Motorsport is a travelling circus. Drivers come and go, teams and team bosses as well. Nevertheless, there are some outstanding personalities who are remembered decades later, even if their success at the time was modest. One of them is Don Nichols.
After a few attempts in Japanese motorsport in the late 1960s, Don Nichols entered Can-Am with a bang and stunned the competition with the revolutionary AVS Shadow Mk1. Successful years followed in Formula 5000, the second generation of Can-Am and Formula 1. The eight years in the premier class were marked by highs and lows. But that alone doesn’t account for the fascination of Shadow Racing Cars. There were several factors at play there, what today would be called corporate identity: the team name, the gloomy team logo, the black cars. And, of course, Don Nichols himself.
Characterising Nichols is a challenge. Many described him as aloof, cool and reserved. As a businessman he was ice cold, they say. During the races he would hang in the background as a team boss. Not everyone could get through to Don Nichols. Peter Bryant, who designed the Shadow Mk2 and Mk3 from 1971 to 1973, later said that because of Nichols’ reputation, a lot of people didn’t get involved with him.
Hans-Joachin Stuck drove for Nichols in Formula 1 in 1978 and painted a different picture of him in an interview for this article: ‘Don was my best team boss during my time in Formula 1. He had a great personality and I would have liked to have worked with him longer. Unlike other team owners, he kept to his agreements 100 per cent. Our dealings were always open and honest. We always got along well and talked on the phone up until his death. I can’t say anything bad about him or understand such statements about him.’
Childhood and youth
In the middle of nowhere – that’s how you would describe where Don Nichols spent his childhood. In the state of Missouri, in the triangle formed by Kansas City, St Louis and Springfield, is the small town of Eldon. Today some 5,000 people live there. In the 1920s it was probably only a few hundred. Donald Robert Nichols was born on 23 November 1924.
He grew up with his grandparents on a farm in Pleasant Hill, as his father travelled the country as an aero mechanic and had little time to care for his only son. He died in a hotel fire in 1941. Don had no memory of his mother. Pleasant Hill is in the middle of Tornado Alley, where destructive tornadoes are a near-daily occurrence between March and May. In May 1927 severe tornadoes raged south of Kansas City for three days. One of them hit the taxi that Don Nichols and his mother were travelling in. The two-year-old was catapulted from the car and landed, badly injured, in a wooded area. His mother was killed. The taxi driver survived, and it’s probably thanks to him that Don did, too. He wasn’t found for hours and had countless broken bones. But he survived, although he did spend almost two years in hospital as he recovered.
Everyday life of his childhood was about agriculture and cars. His grandfather owned cars that were quite classy for the time, but rarely drove them. That role was taken over by a young Don Nichols, first secretly and then with his grandfather’s support…
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by Christian Reinsch
Photographs: Penny Nichols, Cahier, Motorsportimages, McKlein