Ray Nichels, Historic, Class of 2021
Ray Nichels literally grew up at the race track and by the time he was just 15 years old was listed as crew chief for a midget race team.
From that humble beginning in 1938 sprouted an amazing racing career in different forms of motorsports on paths that led him to Indianapolis and Daytona Beach. On top of that, many of those who drove for this engineering genius currently reside in the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and other places of high honor.
Nichels, who passed away in 2005, dedicated his life to making race cars go fast and making appearances in Victory Lane ceremonies around the country.
Not only that, but he was an aviator and created a company, G&N Aircraft, that remains in business today. Nichels spent 10 years on the midget circuit before successfully sticking the long jump into IndyCar racing. Over the years, he participated in 12 Indianapolis 500s. His car took pole honors in 1957 with Pat O'Connor behind the wheel and boasted a pair of Top-5 finishes with Paul Goldsmith in the cockpit.
Nichels became the talk of the town in 1950 after building an IndyCar from scratch with his friend Paul Russo, whose basement was transformed into a race shop for this project. After finishing ninth in the race, the car was dubbed "Basement Bessie." The car would score a win later that year with driver Johnnie Parsons in IndyCar's debut run at Darlington Raceway.
"He worked every day," Goldsmith says.
A few years later, Nichels joined Firestone Tire's racing program as chief mechanic and began chasing speed records, off and on, for 20 years, including a spectacular start in 1957, which led Nichels Engineering from IndyCars into NASCAR racing.
In 1957 Nichels captured Daytona's Beach Course pole with Banjo Matthews and won the race with Cotton Owens. A few weeks later, Nichels was in Monza, Italy and established several world speed records with O'Connor in a Chrysler Hemi-powered Kurtis- Kraft roadster.
"He helped to build and refine that Hemi engine quite a bit," Goldsmith said. From 1956 through '63 Nichels was, in essence, Pontiac's factory team in stock-car racing. Nichels Engineering had cars competing in USAC and NASCAR competition.
"He was a lot like Smokey Yunick," Goldsmith said. "They were just good mechanics and innovators."
Goldsmith captured the 1961 USAC title scoring 10 wins in 19 starts and defended his crown in '62. That same year Joe Weatherly bagged the NASCAR championship in a Nichels Engineering-built, Bud Moore-prepped Pontiac.
In 13 years of NASCAR competition, stock cars associated with Nichels scored seven wins at Daytona International Speedway, including Sam McQuagg's upset victory in the 1966 Firecracker 400 (now Coke Zero Sugar 400).
Nichels Engineering (his own race team) scored 11 NASCAR Cup Series victories in 223 starts. The list of drivers who wheeled Nichels' cars reads like a Who's Who of auto racing. The roster features inductees A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Roger Penske, Richard Petty, Fireball Roberts, Junior Johnson, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison and Dan Gurney. There are too many more to list here.
"Ray deserves this recognition," Goldsmith said. "He was an excellent friend and he got along well with just about everybody."
By Godwin Kelly
Godwin Kelly was a racing journalist for 42 years before retiring from the Daytona Beach News-Journal at the end of 2020. The award-winning writer now has his own company, Godwin Kelly Media Services, which specializes in communicating company messages to media outlets around the country.