Though it has been many years since Ray Nichels and Paul Goldsmith have been in the racing spotlight, the contributions that the Nichels Engineering team made to stock car racing and Mopar are huge. In addition to building cars for their own in-house teams, the Nichels "Go Fast Factory" in Griffith, Indiana, did R&D for all of Chrysler's teams, built additional cars, inventoried parts for those teams, and even rebuilt their wrecks. In the period between 1963 and 1970, they amassed an impressive win record in NASCAR, USAC, IMCA, and ARCA competition.
The son of an Austrian immigrant, Nichels began his career in 1937 at the age of 15, as the crewchief of his father's midget car team. After serving in the Coast Guard in WWII, he worked his way up to Indy cars and fielded "Basement Bessie," a homebuilt racecar actually built in a Hammond, Indiana, basement with lifelong friend Paul Russo.
During the mid-'50s, he and drivers Sam Hanks and Pat O'Connor set a series of world speed records with the Firestone Kurtis-Kraft test car at Chrysler's Chelsea proving grounds and the high-banked oval of Monza, Italy. In 1957, he was named The Indianapolis 500 Pole Mechanic of the Year.
Nichels' introduction to stock car racing came after a chance encounter in the Indy garages with Pontiac General Manager Semon E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, who was looking to spice up the ailing division's persona. He called upon Ray to build a pair of Pontiac Chieftains for Daytona Speed Weeks. They went on to win the pole with Banjo Matthews and the checkered flag with Cotton Owens driving. This went a long way to establish Pontiac's new performance oriented image. It was also through Knudsen that Ray met Paul Goldsmith.
Goldsmith began his racing career with motorcycles and worked his way into stock car racing, first with Fords and later hooking up with Smokey Yunick, driving Chevys. Upon Knudsen's urging, the pair teamed up in 1959 to build and race Pontiac stock cars.
The partnership with Pontiac was very successful, netting several big wins, including back-to-back USAC stock car championships in 1961 and 1962, as well a dominating victory in the '63 Daytona 250 Challenge Cup. But with GM's withdrawal from all racing activities in January of 1963, Nichels Engineering quickly found itself without factory backing. Well aware of their record, Chrysler Race Director Ronney Householder saw a great opportunity with Nichels and jumped in to fill the void left by the Wide Track Division. With their new assignment in hand, Nichels Engineering quickly opened up new avenues of racing excellence for Chrysler.
The learning curve was not too difficult with a team like Nichels Engineering, and the transition to Mopar power and chassis setups went smoother than many expected.
The race operations were shut down in 1973, though Nichels Engineering stayed in business, developing a line of oil and fuel treatments still available today. Ray can still be found working at the same building, looking for new ways that'll keep racers going faster.
Goldsmith moved on to the aircraft industry, opening an airport, flight school, aircraft engine rebuilding facility and crew staffing business. Now 78, Goldsmith still remains quite active and flies his own planes regularly.
In 1996, Ray Nichels was inducted into the Auto Mechanics Hall of Fame within the International Motorsports Hall of Fame at Talladega, Alabama. On that same day, the governor of Indiana, Evan Bayh, awarded Ray Nichels the "Sagamore of the Wabash," the highest distinguished service honor that an Indiana governor can bestow on a citizen of that state.
Paul Goldsmith's career has also been cited for excellence, as he was inducted in the American Motorcyclist Association's Hall of Fame in 1999. It came as much of a surprise to him, as he had last raced a motorcycle in 1956.
We had the honor of meeting with Ray and Paul at Ray's office in the Nichels Engineering building on June 22, 2004. It was without a doubt one of those experiences that any journalist would look back on as one of the highlights of his career. The following interview with both men came from that meeting.
Mopar Muscle: Your story with Chrysler began as the door closed with Pontiac. GM, fearing a U.S. Justice Department investigation for possibly monopolizing the automobile industry, halted all promotional activities, including all racing efforts. This put Pontiac out of racing, and all teams were abandoned by the factory. How did you make the transition from Pontiac to Chrysler so smoothly?
Goldsmith: I think Ronney Householder had a lot to do with that. He was with the Chrysler people, and he could see how that would help them market their products, their cars, Plymouth and Dodge, specifically. He hired Ray Nichels Engineering, and at the time, I was driving with Ray. We just started building a car. I can remember the first Plymouth-it was for Norm Nelson, and I think that Ronney was responsible for helping him out with parts.
They didn't really have any power then, using the wedge engine. I can remember driving one of Norm Nelson's cars at DuQuoin, Illinois, on a one-mile dirt track, and that thing didn't have enough power to turn the tires on the dirt. Later on, Ray and I were working with the car and got a little more power. We kept working on it, and soon Chrysler came out with the Hemi engine and from there on, they were in the racing business!
MM: How did building unibody Mopars differ from building full-framed Pontiacs? Were there any significant differences in, say rollcage construction or anything like that?
Nichels: Not really.
Goldsmith: We just had to reinforce the frame with the rollcage and tubing. We made heavier spindles, axles, the torsion bars, and all the brackets for the Plymouths and Dodges. It was a little different in that respect, getting used to using the torsion bars instead of coil springs.
MM: There is a story floating around that has Nichels Engineering putting a complete Pontiac front suspension under a Mopar stock car. How accurate is that?
Nichels: Well, what they're talking about is that Chrysler didn't have race-grade heavy-duty spindles. All the stuff we had on the Pontiacs, we wanted converted to Mopar.
Goldsmith: Who made those spindles for us, Ray?
Nichels: Ted Halibrand on the West Coast. He made a lot of those types of things for us.
MM: So you had to make your own heavy-duty stuff, and you designed it from parts you had previous experience with.
MM: Did it take a lot of development work to get the torsion bar systems to work?
Nichels: Not really.
Goldsmith: No. At first, our previous Pontiacs handled a lot better, we were used to them and knew how to make them handle. It took a lot of testing and work to make the Chrysler product handle. Then they came up with the fastback Dodge.
If you remember how the roofline was contoured-that car didn't handle worth a darn. We were running 165-170 mph, and it wanted to fly. So then they came up with the spoiler to put on the back, and it would hold the backend down. That was the beginning of the spoilers on racecars.
MM: As time went on, Chrysler began getting more interested in aerodynamics and began developing more slippery body styles. Were you able to work with Chrysler designers, and let them know what worked and what didn't? Did you have that kind of access?
Goldsmith: We worked a lot with the Chrysler people. The guys I remember working with were Larry Rathgeb and some of those guys. They helped us a lot with both aerodynamics and suspension development.
Nichels: George Wallace was also a big help.
MM: Did you have to do a lot of aerodynamic testing with the different body styles on your own or was it exclusively with Chrysler designers?
Goldsmith: Yes, we did our own. We went to the Goodyear Proving Grounds in San Angelo, Texas. They have a 5-mile track I believe, and we did a lot of test work with tufts of yarn, like you do with airplanes, and we learned a lot about aerodynamics there.
MM: When the Plymouth Superbirds and Dodge Daytonas were released, it was obvious that they were put in production to satisfy NASCAR homologation rules. Did their dominating performance cause more harm than good with regard to NASCAR's changing the rules, and the hardships that might have created?
Goldsmith: I believe if the other car companies were supporting Bill France, like Ford, it might have been why he would do whatever he had to satisfy all the companies. When they put the nose and the spoiler on the car, it created problems. It helped an awful lot in handling, and that's how Richard Petty did so well for so long, because of the handling of those cars. Today, I'm not sure that those cars are handling as well as we had it.
MM: What do you attribute that to?
Goldsmith: A lot of it is probably that the chassis is flexing. They don't have the original chassis under them; it's a tubular frame. Maybe it's bending. I can remember a Chrysler car I had that was flexing at Daytona, and I couldn't handle it. I was really fighting it, and I finally hit the wall. Whether that is happening now with the test equipment they have today, I don't know.
MM: Before the Hemi came out, Chrysler was working with the 426 wedge engine. What sort of things were you allowed to do to extract more power out of it?
Nichels: Pistons, crankshaft, everything. We were also allowed to play with camshaft profiles and exhaust pipes also, so that helped a lot.
MM: You had a chance to test the 426 Hemi in late 1963. How were they compared to the wedge engines?
Nichels: Horsepower-wise there was no comparison.
Goldsmith: Ray would know as far as actual horsepower comparisons, but the initial testing told us a lot. We know that when we went to Daytona, we had the upper hand and when we rolled off the trailer there, we figured that we should be on the pole. As it turned out, we were.
MM: Did you see the Hemi becoming the wave of the future, or were you concerned that it might become just another engine that NASCAR would outlaw?
Nichels: It was too expensive, no doubt about that.
Goldsmith: We weren't really worried about outlawing the Hemi. That basic Hemi design was already in production before with DeSoto and the others so we didn't see that as a problem. I think they put that engine in some Dodges as well, because in ARCA they ran the early Hemis in Dodges. I think Marvin Panch drove one at the Detroit City Fairgrounds and some other tracks.
MM: During this period, Dale "Tiny" Worley was your right-hand man. What were his duties and what was his influence on the operation?
Nichels: If you wanted it, he'd make it!
Goldsmith: Ray would take in all the work that Tiny could handle!
Nichels: He would encourage me to do that.
MM: We hear you guys had a little trouble not being from the Southeast?
Nichels: Yeah, that war wasn't over.
Goldsmith: France had to take care of his local talent. With our coming from USAC and going down there to race, we were the outsiders. If our car was a half, or even a quarter-inch lower than his "good ol' boys," we had trouble. And that happened. Another thing that happened when we were racing Pontiacs, was we won Daytona one time and didn't get credit for it. Isn't that right, Ray?
Nichels: Yeah. But they gave it to another Pontiac. There were two Pontiacs ahead of him in the final standings. As long as they put two Pontiacs ahead of us, we didn't care.
MM: What were the main differences between racing stock cars under USAC as opposed to NASCAR?
Goldsmith: Well, it was a lot cheaper to run USAC because you'd arrive at the racetrack Sunday morning, practice for a half-hour, qualify, and be racing by one o'clock. In a lot of places we'd go, you couldn't even fire an engine before 12 o'clock. We'd practice, qualify, and race that afternoon. So, the economy of it was great. At some of the bigger races like in NASCAR, you'd get there on a Thursday to set up. Friday, you'd be practicing and qualify maybe that afternoon or Saturday, if you didn't get qualified on Friday. It's a longer process, and you have motel expenses for all of your crew-it got pretty expensive that way.
Nichels: My first trip down to Daytona was with Pontiac, and Pontiac General Manager Bunkie Knudsen said to bring lots of money. At the end of three weeks, we went around and paid the bills and when we got to the motel bill, it was $9,000. For all that, we took in $2,400!
Goldsmith: That was the sad part because it was just backwards, and it's leaning that way again today. With what it's costing now, and the prize money is great, don't get me wrong, but the prize money cannot support the racing today, and it didn't when I was racing.
Nichels: When we first got into stock car racing, we could build a ready-to-run for $3,500. Now you can't even put tires on them for that.
MM: How was your relationship with Chrysler during this period? Were you given access to engineering data, and did you have sufficient input with the engineering staff?
Goldsmith: We had a lot of secrets of our own, but we did get a lot of input from those folks. Some of the stuff that I can remember in handling, they would give us different ideas about roll rates, and how to compare them, front to rear. The torsion bar was a little different than a coil spring, and they would help us out with things like that. We had special blocks made, the list goes on and on. So yeah, you have to work hand-in-hand with them.
MM: Explain to our readers just how expansive the Nichels Engineering reach was at Chrysler. The "Go-Fast Factory" was absolutely huge at this time and employed a huge number of people. What were your key responsibilities to Chrysler during this period?
Nichels: We used to do a lot of dyno work.
Goldsmith: I would say that all the race teams in the South that raced a Chrysler product were developed here. We would supply those folks with parts, and the knowledge that we would learn developed right here in this building. It was quite a lot, from axles, wheels, brakes, steering, spindles, radiators, everything.
Nichels: Knudsen was smart. We didn't have sole rights-he'd put Smokey Yunick against you, he'd put Jack Zink against you, he'd set up little operations, and you gotta go beat them. The way Chrysler set it up, you'd be competing against your own people.
Goldsmith: We would run against other Chrysler racers, even though we were supplying parts and knowledge. Everything we would learn, we would feed it to the rest of the people in the South. That's what Chrysler wanted us to do.
Nichels: We'd take a truckload of engines down there, and we'd have somebody pick "our" engine while we were picking "theirs."
Goldsmith: Foyt used to accuse me of getting the best engine. I'd say, "OK, which one do you want?" then I take whatever was left. That happened more than once.
MM: How many people did you employ at your peak?
Nichels: About 200 total with all of our shops and related businesses. And you'd be picking the brains of 200 people. So when they say, "Ray Nichels did that," the truth was Ray Nichels did not do much. He had 200 people under him. Nobody does everything alone.
Goldsmith: I thought I was!
MM: The next couple of questions are for Paul. When you retired from driving in 1969, was it something you had been thinking about for a while or was it simply, "I'm done?"
Goldsmith: I thought about it, sure. But I think the last race was in Jackson when I lost an engine. I shut the key off and coasted around the third and fourth corners and came to the pits. I said, "Well, this is it, I quit." So when I coasted in I went to the Chrysler people who were there, and Charlie Glotzbach didn't have a ride. So I mentioned it to one of the fellas, and it sounded good, so I went and talked to him. Then Charlie came up here, and Ray and the crew fitted the car to him and from then on, he was in.
MM: After you stopped driving, you stayed on as a consultant to Nichels Engineering. What sort of things did you work on during this period?
Goldsmith: Just run my mouth a lot! I don't really remember a lot of it, but I did do little stuff, like talking to drivers about handling, gears, just a little bit of everything.
MM: As with everything else, all good things come to an end, and by the early '70s, factory involvement in racing had fallen from favor all over Detroit. Chrysler, too, withdrew from racing. How did the news come to you, and what was said?
Nichels: I think they called us over the phone.
Goldsmith: I think it was Ronney who called us. He said, "We gotta shut 'er down."
MM: Do you think it was strictly a money-oriented decision with Chrysler or was there more to it? It seemed like they were a lot bolder than GM when it came to racing.
Nichels: It was upper brass.
Goldsmith: There was a guy in upper management who left Chrysler and went to Rockwell. I think that you'll see that about that same time when he went there, racing was cut off. That's what I remember of it.
MM: Do you know how many of your Mopar racecars are still in existence? I saw the K&K Insurance/Bobby Isaac car at the Kruse Auburn auction a dozen or so years ago.
Nichels: I know that the Winged Warriors have a few of them. (Daytona Superbird Auto Club and the Winged Warriors/National B-Body Owners Association-Ed.)
MM: What were your proudest moments racing for Chrysler?
Nichels: Winning races!
Goldsmith: When we went to Daytona with the Hemi engine, I was on the pole there, and that was a pretty good accomplishment.
Editor's Note: Conversations with a Winner-The Ray Nichels Story is on the shelves. The 300-page, 300 photo/illustrated hardcover book is the culmination of four years' work by its author, Wm. LaDow.
Utilizing the Nichels Engineering Archives that have been sealed for over 30 years, this book offers a glimpse into the never before documented life of Racing Hall of Famer Ray Nichels. Containing interviews with such legendary American racing personalities as Cotton Owens, Chris Economaki, A.J. Foyt, David Pearson, Bud Moore, Len Sutton, Bobby Unser, Don White, Ernie Derr, Paul Goldsmith, Shirley Muldowney and Arnie "The Farmer" Beswick, to name a few, this volume promises to be the most wide ranging narrative outlining Nichels' almost 40-year racing career.