Book Reviews: “Dyno” Don, The Cars and Career of Dyno Don Nicholson

Author, Doug Boyce
Available for $34.95 through CarTech Books & Manuals (800) 551-4754

by Phil R. Elliott

I received “Dyno Don: The Cars and Career of Dyno Don Nicholson by Doug Boyce some time ago, and excitedly read it in its entirety – all 174 pages – immediately. While many historical figures are undeservedly given the description “legend” – to drag racing, Mr. Nicholson is the epitome of the term. Boyce did a bang up job in his biography of the man who was well known for more than half a century.

Depending on a reader’s age, one thinks of Nicholson as a winner in Super Stock Chevrolets, Mercury Funny Cars, or Ford Pro Stocks. Those and more. But long before Brian Wilson hummed the first few bars of “Giddyup 409,” a car and engine that brought Nicholson his initial glory on a southern California fairground, the man raced rods and dragsters, powered mostly by GM six-cylinders.

His nickname came from his ability to squeeze horsepower out of customer cars using a dynamometer in the back room of Mead, later Service Chevrolet. Don was somehow able to outperform everyone when it came to ignition and carburetion. His customer base and reputation quickly escalated.

After west coast success with a 348-powered ’60 Chevy sedan, a car which won Top Stock in February of 1961 during NHRA’s warm-up for their initial Winternationals, Nicholson was among the very first to acquire a new 409. It actually came from NASCAR land – the southern boys had the first issues. Ironically, though employed at Service, where performance tune-ups were a specialty, they were uninterested in providing a vehicle into which could be transplanted that 409. Instead, it was nearby Don Steves Chevrolet who saw potential – they have been involved in drag racing ever since, including sponsorship of John Force for years.

With the Big Go West fast approaching, epic round-the-clock preparation of the car and engine was necessary. After final dyno-tune, a friend took the car on a 500-mile drive to loosen the freshly bored engine and the modified suspension.

In the culmination of this zany last second groundwork, worthy of a Hollywood movie, Nicholson waded through factory and private stockers, only to lose to Frank Sanders’ holeshot in the class final. Sanders was driving the only other fully prepared 409 Chevy on the property, a car Don had helped construct.

On Sunday, for the Mr. Stock Eliminator, after setting low ET and Top Speed, he again faced Sanders in the final and this time found revenge and the big win. It cemented the name Don Nicholson into the history books, but also placed him in big demand at tracks all over the country. Almost immediately, “Dyno Don” became a match race sensation.

Two eastern tours came about during 1961 that saw everything from shotgun wielding promoters to hastily repairing the racecar after it rolled over into a ditch when the towbar broke.

The Nationals (Indy) saw Don again march through a huge field, this time with new dual-quads in the “Optional” S/S category, the precursor to Factory Experimental. But in teardown, discrepancies were discovered in valve sizes. Even though Nicholson swore the valves came out of OEM boxes, backed up by a top representative from Chevrolet, the politically motivated decision stood, and both “Dyno Don” and runner-up Arnie “the Farmer” Beswick were out. The Pontiac of Mickey Thompson, driven by Hayden Proffitt, was declared the overall winner.

But I’m not really here to rewrite the “Dyno Don” story. Doug Boyce did a fine job of that. The above story, and many more, are well detailed in this book, a must read for anyone with even a vague interest in drag racing.

“Dyno Don: The Cars and Career of Dyno Don Nicholson covers well the Chevy era, when corporate heads at Ford and Pontiac wanted a major piece of that “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” philosophy of the horsepower race of the early ‘60s. Don was right in the thick of all of that, and won more than his share of both national races and ever more popular match races. The demand for appearances helped in his decision to move from SoCal to Atlanta, Georgia. There he found a home at Nalley Chevrolet, a dealership that already had a speed shop and a dynamometer due to its back door tie ins with the manufacturer.

In 1962, Nicholson repeated his winning ways at the two major NHRA meets, and with his negative experience of ’61 still ringing in his head, he made absolutely certain about engine specs. According to one statistic, Nicholson went through 18 teardowns during the season with never a divergence found.

The 409, and its Z-11 evolution, continued its winning and record setting ways for Don Nicholson right to the point where General Motors stated publically they would no longer support motorsports. Don, and all the other GM-backed racers were forced to hastily look elsewhere. After a bit of romancing from Fran Hernandez, Nicholson took delivery of an A/FX Comet, sponsored by a network of Mercury dealers in the greater Atlanta area.

In retrospect, Nicholson might have been highly successful as an independent racing a Chevrolet in the FX and early funny car era, while continuing to work at Nalley. Instead, he took the Mercury deal, became a full-time, professional racer, and continued his winning ways – up in the 90% range according to claims. And, he handed the keys to a second Comet to his pal Eddie Schartman.

Racing, racing, racing and winning became Don Nicholson’s trademark. His impeccable preparation made sure that breakage was minimal. Promoters loved him because they could count on “Dyno Don” to perform beyond expectations, to draw crowds and set records. Fans loved him, and various appreciation polls during 1965 put him at the very top.

During that season, his SOHC-powered Comet evolved from a legit A/FX that ran consistent mid-10s at 130mph, to a fully altered “funny car” that hit mid-9s and became the first late model sedan to top 150mph, The rear wheels had marched forward, the wildly engineered front suspension that allowed for the extra width of the overhead cams, was ash canned in favor of a lightweight tube axle, all in the name of remaining competitive. Injectors and nitromethane were part of the mix as well.

And while fans – me included – continued to love the “funny” action, personnel at Mercury were not amused. Hernandez had seen Nicholson’s hack job and from a marketing standpoint, was appalled. He came up with a plan. A match racer that better replicated what his showrooms portrayed

My first view of Nicholson’s 1966 ride came courtesy of a full spread in Hot Rod magazine. While the feature on the tube frame and fiberglass body Comet was highly detailed and beautifully photographed, my young mind surmised correctly that it spelled doom to anyone racing other styles of match race sedans. My favorites of the funny car evolution are still those transitional cars; steel shells with plastic replica fenders, hoods and doors – yes, doors.

These lightweight Comets (five were built), veiled in secrecy until early racetrack testing, caught every other team preparing for the ’66 season with their firepants down. Factory teams, even Mercury’s cousins at Ford, were building factory experimentals that were a progression from 1965. Lighter and safer of course. But Mercury’s entry was more like the space shuttle parked next to WWI vintage biplanes!

The Logghe-built fliptops proved their mettle immediately, often running a half-second quicker than their competition on any given day. Nicholson, and Schartman (who had his own similar car), pretty much had their way for the whole year. Everyone else raced for second or third place honors, and it took some time for the rest of the pack to catch up.

Nicholson raced the fliptop Comets and a Cougar that followed until the dangerous aspect of the ever more powerful and faster breed sent him looking for something safer. What he found was an aging SOHC Mustang, one of the original legal A/FX entries built for 1965. Running A/MP, it ran and won in NHRA Street Eliminator, but also Don began to dabble with a small group of similarly minded racers running heads-up stockers. It was the initial “germ” that was to evolve into Pro Stock.

And just like every other phase of Nicholson’s career, he climbed right to the pinnacle of Pro Stock, racing and winning in Ford-based products until his announced retirement in 1981. He was persuaded out of retirement to drive for several others, including an Oldsmobile fielded by Ralph Woodall.

As the nostalgia movement hit in the late ‘80s, “Dyno Don” got the itch to relive his earliest days. So, he built a ’62 bubble-top Chevy, first with a 409, followed by a succession of ever-larger big blocks.

We lost “Dyno” in early 2006 due to complications from Alzheimer’s, but in the case of most legends, Don Nicholson will not soon be forgotten. He was 78.

Over a career that spanned five decades, Don Nicholson proved his racing prowess time and time again, winning races and fans wherever he toured. My synopsis is only a microcosm of what Boyce researched and printed in this excellent biography. “Dyno Don: The Cars and Career of Dyno Don Nicholson is a great book to have, read, re-read and share. And, like all of the works by Boyce, it is packed with photos, many never in print before.


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