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Dyno Don Nicholson - the Atlanta Years
Dyno Don Nicholson
Although not a native of Atlanta, Dyno Don Nicholson was arguably the most famous Atlanta area drag racer. Born in Missouri, Nicholson moved to southern California as a youth and grew up in the car culture. He began racing in 1949 and had racked up two consecutive NHRA Winternationals wins prior to moving to Atlanta in April, 1962.
Back in California, dragsters got the top billing and Nicholson was forced to race for trophies. The lure of money prizes prompted him to move to the Southeast, where he was an instant winner. After trying an eastern tour in 1961, Nicholson moved his home to Atlanta to be near the action. When asked why he chose Atlanta, Dyno stated that people at Chevrolet helped set him with Nalley Chevrolet, where he opened a dyno tuning shop. Dyno remembers working with Hubert Platt, and believes that Huston Platt also worked at Nalley in the service department. A man named Howard also worked in the Dyno shop making headers. After arriving in Atlanta, Nicholson was given the Dyno Don nickname by Bill Hughes, announcer at Newton County Dragway (Later Atlanta Speed Shop Dragway). Back in those days, Dyno remembers Bill Tanner's Dodge was tough, and Bonner's Ford was also hard to beat.
When asked about the changes necessary to race "southern style," Dyno stated that about all they did was mount slicks instead of the NHRA mandated seven-inch tires. He did remember that they broke a lot of rear axles and rear ends in those days. He says that he kept pulling axles out of new cars on the Nalley Chevrolet car lot, but "we got caught on it finally."
In 1963 Nicholson raced a Z-11 Chevy, which won the Daytona Speed Week drags. Eddie Schartman of Ohio ran a second team car. When the Chevrolet factory backed away from racing, he cut a deal with Lincoln Mercury to run a factory Comet in 1964. His first Comet was a station wagon, nicknamed the Ugly Duckling. The wagon had the shorter wheelbase of a Ford Falcon, and had the traction-enhancing overhang and heavy glass of a wagon, and it proved to be fairly successful. The Ugly Duckling was the runner-up at the season opening NHRA Winternationals, losing a close one to Ronnie Sox's Comet coupe. In a 1990 interview, Phil Bonner stated that he always beat the Comet Wagon in match races with his Ford Thunderbolt, but Dyno remembers differently! "I don't remember him (Bonner) ever beating me." By the spring, the wagon had been replaced by a Comet coupe, and Dyno set the NHRA A/FX record at 11.05. According to an article in Hot Rod Magazine, the Comet won 75 out of 78 match races that year. The wagon continued to be campaigned by Eddie Schartman on the match race trail after Dyno Don brought out the coupe.
1965 saw Nicholson move to a new A/FX Comet. Unfortunately for him, this was the year the Chrysler factory introduced the altered wheelbase Plymouths and Dodges. At the NHRA Division 2 opener at Phenix City, Alabama in April, Dyno set the A/FX national mph record at 130, but lost the e.t. record to Phil Bonner at 10.90. In May Nicholson managed to take both ends of the record with a 10.56 @ 131.96 at the NHRA Division 1 opener at Cecil County, Maryland. At one point, Nicholson experimented with a four Weber carb set-up, but returned to two four-barrel carbs. With the Comet's legal A/FX status (3200 lbs), it was no match for the considerably lighter Mopars with their traction-enhancing long rear overhangs. Nicholson needed match race bookings in order to make a living, so he altered the Comet's wheelbase, switched to Hilborn injectors, and eventually ran fuel. Soon his car was running in the low 9's, and was able to compete with the Mopars.
For 1966, Lincoln-Mercury unleashed the most awesome funny cars ever seen: the flip top Mercurys of Dyno Don and his teammates. This car was unlike anything seen at the time, sporting a full tubular chassis by the Logghe Brothers and a one piece, hinged, stock appearing, fiberglass Comet body. Weighing less than 1900 pounds, this car was virtually untouchable in 1966, winning most of its races. It was so technologically advanced, that it was nearly unbeatable. It rarely lost, and then mostly to Eddie Schartman's virtually identical Logghe Comet. The Eliminator I became the first funny car to run in the 7's. Dyno Don says that this was his favorite car.
In 1967, Nicholson unveiled the Eliminator II, a brand new Comet. After a shaky start, wrecking the car when the body latches failed at Atlanta Speed Shop Dragway, this car continued where the 1966 model left off.
In May, Dyno again had body latch problems at Cecil County, Maryland and lost the body on the top end, still turning an 8.04 e.t. According to the May 19, 1967 National Dragster story, Eliminator II "might have flipped end over end once or twice"!! Nicholson was pleased to have set low e.t. of the meet. By the end of the year, advances in tire technology gave an advantage to blown cars, and Nicholson was forced to add a supercharger in October. One time he ran one of Pete Robinson's engines in a match race against Doug Thorley in Delmar, Delaware, and he thinks that Pete went to the race with him. Nicholson quickly sorted out the blown combination, and returned to his winning ways.
The 1968 Nicholson effort was perhaps his nicest appearing car to date, the Coca Cola Eliminator Cougar. This car had a fabulous paint job by Shedlick, and was just as fast as its predecessors. Although forced to run in Super Eliminator at NHRA races, Nicholson did manage a runner-up to Paul Stage at the 1968 NHRA Nationals. Nicholson set the NHRA S/XS national record at 7.76 in Indianapolis, Indiana in September, 1968.
In 1968, Nicholson decided that Funny Cars were too dangerous, and mounted a campaign to restrict the use of Nitromethane. This attempt to prevent racer fatalities proved futile, and for 1969 Nicholson made a major shift in his racing efforts.
He turned the Funny Car over to "Frank Ogelsby", and he returned to gas burning, four speed doorslammers. He ran the ex-Jerry Harvy, ex-Hubert Platt 1966 A/FX Mustang as a heads-up match race "stocker" in what would lead to the Pro Stock class in 1970. He bought this car from Paul Harvey.
He match raced Bill Grumpy Jenkins and Ronnie Sox around the eastern part of the country. At NHRA events, he was classified as an A/MP car. He won the Dallas Spring Nationals Street Eliminator in this car over Bo Laws, setting the record at 10.49. Later in the year, Dyno debuted a Mercury Cougar, but it proved to be too heavy to compete with Sox and Jenkins on the match race trail.
For 1970, NHRA introduced Pro Stock eliminator, and Dyno competed in a hastily built Ford Maverick. He was not really competitive with Grumpy's Camaro or Sox's Barracuda, but managed to survive on the match race circuit and did win the AHRA Super Stock class at the Grand American Series race in Epping, New Hampshire. By 1971, Dyno was ready. He won the AHRA Grand American Series at Lions Super Stock Eliminator, the Super Stock Nationals Pro Stock at York, Pennsylvania, the NHRA Summernationals Pro Stock at Englishtown, New Jersey, and the AHRA Grand Nationals Super Stock Eliminator at Marion City, Ohio. He was the AHRA World Champion in 1972.
Nicholson continued to race, winning the NHRA Pro Stock World Championship in 1977 in a Ford Mustang. He became the first Pro Stock type car in the 7 second bracket, running in match race trim. He continued to race in Pro Stock into the eighties, built a Pro Nostalgia 62 Chevy, and even tried his hand at NHRA Pro Stock Truck. He continued racing well into his 70s.
Dyno Don was a perpetual number one on the Drag Racing Magazine Stocker list, and was number one in Drag Strip Magazine's first Reader's Choice Poll for injected funny cars in July, 1967. He is a charter member of the Super Stock Magazine Hall of Fame, and a member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
Marvin T. Smith 2006 Hammock Drive Valdosta, GA 31602
Sources: Baskerville, Gray 1981 Dyno Don Nicholson. In Hot Rod's History of Drag Racing. Peterson Publishing Company, Los Angeles, pp. 56-57.
Drag Racing Magazine 1966 Person to Person with "Dyno Don" Nicholson. Drag Racing Magazine, March, 1966.
Telephone interview by David Dilbeck, 2002.
Interview by Marvin Smith and David Dilbeck at Sol Stewart's "Old Drag Racers Reunion", Panama City, Florida 2002.
1967 What Makes Nicholson Run. Hot Rod Magazine, February, 1967.
Major Events won by Dyno Don Nicholson.