Sitting in the small homey office near the front half of the building that houses Nichels Engineering Products, chatting with Ray Nichels, it's easy to lose track of time as one fascinating story after another is remembered and shared. Many of Ray's keepsakes reside here in this office among the memorabilia clutter, like the paintings of Ray's race cars that a young NASCAR fan made almost 3 decades ago, many trophies and certificates and the trash can plastered with every racing product decal imaginable. As this mysterious man lights up his ever-present cigarette, he tells me, very modestly, that he hasn't seen much nor done much in his extraordinary life.
In fact, Ray is an automotive icon. He has been involved in more faucets of the automotive history-making process than most of us realize, and has worked side-by-side with some of the most important people in the field. In 1957, Ray was voted Mechanic of the Year and elected to the Indy 500 Hall Of Fame. In 1996, he was inducted into the Western Auto Hall Of Fame. His cars held many records, the One Lap Record, 500 Mile Record and the 24-Hour Record at Indy and Darlington Raceway.
Ray has built and raced midgets, open wheeled Indy race cars, and stock cars, worked for Firestone, helped develop the Pontiac tri-power and Offenhausers, worked for Chrysler and Firestone, ran a tech college-just to name a few. While most of us in the Mopar camp connect Ray's name solidly with that famous #99 purple Dow Chemical Daytona driven by Charlie Glotzbach, we can't really stake claim to Ray exclusively. When I asked Ray how he ended up building Chrysler race cars, I was surprised to hear that Chrysler was just one of many auto-related companies that Ray had worked with.
Ray Nichels was born in South Chicago. His dad had a garage on Ridge Road in Highland. When he was fourteen years old, he started working on midget cars in his dad's shop. During the summers, there would always be nine or ten guys who came to the shop to work on cars. One of these guys was Ronney Householder, and this was the start of a very long friendship and working relationship for Ray and Ronney as their paths would cross many times in years to come. Ronney Householder is a name few of us have ever heard, nor is there much information devoted to him in print out there in the vast sea of automotive publications. But this is one man who, although most of us Mopar fans don't realize it, is very prominent in the history of our cars.
Before the war, qualifying at Indy was done in ten lap runs of 25 miles. Ronney Householder has the distinction of being one of only two men ever to set a ten lap qualifying record at Indy, but NOT qualify for the pole. In 1938, he ran 125.769 mph to be the fastest qualifier, but did not sit on the pole for that race. The same thing happened to Jimmy Snyder in 1937. This type of qualifying was discontinued, and these two men still hold that record today.
About this time, Ray Nichels, Paul Russo and friends built an Indy car from spare parts in the basement of the house in Hammond, Indiana, because it was too cold to work in the race shop at Indy. The car was an enlarged midget and was dubbed "Basement Bessie". They never thought about the consequences of it being too big to haul back upstairs and out of the house. So Bessie had to be torn apart and brought up in pieces and then they had to reassemble the whole car again! A local doctor who made house calls frequently stopped by Ray's house during this time because they always had a coffee pot on and he could sit around and drink coffee and talk while the guys worked on the car. Ray desperately needed $5,600 to buy an engine and transmission for Bessie. The doctor became sympathetic to the cause after spending so many nights over there watching the guys build her, and he finally told Ray he'd put up the money for the drivetrain but they'd have to pick it up. They didn't have a truck, so they took the back seat out of a big Mercury and hauled the drivetrain home in it! Since it was still winter, the engine was run and tuned in the basement.
This was a real low dollar operation, indeed. The guys didn't have any tires or even enough money to put a paint job or numbers on the car. When they got to Indy with it, the officials told them it was a piece of junk and they wouldn't be allowed to qualify. Ray was able to borrow some tires from another team and after begging to qualify, the officials finally agreed and Basement Bessie went on to run the 2nd fastest qualifying speed! Basement Bessie is now on display at the Hammond Visitor's Center when it isn't at home in the Indy 500 Museum.
After losing track of one another, Ray met Ronney again after the war in 1946, when he was driving midget race cars. He had two cars and another driver. Ray informed me that on a one-mile dirt track in those days, Ronney was the man to beat. Ray got away from midgets after a few years and Ronney also left midget car racing about this time.
In 1949, Ray had a brand new Oldsmobile that he had taped the headlights up in and he took this car to Milwaukee and ran it-street tires and all! Now this is the true meaning of "stock car racing"!
At Chrysler's Chelsea, MI Proving Grounds inauguration in 1954, they wanted to set a closed course speed record, so they brought in the top four qualifying cars from Indy. They did qualifying laps and Jack McGraff set a record at 179 mph. At that time, they'd been averaging 145 at Indy. The top four Chrysler executives put up the money for the record.
Just prior to the Proving Grounds inauguration, Bill McCreary asked Ray if he'd work for Firestone. He replied, "No, they're too cheap." They had wanted him to put together a Kurtis Kraft race car they'd just purchased with a 331 c.i. Hemi that Chrysler supplied, so it could be used for a test car at the inauguration. Ray decided to go ahead and work on the car (without pay) just because he wanted to see it done. But as time grew short, he knew he couldn't get the car finished, so he brought it to the Proving Grounds for display anyway.
At the Proving Grounds, Walter Lyon and Raymond Firestone asked Ray what it would take to hire him. Thinking there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell they'd go for such an outrageous deal, he replied: "$200 per week and expenses." They agreed! Lyon and Firestone wanted Ray to stay and put the Kurtis Kraft together and they baited him with a dare to break the new 179 mph record that had just been set by McGraff. Their goal was to have the stockholders come and watch so as to impress them as to where their money was going.
Sam Hanks was supposed to drive the Kurtis Kraft when it was done. Ray took the car out, warmed it up and brought it in to check it over. When he went back out, he drove 162-163 mph for several laps-with other traffic! There were several trucks and other cars on the track doing their testing while Ray was out there with the Kurtis Kraft driving at those speeds!
A date was set for the stockholders meeting and the press was notified to be present. At the dinner that evening, Sam Hanks asked Ray if he was sure he could break the record with the car. Ray wasn't in the least worried, and reassured him that he could.
The next morning, with the press and stockholders there, Harpo Marx was standing in a convertible waving as he was driven around the track. As soon as he was out of sight, all of a sudden here comes an identical car with a Harpo imposter back into sight! It gave the impression that he had zoomed around the track back into sight at the speed of sound and the crowd loved it. Sam got into the Kurtis Kraft, did a warm up lap and then ran a lap at 182.5 mph. Chrysler engineers asked Ray if he could run faster and he replied: "I could, but I won't because I already got paid the $5,000!"
Interestingly, after a certain amount of miles were put on the 331 Hemi, it was yanked from the car and sent back to Chrysler, where engineers would tear it down and rebuild it. Ray says he never worked on the engine until he went to Italy to test tires with it.
In the late 1950's, Pontiac had a lot of trouble with their engines smoking in the corners during a race. In 1957, while Ray was working at Pontiac, Bunky Knudsen came to him and wanted him to build an engine that they could put in a car that would beat all of the NASCAR competition, with the major emphasis being that the engine wouldn't start smoking. He said he would-only if they left him completely alone to do it. So they delivered the race car to Ray's shop, he locked everyone out and rebuilt the engine. When he finished he sent the car to a rented Texas racetrack. He also hired the fastest Chevy driver that had run 156 mph on this track. Bunky left Ray and the driver at the racetrack with instructions NOT to call him until the car started smoking. Ray said they spent days going around and around in excess of 156 mph. At the end of a week, Knudsen called Ray and wanted to know why he hadn't called yet. Ray told him the car wasn't smoking yet.
To get a "Miller Time" break, Ray told the driver to go maximum speed and then open both of the fresh air vents, which blew out the rear window, scattering it all over the track. It took the track crew two hours to clean up all the glass while Ray and the guys drank beer! They did this multiple times during the next two weeks, and finally Bunky called them and when Ray reported the engine was still not smoking, he told them to come back to Michigan. He had fixed the engine problem but no one ever new how and he never told them. I was made privy to this information, the fix was so simple, it had to do with using Q-tips which took up the slack in sloppy lifter bores and kept so much oil from leaking by.
Ray and Ronney Householder hadn't seen each other all of these years until they met at the old Daytona sand course in 1957. By then, Ronney was in the head position at Plymouth and was busy developing the Plymouth Fury. At the same time, Ray also met Paul Goldsmith and Smokey Yunick at Daytona Beach. Paul Goldsmith raced motorcycles in 1955-56 and was a three-time champion. He started racing stock cars in the 1960's and would later become Ray's driver and close friend.
Later in 1957, Firestone sent Ray, his good friend and driver Pat O'Connor and Dwayne Carter, who was then Director of USAC Racing, to Monza, Italy to test tires. The development department would bring their test tires out and mount them on wheels. First they'd send you out to do ten laps to see how fast you could go with "control tires", which were new tires of the type that you'd be using. As soon as you came in, they'd install the test tires on your car and you were expected to go right up to speed with them.
Ray said the racing tires in those days were put together at 300°F. Sometimes the tires would get too hot and then they wouldn't handle properly. The idea was to try to make them go to the extreme edge of handling but not to the blistering point. Rather than filling the tires with air, they were filled with nitrogen during testing to keep them from raising pressure. Firestone would bring ten to twelve different kinds of tires and drivers tested them for days. The record speed at Monza had been set previously at 160 mph, but the Italian-made tires were coming apart at that speed.
The Americans were baffled by the European crews. They had a man to work on each individual part of the race car, so there was a shock man, a carburetor man, a tire man, etc. All of the European mechanics wore dress coats and ties, so they were a real proper looking bunch of guys. The Europeans were equally baffled by these three Americans...when were the rest of the American mechanics coming?!
The first day Ray's crew ran the car, they broke the clutch, burned a piston and broke the fuel tank. Since they had no parts in Italy, they had to call back to Chrysler and have the parts flown from Detroit into Rome, which was the closest terminal to Milan. While Pat O'Connor and Dwayne Carter removed the clutch assembly, Ray tore apart the engine. The European mechanics stood around the Kurtis Kraft shaking their heads in disbelief that these three Americans were going to do all of the work on this car themselves. They were quickly nicknamed "Loco Americans" by the natives. As Ray, Pat and Dwayne saturated shop rag after shop rag with grease, they'd throw them in a pile behind their car, planning to discard them later. The Europeans would jump at the pile and grab the rags, fighting over who would get the "souvenirs"!
When they were notified that their parts had arrived, Ray, Pat and Dwayne borrowed a Mercury and drove to Rome with an interpreter in tow. There was no speed limit, so they were flying along and came over the top of a hill and there ahead of them, the traffic was stopped and backed up quite a ways. Ray did not want to stop, so he passed the entire line of cars and went to the front of the line. The cops who were stationed up there promptly stopped them. Ray said one cop chewed them out pretty good in Italian, which none of them could understand except for the interpreter in the back seat. He pretended not to understand too, and finally the cop got frustrated and waved them on.
Finally arriving at the airport in Rome, they couldn't find their parts. After much looking and worrying, they discovered the parts had arrived earlier and someone who knew the team was in Milan-not Rome-had intercepted the parts and had them sent on to Milan.
Once they got the car back together, they were ready to fire it up. It was an alcohol-burning car, but the Hemi wouldn't start on alcohol. So the spark plugs had to be pre-warmed and then installed hot while one of the guys squirted the injectors with gas. The Europeans stood around the car fascinated by all of this fanfare. One cylinder at a time would fire and when it finally started, it was so loud it sounded like an explosion. Ray said it scared the hell out of the Europeans-they all thought the engine blew up and they took off running!
The tire tests were run with no more problems. Pat O'Connor took the Kurtis Kraft to 180 mph and the race was successfully run later. When the three men returned to the U.S., they got into Indy late and Pat sat on the pole. That same year, he sat on the pole at Daytona and won the race. Ray's car is the only one that has the distinction of sitting on the poles in Indy and Daytona during the same year.
In 1958, Smokey Yunik and Paul Goldsmith showed up at Indy. At the beginning of the race, there was a big pile-up during which Pat O'Connor was killed. Paul Goldsmith, who now buys and sells airplanes and lives about 1/2 mile from Ray Nichels in Indiana, still has the tire mark scars on his shoulder where Pat O'Connor drove over the top of him. At this time, Ray still ran speedway cars, but this accident and the death of his good friend caused Ray to decide to quit racing. This is also the year that Ray left Firestone. Quite by coincidence, at this same time, Chrysler decided not to supply Hemi engines for the Firestone cars at Indy any longer. Ray offered to build a Pontiac engine for Firestone, but they decided to quit owning the cars and they went back to hiring their tire testing done.
In 1962, while Ray worked for Pontiac, one of the last adventures he had with them was when they ran Catalinas at the 24-Hour Run at Indy and the following week at Darlington Raceway. They had Bud Moore, Cotton Owens and Smokey Yunick working with them. The team started out with two Catalinas-a race car and a street car. On the 20th lap, the race car lost a right front tire and hit the wall. They brought it into the pits and tore off the broken parts and took it back out on the track. Each time they'd come into the pits for fuel or tires, they'd hang another new piece back on the car, which they had removed from the street car. By dark, they had the headlights back in. As Ray put it: "Both cars went on to finish both races."
After Ronney Householder started working for Chrysler, he primarily worked at Lynch Road and he and Ray bumped into each other several times. At this time, Ray was still working at Pontiac. Lynn Townsend had just taken over at Chrysler Corporation and Chrysler had just come out with a new model line of cars with enormous front ends-completely NOT aerodynamic. Pontiac had decided to start phasing out their racing program, which left Ray without a job. When Ronney asked Ray if he'd come to work at Chrysler, they struck up a deal. Ronney had a different direction that he wanted to take Chrysler's cars, and it had to do with performance.
In 1963, Chrysler asked Ray to build two cars to bring to the Proving Grounds. They wanted to show stockholders what Lynn Townsend was proposing. At this time, Ray was on Cline Avenue in Highland. The two cars were a Plymouth Belvedere and a Dodge Coronet, and they were kept on twin post lifts in Ray's shop during the time they were being built. One evening, about the time the two cars were nearly completed for their trip to the Proving Grounds, the lifts were inadvertently left in the raised position with the cars on them overnight. He returned to the shop the next morning to find one car on top of the other!
Some very quick body work was done to straighten the cars and they were ready to go once again. The night before they were to leave for the Proving Grounds, one of the cars had an electrical fire while it was on the lift. After relaying the bad news to Chrysler, Ray explained: "They wanted a HOT car to drive on the test track-there you have it!" The wiring was quickly fixed and the two Mopars made it to the stockholder's meeting at the Chelsea Proving Grounds on time.
Ray didn't want to race in 1963, so he spent the rest of that year testing for Chrysler at the Proving Grounds. Paul Goldsmith managed to talk Ray into running one last race at Riverside, and he now holds the "Altitude" record for flying a race car after he missed a shift and totaled the car!
One of Ray's primary responsibilities while working for Chrysler was engine testing, which was mostly done on a dyno. Ray explains that the engines were run to their maximum capabilities until they blew up and then it was his job to find the weak link. Chrysler recommended the Hemis turn at a maximum of 5,400 rpm. When Ray was done tweaking his Hemis, they were raced at 8,300 rpm.
The process of building a race engine was tedious work. Everything was magnafluxed and inspected for any flaws. Cam tests were done on the dyno, so as to determine which power and torque curve to use on which track. Short tracks need torque, while some big tracks require no torque. Racing pistons and rods were used, as well as steel cranks and dry sump lube systems. When the engine was started for the first time, though, a wet sump system was used. Very large oil tanks were used, as five quarts of oil was not sufficient to run a 500-mile race. At Indy, no oil could be added during a race. Superspeedway cars had five gallon tanks. Interestingly, Ray says they didn't use any additives in those days.
Ray purchased bodies-in-white from Chrysler, which were rolling chassis with an unfinished body that was pulled off the assembly line before any trim, paint, etc was done. They built their own tube chassis so that they were completely interchangeable-any body could be removed from one chassis and put on another. When Ray first started racing stock cars, original gauges and bodies had to be retained. Today, the Winston Cup cars hardly resemble anything you could buy off the dealership showroom. Ray explains the racing metamorphosis like this: "We used to build what we thought could win. Everyone had their own ideas and tried to improve on them. Today, all parts are supplied to you and they're all basically the same."
One time in California after a race, Ray tore down their Plymouth's engine to refresh it and found a hairline crack in the crankshaft. He had no money to buy a new crank and nowhere to get a used one. So he put the engine back together, loaded the car behind their D100 Dodge truck and drove to Darlington, SC non-stop at 90 mph-that's all the faster the truck would tow!
Johnny Parsons drove the Plymouth at Darlington and after qualifying, Ray told him to go easy on the car. He never told him the crank was cracked. Parsons went out and stood on it and got into the lead. It started getting cloudy and Ray was praying for rain so they could end the race in the lead. There was a rain delay for a few minutes but then the sun came out and they had to start racing again. Parsons stood on it and ran flat out through the rest of the race. After repeated attempts to signal him to slow down and go easy on the engine, Ray finally gave up and said he just couldn't watch anymore. They ended up winning the race and Parsons told Ray that during the last few laps the car was shaking really bad and he knew something was wrong. Ray finally fessed up about the cracked crank. When they tore down the engine later, the crank was almost in two pieces with just a minute piece of metal holding it together. Another lap would have finished it off!
So what about this Ronney Householder that we hear so little about? He was born in Omaha, Nebraska and raised in California. He later became a very important figure in Chrysler racing. We should all, as performance Mopar collectors today, have been in line to shake his hand and thank him for what he did for our hobby. Ray describes Ronney as having been a highly sophisticated, brilliant man who could fit in anywhere, with any kind of people. He could be hard-assed about getting the expected work out of those who didn't give 100%, but he was always fair to all of the men he worked with. He was also a renegade-he did things his own way with total disregard for what Chrysler wanted-because he knew his ideas were better, and they always were! And Ronney loved a challenge.
According to Larry Shepard of Chrysler, Ronney Householder ran the Circle Track programs within Chrysler's Race Group. As the head of the Circle Track program, Ronney ran the NASCAR Grand National, USAC and ARCA racing programs. Ray emphasizes the fact that Ronney, besides being a driver, was also an engineer, designer and builder and he sat in on the development and design of Chrysler's aerodynamic race cars. He did not just delegate from a desk somewhere in the office. He was completely in charge of all performance parts. Anyone who wanted any heavy duty part to go racing with, they had to go through Ronney to get it. NOTHING related to racing left Chrysler's back door without Householder's approval.
Although we are very familiar with names like Romberg, Rathgeb, Rodger and so many others, it is Ronney Householder alone that could make or break Chrysler's racing program. All of these men worked for Ronney-he was the boss and nothing happened without his knowledge and approval. None of the Chrysler race cars or street versions would be what they are today without him. Ronney unfortunately passed away in November, 1972 taking with him an incredible legacy and a lifetime of racing memories.
Ray fondly remembers a funny story involving Ronney and the race crews in 1964. Ronney had designed a special new aerodynamic rear window. The windows weren't legal so you couldn't just buy one from him, but they were real slippery looking so all of the race crews were anxious to get their hands on one. Anytime one of the crews would order a set of heavy duty rods, Ronney would throw one of his special rear windows in with the order. By the time the 1964 opening season race came around at Daytona, all of the teams had one of Ronney's rear windows installed in their car except for independent owner/driver Ken Spikes of Cordel, GA. Ray said, at Daytona, when they saw Ken drive into the pit area prior to the race, all of the crews were hoping and praying that he wouldn't pull his car up beside all of theirs , which would make all of those illegal windows real obvious to the inspectors. Sure enough, Ken drove right past the line of cars and positioned his car in his pit area where it stood out like a sore thumb. After much worrying though, to everyone's surprise and relief, it was Ken who got into trouble for cheating, since his window was "different" from everyone else's! It didn't matter that he was the ONLY one with a legal window!
The first time that Ray and Ronney were testing together at the Chrysler Proving Grounds, Ronney put a bunch of executives in one car and got behind the wheel to drive. After taking the car on several flying laps around the parabolic track until he reached just the right speed, he let go of the steering wheel and turned around and was carrying on a conversation with the back seat guys, scaring them to death! The car just seemed to be on autopilot, but Ronney knew from previous experience that the car would just follow the banking and drive itself as long as that certain speed was maintained.
Ronney was very involved with his work and he was passionate about racing. He attended all of the races and often would spend a lot of time at Ray's shop in Griffith, IN where the teams were building their race cars.
Although he and Ray always respected each other, often Ronney Householder did not get along with the Chrysler engineers. It seems the design engineers had one idea for parts while Ray and Ronney had a completely different idea. One day in 1967, Ronney gave Ray a set of the engineers' blueprints for a Belvedere and told him to build it. After looking at the blueprints, Ray told him it wouldn't work. But Ronney insisted that he build it exactly like the blueprints. When Ray had the car finished, he showed it to Ronney and, thinking that Ronney had made some kind of big mistake, asked him if it looked like he thought it would. He replied: "Yes, exactly."
Ronney then presented the car to the engineers. Ray described it as having no room for your feet and the hood was at least six inches too long, besides many other things in the design that just didn't work. Once the engineers saw it, they realized that they were in error. From then on, they were required by Ronney Householder to leave Ray alone and all race car parts thereafter were designed and manufactured by Ray first. Then Ray's parts were sent to the designers to be drawn into blueprints and be incorporated into their plans for mass production.
Experimentation with race parts in 1964-65 was crude to say the least. Ray and Ronney had a Chrysler experimental car and they simply kept changing out stock parts on that car with their own parts and running the car to test the degree of improvement, if there was any. Their target speed at that time was 150 mph. Any part that made it go faster was put into one pile and anything that didn't help or made it go slower went into another pile. When they were done with this experiment, Ray reports there were seventeen parts in the faster pile and these all went on the car.
Ray calls retired Chrysler engineer George Wallace "a real brain". While everyone else at the test track would have their calculators and slide rulers out trying to figure out some kind of formula to make their cars better, George would simply ride along in the test car and come back with the answers. Many times, the formulas that engineers came up with and were widely believed to be the "racing gospel" ended up being proven wrong through experimentation in Ray's shop. For instance, one time Ray's team had planned to remove the harmonic balancer and flywheel to save weight on the engine. They were told that this was impossible due to the Fourth Order, which means that the harmonics (symmetrical motions) are disturbed at a certain rpm causing the engine to shake. Ray proved that it was possible to overcome the Fourth Order simply by running the engine past that rpm range and maintaining it at a higher rpm. How did they discover it? By trying it, when no one else would!
There are a lot of humorous stories to come out of Ray's very long and interesting racing career and not surprisingly Ray was in trouble a lot of the time! If you got caught cheating in NASCAR in the early years, as part of the punishment you were required to wear a dorky beret until the next guy got caught cheating and then you could pass the hat on to him. Yes, there is at least one photo of Ray wearing the beret, but he won't let me show it!
Norris Friel was a NASCAR inspector at that time and he called Ray into his office many times for a chewing out. Trying to save his own butt, Ray would pretend that whatever the problem was, it was his crew's fault and he'd threaten to fire everyone in front of Norris. Not wanting to lose an entire race team, of course Norris would then calm down and tell Ray not to worry about whatever the dispute was about.
Once Ray wrecked one of his Pontiacs, causing a lot of sheetmetal and parts to fly all over the racetrack. One of the track safety crew guys ran out onto the track to pick up Ray's bumper and when he grabbed the bumper, he almost hit himself in the face with it because it was so light! Ray admits now that it was an aluminum bumper. Those NASCAR inspectors caught Ray with all kinds of aluminum parts over the years....hoods, fenders, brackets, etc.
When Ray was out on the road racing with his teams, they stayed in one hotel while Ray and the drivers stayed in another. He said they needed to be well-rested and fresh for the race and this wasn't possible if they stayed in the same hotel with the crew. One night at Daytona Beach, Ray got a call from the manager of the other hotel, where the crew was staying, asking him to come and settle his guys down. The report was that they were racing motorcycles around the hotel. Of course, Ray figured they were just racing on the street in front of the hotel. When he arrived at the hotel, he saw that it was a three-story circular building with a balcony around the perimeter of each floor. The guys had borrowed motorcycles, taken them up in the elevator, one for each level, and were racing them around on the balconies to see which was fastest!
On another occasion, Ray thought he was going to be hauled off to jail! It was a ritual with the race teams that someone had to make a liquor run each night to get booze for everyone. After the customary liquor run in Charlotte one night, three cops came to get Ray, taking him out of the garage and loading him into their Pontiac tri-powered cop car. After they had driven for a short distance down the road, the reason for their raid became clear. They explained that in the middle of high speed chases, their car would cough and die. They wanted Ray to fix it! He discovered that the two end carbs were running out of vacuum, so he fixed them up with some mechanical linkage and they were on their way.
Ray had a few "flying stories" to tell that make you think it's a miracle any of these guys lived long enough to have a racing career! One night, Nichels, Householder, McDaniels and Goldsmith all piled into a 310 Cessna with a destination of California. Ray had planned to catch up on some sleep on the flight while Paul Goldsmith was supposed to man the plane. It was set on autopilot, and when Ray woke up later, he found everyone in the plane sound asleep!
Another time, Ray and Keokuk, Iowa racer Don White were in the front seats of a plane headed into Dover, Delaware for a race. When they were ready to land, the landing gear folded up and the plane crashed in a swamp! Don White went on to set a new qualifying speed record at Dover and when the reporters asked him how scary it was to be driving a race car to a new record speed, he replied: "If you think this racing is scary, you ought to have been sitting in the seat of that airplane I came in on!"
In the 1960's and 1970's, when NASCAR was more sport than big money business like now, it was hard telling who might be driving whose car in any given race. There was a great camaraderie between the racers in those days-they not only shared their love of racing, but traveled together, partied together and played endless practical jokes on one another, and they were also glad to help each other when needed. When a driver had to sit out because of injury, heat, etc., someone who may have crashed earlier in the race would sit in and drive his car. In 1969, Ray Nichels' long-time driver, Paul Goldsmith, quit driving unbeknownst to Ray. During the Michigan spring race that year, while Ray was home working in his shop, Charlie Glotzbach stepped into Ray's car and won the race. After the race, when several drivers reported back to Ray's shop to tell him that Charlie had won the race, Ray couldn't have cared less. That is, he didn't care until he found out that Charlie had been driving HIS car in place of Goldsmith!
Charlie Glotzbach has his own little story to share about Ronney Householder. In 1966, Charlie was building a 426 Max Wedge race car that he planned to run at Texas. He called Ronney and asked for two rear ends. At first, Ronney refused to send the rear ends. Why? He told Charlie he didn't need to bother to go to Texas, since Ramo Stott and Freddie Lorenzen would be there and they couldn't be beat. With confidence, Charlie boasted to Ronney that he wasn't worried-if he'd send the rear ends, he'd be able to beat them both. Ronney sent the rear ends and Charlie went on to beat Freddie and Ramo in 2 out of 3 races!
And speaking of Charlie, that brings to mind one of the most famous Daytona race cars in NASCAR history. Just how did that purple Daytona race car come to be? Well, it seems that no one at Dow Chemical company can remember who chose that purple paint. According to Rich Long, then Director of Corporate Communication at Dow: "Dowguard coolant had been gone since the early 1960's and we were bringing it back at that time. We were trying to position this product at a time when Prestone was very strong. Dowguard and Prestone had very similar properties-ethylene glycol is ethylene glycol-so we went after a different market than Prestone's. We went after the high-performance auto enthusiast-the young driver-rather than Prestone's area, the driver of the family car."
With that strategy, Dow went racing with stock car driver Charlie Glotzbach and funny car drag racer Dick Harrell. Charlie's Daytona utilized several other Dow automotive products besides their anti-freeze. "Racing isn't a bad way to go as far as advertising is concerned," said John Shepperd, then product manager for branded anti-freeze at Dow. "It's inexpensive if you look at the alternatives. If you go with TV, you're going to pay for all of those millions of people who don't have a use for your product."
It was a short-lived marketing project. After Charlie won a 125 mile race at Daytona in February, the Yankee 400 at Michigan International Speedway in August, earned four pole positions, finished 3rd in the Daytona 500 and 3rd in the Mason-Dixon 300 at Dover, Delaware, Dow Chemical pulled it's sponsorship of race cars. "We wanted to see if our coolant would have a noticeable effect on the performance of a race car," Long said, "We canceled our involvement because we found there was no great relationship between our product and the performance of a vehicle-at least not any relationship which was readily identifiable by the consumer."
The purple Daytona became ineligible for racing at the end of 1971, and Dow Chemical ended their anti-freeze business in 1973. As John Shepperd summed it up: "We paid for the car, which Ray Nichels prepared, but we didn't paint it."
Now join me while I take you for a written tour through what was once the famous Nichels Engineering building: Kick back and let your imagination take over.....
Tucked away back at the edge of town in Griffith, IN is the famous shop that once produced such cars as the #99 Dow Daytona that Charlie Glotzbach drove, Don White's various stock cars and many others. At one time, this building was hustling with the sights and sounds of NASCAR legends being made, with welders spraying showers of sparks, Hemi engines being tested to their limits, bodies being tweaked and molded to their aerodynamic advantage, and semis pulling up to drop off the next week's supply of parts. Today, the big concrete building houses a plumbing company, but as soon as you open the front door and see the layout of the structure, you can imagine what it looked like in it's racing heyday.
The first thing I had to ask was how did Nichels Engineering ever end up in such an unlikely little remote place like Griffith, IN? All of Chrysler's operations were located in the Detroit area and almost all of the NASCAR racing action was taking place in the southern states. Ray explained that he could very well have worked in Detroit, as Chrysler had tried to entice him to do so. But with all of the activity of the race teams building their cars and, of course, all of that secrecy involved in building the better machine, he knew his shop would become a circus sideshow in Detroit. In Griffith, he was able to continue with business as usual each day and not worry about anyone prying or having to deal with curiosity seekers.
In 1969, Ray employed 90 men. These 90 men were the actual race team crews. Each team had a bay area along the wall to the immediate left after stepping inside the main door. The bays had designated boundaries painted on the floor. All the necessary tools and equipment for each crew to build a car was stationed within each bay area. Thirty cars were built in this area at a time.
All of the cars were built exactly the same, and no cheating or personalizing was allowed in Ray's shop. The teams didn't know which of these cars they would end up with at the end of the day. When the cars were finished, each crew picked a car-other than the one they had just built-to be their own. Once the crew had their car at their home shop, modifications and changes were made to suit the driver. Forty Hemi engines* were sent to the races, with teams picking out their engines from those that were built at Nichels Engineering.
[*When the forty Hemi engines were being tested at Daytona, they all failed with wrist pin damage! After much research was done in Ray's shop, it was discovered that Chrysler had stamped the part number in the wrist pin snap ring, which caused stress weakness and led to the breakage. While testing the Hemis for the Daytona 500 at San Angelo, TX, Paul Goldsmith drove the cars 3,000 miles at 184 mph, one or two tankfuls of fuel at a time. Ray rode with him and monitored the gauges.]
All of the cars started out life as bodies-in-white. A body-in-white is a car ordered from Chrysler that is taken off the assembly line as a rolling chassis and bare sheetmetal shell, without any paint, trim or interior. Space inside Nichels Engineering was at a premium once all the teams, parts, cars and equipment were in place, so extra body shells were stored by hanging them from the ceiling.
Walking past the car building bays, towards the rear of the building along this same wall to the left, Ray points out a long area where Hemi engines were stored on engine stands. Imagine this.....he told me that at any given time, there were thirty Hemis sitting here! In the middle of the rear of the building, with an open door facing towards where these engine sat was a room that once served as the Parts Department. A lot of stuff moved through this shop in the racing years. Ray informed me that once a week, they would use 40 tons of parts! Chrysler delivered two trucks full of parts each week to the back door of Nichels Engineering!
Directly adjacent to the Parts Department room, on the opposite side of the building, there were two separate rooms. The first served as the Engine Dyno Room. Inside this room is another small room constructed of a thick concrete wall and a bullet-proof window. This little room is where the engine was actually run on the Dynamometer. The technician stayed on the outside of this room and ran the different tests on the engine, read the gauges and recorded the results. In the case of the engine coming apart, the theory was that it would be contained inside the concrete and bullet-proof glass room.
In the Dyno Room at Nichels Engineering, there were very few unintentional engine failures. When an engine did blow, it was just a ball of fire and then the room filled with smoke. Flying parts were caught by a catch fence that surrounded the engine. There was an automatic fire suppression system that activated when an engine blew and it sprayed foam into the room. Ray told me it took a long time to clean up afterwords. The Dyno itself was actually a water break that provided resistance to the engine.
When I asked about the tremendous noise a Hemi engine running at 8,300 rpm would create inside a building, he explained that there was a muffler as tall as the building that was attached to the engine. It directed the noise out through the roof (lucky neighbors!). Ray assured me the muffler was so efficient that no engine noise could be heard outside of this room in the rest of the building.
Next to the Dyno Room is a much larger room which was used as the Machine Shop. At that time, this room had housed all of the boring bars, milling machines, grinders, etc., and all of the intricate machine work was done on the Hemi engine parts in this room.
It is interesting to note that in the entire building, underneath of the plumbing company's many years of grease and grime, you can scratch off a layer of thick icky stuff and still see a beautiful tile floor. Ray told us these tile floors were kept spotlessly clean at all times when Nichels Engineering occupied the building.
The next room we came to was Nichels' storage room, still equipped today with the well-worn extra heavy duty wood and steel shelving. Though they are now full of various lengths of pipe and plumbing parts, you can still imagine seeing the rows of Hemi heads that were once stored in here. Outside of these rooms, on racks built on the walls up above the individual doors, Ray stored massive amounts of sheetmetal. You can still see the mounting holes for all of these racks.
After Nichels Engineering enjoyed it's glory days of racing, the building was turned into a college, which operated from 1974-1978. It was called Nichels Engineering School of Technology (NEST for short). Ray said it was a hands-on school. Unlike tech schools of today where you primarily learn how to run diagnostic equipment, NEST taught you how to completely disassemble a differential and rebuild it, how to mic a cylinder and run a boring bar, how to do body work and run a welder, and even how to manage a parts department. Ray proclaims proudly that NEST taught you what you needed to know to actually go out into the automotive world and build or repair a car or work in a parts department, as most of the average automotive repair shops do not even own the high tech diagnostic machinery that you learn to use in tech schools today.
It cost about $2,000 for six to eight weeks of training at NEST. The school furnished all of the tools for each student. When the students graduated, they kept the tools. That included hand wrenches, socket sets, torque wrenches, etc., and if a student was graduating as a machinist, he even kept the machinist's chest. It's interesting to note that many of Ray's students were sent to him as troubled teenagers who couldn't read or write and many had been in trouble with the law. When they left NEST, they had a renewed interest in life and were ready to go right into the automotive workforce as productive people.
Unfortunately, Nichels Engineering came full circle after Ray decided to close NEST, because it could not compete with the very large Hammond Technical School that received government sponsorship. Today, Ray still gets calls from as far away as England from students wanting to enroll in NEST! So what happened to all of those parts in Nichels Engineering inventory when Chrysler pulled out of racing? Ray reports that he loaded 6,000 square feet of hoods, fenders, doors, etc. on the Chrysler truck and watched it drive away!
Ray also built some very unusual items in his race shop, things that most of us never knew about. One time, they built half a car with a film running in it-kind of like today's simulators-for display in the Joe Weatherly Museum at Darlington. Another time, he built an upside-down car for a Walker Muffler TV commercial.
One of the last times I visited with Ray, he told me he also was involved in building engines for offshore racing boats.
SPECIAL NOTE: On Friday, November 26, 2005, Ray Nichels
passed away. He was 83 years old. Ray is survived by his wife, Eleanor, and two
children Terry and wife Kathy Nichels of Highland, Indiana and Vickie and Bill
Masters of Georgia and a brother Albert and wife Maxine. We lovingly dedicate
this page to his memory. Ray was a brilliant and humorous man and he will be
missed by all of us who knew him.
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