkward and heavy, more so because animals had stuffed the nose cone full of nesting material.


Kwiatkowski trailered the car back to Michigan and began the long task of dismantling and restoring the car. In 2001, the Aerowarriors held a reunion for winged car enthusiasts in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Kwiatkowski attended as did Rathgeb, Pointer, George Wallace and a few others who had worked on the program. He invited the men to his garage to see DC-93. There, they saw the car dismantled – the 1973 body panels were removed – but they recognized it. Wright recognized the hole he had cut in the dash for his instrumentation.


George Wallace was kind enough to draft a letter of authenticity for Kwiatkowski. Although all of the men positively identified the car, Wallace was a good candidate for the letter. He had been at Talladega to see Glotzbach qualify the car and then at the track when Baker broke 200 MPH. He also spent time inside the car as a passenger, sitting on the floor and writing notes while clinging to the roll cage as the car ran at speed on various tracks.

Kwiatkowski is now in the process of a full restoration of the car to its configuration as it was on the day it broke the 200 MPH mark at Talladega. He has even located an engine which can be documented as having been used at one time in the car during its time with Chrysler. Meanwhile, NASCAR still has DC-74 in its collection. It is still painted blue.


Follow the author on Twitter: @stevelehto

Hear the author’s podcast on iTunes: Lehto’s Law

Steve Lehto wrote Dodge Daytona & Plymouth Superbird: Design, Development, Production and Competitionfrom which this was excerpted.

All photos courtesy of Greg Kwiatkowski except for the “Hot Rod” clip and the blue 88 in the museum (by the author).



WmR Article HPP Magazine - April 2008-page1 WmR Article HPP Magazine - April 2008-page2 WmR Article HPP Magazine - April 2008-page3 WmR Article HPP Magazine - April 2008-page4 WmR Article HPP Magazine - April 2008-page5 WmR Article HPP Magazine - April 2008-page6 WmR Article HPP Magazine - April 2008-page7


Car Owner Chapman Root, Chief Mechanic Ray Nichels and Driver Pat O’Connor after capturing the Pole for the 1957 Indianapolis 500. O’Connor would run the same car in 1958 …


An odds on favorite to win the the Indianapolis 500 in 1958 Pat O’Connor tragically died in the multi-car, first lap crash.

He remains as one of the most popular drivers ever and will be honored with an IRMA historical marker on August 15th, in the North Vernon Indiana, beginning at 10:30am.

A big day is planned by Mayor Campbell of North Vernon, IRMA and the Pat O’Connor family. The event will be hosted by one of the legendary voices of the Speedway, Howdy Bell, with IMS Historian, Donald Davidson the featured speaker.

The event will take place in the North Vernon City Park, 604 N State St, North Vernon, IN 47265. That’s located right along Indiana State Highway 7.

In conjunction with the event, there will be a car show, with proceeds going to disabled veterans. A meal will be available for those interested. Tenderloin with the trimmings for $10.

Steve Perkins will have his Pat O’Connor tribute sprint car there, Dr. Robert Dicks will bring his Parnelli Jones roadster, and Larry Wheat will display his beautiful SUMAR tow car and hauler. A lot to see and do!

Please join us in honoring one of the Indy 500’s finest gentlemen.

For more on the career of Pat O’Connor — please visit this link


the republic logo

Jennings County Driver to be Memorialized at Ceremony

A memorial to Jennings County racer Pat O’Connor will be unveiled and dedicated in North Vernon’s City Park on Saturday.

Pat O’Connor’s family, representatives from the world of auto racing and others will be present at the public ceremony, which starts at 10:30 a.m. at the north entrance to the park.

Born in North Vernon, O’Connor began his racing career at age 19. His first race was in a roadster in Columbus in 1948, and he drove cheap jalopies at a track in North Vernon called “The Hole.”

He honed his driving skills and scored wins in roadster, sprint and midget races. O’Connor become a well-known Sprint Car driver and was eventually inducted into the Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1995. O’Connor won the first of three Midwest Sprint Car championships in 1953. He also claimed the title in ’54 and ’56.

His racing abilities, charm and good looks brought him national and international recognition.

He became a test driver for the Firestone Co. and a member of Sumar Racing team in Italy.

O’Connor’s success in racing brought him financial profits which he invested in businesses and a home in North Vernon.

His fame grew with his participation in the legendary Indianapolis 500 race.

O’Connor first tried to qualify for the Indy 500 in 1953 but fell short.

He participated in the race in 1954, starting 12th and finishing 21st. O’Connor placed eighth in ’55.

He led 39 laps of the ‘56 race but finished 18th after starting third. O’Connor won the pole for the ’57 race and led seven laps but finished eighth.

O’Connor was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated in May of 1958, just days losing his life in that year’s Indy 500. He was one of the favorites, but he lost his life on the first lap.

Two drivers collided and started a 16-car wreck. O’Connor’s roadster flipped and slid down the track, and he was killed instantly.

Local racing enthusiast Ron Clark remembered O’Connor fondly from his days in North Vernon.

“It didn’t matter how famous he got, he was always a good guy. You would see him coming and going around the garages. I was just a kid, and we’d all watch his every move, and he was always a good guy,” Clark said.

“O’Connor’s (second) wife Anne and sons Jeff and Rob stayed in North Vernon. Anne remarried a great guy, and they will all be at the ceremony,” said North Vernon Mayor Harold “Soup” Campbell.

Classic Car Show

Mike and Cindy Corya will present a classic car, truck and motorcycle show in the North Vernon City Park adjacent to the Pat O’Connor Memorial from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday. It’s open to the public and food will be available for purchase.

A $15 registration fee is required for cars, trucks and motorcycles participating in the show. Awards will be presented for best vehicles in several categories at 3 p.m. All profits from the car show will be donated to disabled veterans of the VFW Post 2021. Rain date for the car show will be Aug 22.

Assistant Managing Editor Kirk Johannesen contributed to this story.

Mopar Action 13aug2015indexaug2015