Mike Nichols grew up in the shadows of some legendary stock car figures in Harlan, Iowa surrounded by the tales of Tiny Lund, Johnny Beauchamp and Dale Swanson. However, it was Nichols’ Mother that guided him to stock car racing, not Harlan’s legendary NASCAR drivers.
Nichols father was a traveling salesman that spent a lot of time on the road and away from his family, but the family matriarch’s encouragement, Mike and his father got involved in GoKart racing to spend time together. Little did they know that the bonding experience would turn into a lifelong pursuit of winning on dirt tracks.
Racing stock cars part-time in 1994 with a dream of winning one race, just one. “My ultimate goal was to win just one race,” affirmed Nichols. Sixteen years later on May 10th of 2010, Nichols won his 200th IMCA Feature race at Raceway Park in Jefferson, South Dakota.
Nichols finished the 2010 season as the IMCA National Stock Car Champion for the fourth time. With 45 top fives and 29 wins out of 53 starts and no DNF’s, he captured the Iowa State Fairgrounds Championship, Lincoln County Raceway Championship and the Dawson County Raceway Championship.
For a racer whose only desire was to win a single race, Nichols has surpassed even his wildest dreams with over 350 total race wins at various tracks in nine different states and two different countries.
With that track record, he has established himself as one of the most recognizable names in the highly competitive IMCA Stock Car class, moving out of the shadows of the sport’s greats and has become a legend in his own right.
It wasn’t always easy or fun. Nichols admits that he missed a lot by chasing National Championships. “Friends don’t get married in the middle of the week. They get married on Saturdays. That’s when I’m at the track trying to win Championships. I’ve missed a lot of these special times with family and friends.”
Nichols finished the 2010 racing season with a win count of 225 IMCA Feature wins. This put him two victories behind the all-time leader in victories in the IMCA Sunoco Stock Car division, Jeff Anderson. Nichols posted enough wins to draw Anderson back into the Stock Car division where the two drivers will face each other several times this year, each seeking to hold the all time wins title.
We caught up with Nichols just before the 2011 IMCA Stock Car season got underway to find out if success has spoiled one of the most winning racers in history.
OneDirt: You’ve had so many highlights in your career. What are you most proud of as a racer?
Mike Nichols: My reputation on the racetrack. Guys pretty much know that I’m going to drive them clean and they are going to have to bring their “A” game to beat me and I’m not going to rough them up to do it. That I’m going to beat them fair and square. Years from now, I want people to say that Mike Nichols was a clean racer and he won it the right way.
Nichols: Yeah and it kind of works out in the engine claim. I believe in the engine claim, it’s something that you must have to keep the costs of the engines down, but you have some drivers that use the claim so often that it gets abused. Every time that the claim gets used it causes hard feelings which causes rivalries. It can accumulate to the point where it turns clean drivers into rough drivers. That ends up costing more money. That might be a lot of the stuff that people read on message boards. It definitely costs more money and causes hard feelings.
OD: Have you ever claimed an engine?
Nichols: Yes, I’ve claimed. I’ve been claimed 42 times and I’ve claimed 11 times. It came down to pure numbers. Everytime I’ve claimed it’s like the roof caved in and no one can believe that someone that finished up front needed to claim, but it just comes down to dollars and cents. Claims cost money and when you’ve had that many claims taken from you, you have to get some of it back. I’m about at a four to one marker right now. If I had the money back from over the years on the claim alone, I could own my house [laughs].
OD: Tell us about the time you got claimed and were burnt pretty bad by scalding water when you were pulling the engine.
Nichols: Well, that was pretty stupid. I got claimed, and the deal with a claim is to pull the engine out as fast as you can. The water temp was about 270 or 280. Sometimes when you get the water out really fast and the cool air hits it right away, the block will crack. So we were trying to get the water out really fast. I had loosened the lower radiator hose and water was seeping out really quick. I figured that the pressure was out of the system but as soon as I touched the radiator cap it gushed out on me.
I had a glove on at the time, and when I took the glove off, the skin stayed inside the glove. You can still see on my hand the discolored skin where the hot water burned my skin off. I missed a couple of days of work and I was out of it on pain meds. That was the most painful thing that I’ve had happen.
At the time I was in the midst of a National Championship points race and I missed the Friday night race. I had to race the double feature on Saturday or it would be all over. I had my crew put an engine in the car earlier that week and I took my right glove, which is the hand that was injured, to a local sewing shop. I had them put a zipper in the glove and make it big enough that I could put my bandaged hand in the glove. I ended up getting second in the first feature and won the other one. It was extremely painful and after the second race I popped a pain pill, I remember that.
Nichols: I remember back in 2002 when I broke my neck. I had to race with a broken neck. That was in the midst of a National Championship run too. Jeff Anderson had won five National Championships in a row and we were fighting for the title. That happened in July and I was running the street stock and a modified at the time. I had flipped the modified earlier in the night and won the stock car race later by passing Anderson on the last lap.
I had taken about 15 tylenols before the race because of the back pain and I remember taking the checkered flag and I pulled into victory lane and couldn’t get out of the car. I was able to run on adrenaline but once the race was over and the adrenaline was gone, I couldn’t move. They had to get me out of the car and put me on a stretcher there in Victory lane. I got claimed that night too. I went to the hospital and my crew had to pull the engine. Seems like every time I get claimed I’m not there to help [laughs].
OD: You’ve made a lot of sacrifices and gotten hurt a few times, is it worth it?
Nichols: People that aren’t around racing, or haven’t been involved in it at this level, might not understand it, and they might be right. The way I see it is that it’s something that I love to do, it consumes my life, and I pretty much invest all my time and money into it. So is it worth it? Yeah, I wouldn’t keep doing it if I didn’t think it was worth it. If racing wasn’t my drug or if racing wasn’t my high that I needed, then I probably wouldn’t do it.
OD: It sounded like it was starting to wear on you at the end of last year. You said at the end of last year “I feel like this was kind of my last hurrah. I have no desire to chase the national championship again.” What’s the deal with that?
Nichols: Well, I worked my ass off to get to the point where we were competing with Rod Snellenberger of Wisconsin for the National Championship. Rod and I were neck and neck where it was a point or two in either direction. At the end of the season Rod had a kidney stone and had to miss a night of double features.
Because the IMCA National points are figured with the accumulated points and track championships, with that track Championship bonus being crucial, missing those races knocked him out of the track championships and the National title. I realized that no matter how hard you worked, it could all be taken away by something that you couldn’t control.
OD: So are you going to run for the National Title again this year?
Nichols: We’re going to run close to home and let the chips fall where they may. The cost of fuel has forced a lot of teams to adopt that strategy, so we will take a closer look at it as the season progresses.
OD: Your name is all over the forums and message boards in the Midwest. Do you pay any attention to all the things that are being said?
Nichols: I wouldn’t say that I don’t pay any attention but, I just try and consider the source. I guess I don’t really mind a whole lot. The message boards are a good tool. But often they are abused. In a struggling economy, I hate to see people get discouraged from coming to the tracks, so I avoid making too many comments on the message boards. We need those people coming to the tracks or that could mean less tracks that we have to run on.
OD: You’re only the 6th person that has won over 200 features in the IMCA sanctioning body’s 93 years of existence, and you’ve implied that it’s simply luck that you’ve been able to win a few races. What’s the real reason that you’ve had success?
Nichols: I really don’t know. I’m a real competitive guy and I love racing and I love the strategy. Going out racing every night is one thing, but the National Points thing takes a lot of strategy. When I first started racing I was a bottom feeder. I’d constantly run on the bottom and all the guys I raced knew that I would run on the bottom so they moved down there too. So I went up on the high-side and started picking them off there. I realized that I don’t have to run down there, I can run anywhere. That’s when the light switched on and I got a lot more confidence than I previously had.
OD: So it was just a matter of getting confidence and not setting up the car?
Nichols: Yep. We have guys that tell us that we should try this or we should try that, whatever the latest greatest thing is, but we’ve stayed with the same basic package that we’ve had for 15 years. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If the track is a little different, I’ll just adjust my driving style to find a line.
OD: You finished up a season last year with no DNFs. How in the world did you manage that having to come from the back of the pack most of the time?
Nichols: I was one of those guys that didn’t pay too much attention to the maintenance but I had this guy, Justin Gessert, who came to me in 2007. Justin had helped a couple of the race teams around the area and he got out of it for a while. He wanted back in and he started helping me in ’07. I’ve always had a few DNFs on stupid stuff that shouldn’t break and did and stuff like that. But since Justin’s been helping me, we won the National Title in ’07 and finished second in ’08 and ’09, then won again last year. In that time our number of DNFs has decreased dramatically. He’s so good about the week to week maintenance and he’s pretty good at pushing me to try new things and making myself faster.
OD: Is there faster? You’re already winning everything!
Nichols: I believe so. This past winter I’ve studied more about every aspect of the race car than I’ve ever done before. More than every other year combined. I look to be faster this year than I was any other year.
OD: So what pushed you to that?
Nichols: Well, you look at any advertisement or magazine and the parts always say; “put on this part and you will increase by this much horsepower” or “if you use this part you’ll get this much horsepower,” but if you add it all up you should have a 2,500 horsepower machine depending on how much money you want to spend.
We are limited by the two barrel carb that we have to run. This year we actually have an engine option in the rules. With the restricted engine it’s all about momentum. Any little bit of speed that you scrub off really shows up for a couple of laps. Everybody gets faster every year and we all have to spend more money every year. It’s really important to concentrate on the little stuff and get as much power to the rear wheels.
Nichols: No, getting my butt kicked made me focus on the small things.
OD: Maybe it’s the fear of getting your butt kicked because you don’t lose very often.
Nichols: Well, last year we really concentrated on tracks that were dry. This year, with the price of fuel, I’m probably going to race closer to home where the tracks are wetter. I know that I need to be prepared for that. Power to the rear wheels is probably my biggest weakness. You don’t want to leave yourself short mechanically in a 15 lap race. You want to give yourself every advantage that you can.
OD: So if you’re stuck with a momentum engine, how long before someone figures out that they can affect your race by slowing you down in the corners? We’ve seen that happen when crate engines are allowed to compete against open engines. Because of the weight break, crate engines have an advantage when they get momentum built up but when they get slowed down, it takes a couple of laps to get back to speed.
Nichols: Well, then you just have to dig a little deeper into the bag of tricks for some driver stuff. Figure out the best way to pass and not get trapped in that situation. That’s the advantage of driving against the same guys every week. You know each driver’s tendencies. Knowing the other driver’s tendencies makes moving through traffic easier. Say there’s a driver that you know you can’t pass on the inside because you know that he’ll put you right into the tires and another driver you know that you can’t pass on the outside because he’ll shove you right into the concrete. You have to evaluate each driver when you come up to them on the track.
You also have to evaluate the racetrack. Check out the color of the dirt. The color of the dirt tells you where the grip is. Starting in the back on dirt is a little easier because you can find the groove by paying attention to what is going on. The fastest way around is easier to find from the back than if you’re running up front by yourself.
If you’re up front by yourself you just kinda figure that you have the fastest line because you’re the car in front. It’s very hard to feel the difference between a tenth or two tenths of a second between laps but you can feel the difference in how fast you can drive up to the back bumper of somebody. It gives you a better understanding of where you need to be on the track.
OD: Is that part of your strategy to make sure that you start in the back when they invert for the main?
Nichols: NO! (Laughing) I still would rather take my chances starting up front. If I’m starting 12th, there’s a chance that I can get caught up in someone else’s wreck. If you start up front, the chances for that happening are a lot less. This momentum engine is going to make it a little easier for the front runners until they get into traffic. You still will have to find the best way to get around the traffic without slowing down too much.
Has Success Spoiled Mike Nichols?
We caught up with Mike as he was on a sales trip, where he is making a living at his day job selling equipment for renewable energy sources. Mike was on the road and as soon as he got to the next town he returned our call. He spoke very respectfully of his competitors and talked about limiting his racing parts to those made in the USA as much as possible. That doesn’t sound like a spoiled man to us.