At 14, Ray Nichels was helping build midget race cars in his father’s auto repair shop. Within a decade, he was running his own shop, building cars to run in the Indianapolis 500 and elsewhere on the championship trail, plus on the fledgling NASCAR stock car circuit.
First in Highland and then in Griffith, he and his crew built winning car after winning car.
Those who drove them would form a formidable field. It’s likely nobody else built cars for A.J. Foyt, Richard Petty and, before he became a business billionaire and racing mogul, Roger Penske.
They’re just the tip of the dipstick. Al Unser, Bobby Unser and Bobby Allison also ran cars built in the Nichels Engineering shop. So did Griffith’s Paul Goldsmith, who won two USAC stock car titles running for Nichels, as well as Glenn “Fireball” Roberts, elected earlier this week to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson called Nichels “one of the premier chief mechanics of the 1950s.”
Nichels’ most famous car was built in a Hammond basement.
He and driver Paul Russo built an Indy car — a roadster, the front-engine machines were called then — in the basement of Russo’s home in the winter of 1949-50. Engine and all.
“We even carried the engine down into the basement,” Nichels told The Times in 2001, four years before he died at age 83.
The work went on all winter and into the spring. Satisfied the car was perfect, Nichels and Russo took the car apart, carried the pieces up the stairs and out, and put it back together outside.
Nichels almost wasn’t allowed to start the engine at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The car was entered for the 1950 500, but it hadn’t been painted and lacked racing tires. Officials of AAA, the 500’s sanctioning body, looked askance at what was nicknamed “Basement Bessie” and said it couldn’t take to the track.
Nichels borrowed some tires, painted the car, pleaded his case, and saw it through technical inspection. It passed. Russo put it in the field for the 500, starting 19th and finishing ninth after running as high as fifth. The Russo-Nichels Special won $4,989 — that didn’t even pay for the Offenhauser engine — and the hearts of the crowd. Today, the car sits proudly in the Speedway’s museum.
Nichels's involvement with Indy car took a tragic turn in 1958, when Pat O’Connor was killed in a car Nichels prepared. The first-lap crash in Turn 3 took out eight cars, including Goldsmith, permanently scarred by O’Connor’s car when it ran over him.
The year before, O’Connor had put the car on the pole for the 500.
Earlier in 1957, Banjo Matthews put a Nichels-built stock car on the pole for the street-and-sand race at Daytona Beach, two years before the Daytona 500 began. It’s believed no other car builder has won the pole at Daytona and in the Indianapolis 500 the same year.
Nichels had a dozen cars in the 500 in the 1950s, but his greatest fame came in stock car racing. With a deal to build race cars for Pontiac, and later Chrysler’s Dodge and Plymouth factory teams, Nichels set up an operation unique then and now. His team of mechanics would strip down a passenger car to its chassis — they really were stock cars then — and rebuild it up from the skin.
Split into separate crews, his men would build cars not knowing which driver or team they would be assigned to. Crews would also practice pit stops, and the best would be assigned to different pit crews. All shared equally in 10 percent of the prize money a driver won. One year, Nichels had 18 cars in some races.
“It’s too much for one man to do,” Nichels told a reporter in 1966. “Back in 1956 I could oversee everything myself – and I did most of it. Now it’s impossible.”
Eventually, Chrysler decided to eliminate the factory teams. Nichels downsized and built cars for smaller teams, with one of his great successes coming in 1969, when Richard Brickhouse won the first Talladega 500. Ray Nichels built the car. Four years later, the race car portion of the company was closed, and Nichels Engineering operated a hands-on trade school for a few years. Today, eight years after the death of its founder, it concentrates on fuel conditioners.