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Driven to the Past: Watching a Part of History…

When the NASCAR cars came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the now famous Goodyear tire test back in the ’90s, I told one of my co-workers at Indianapolis Raceway Park that I’d seen stock cars run on that track before. He thought I was talking about the IROC test, but I told him it was in November of 1961.

As a 23-year-old race nut living in Louisville, I was on a trip to Indy for some reason, and I stopped by the Speedway museum. In those days, it was a lot smaller, taking up one wing of the old headquarters building at 16th & Georgetown – but it was still neat.

I heard cars going through the first turn, and asked about it. They didn’t sound like Offies.

“Some kind of test going on,” I was told.

I went up in the grandstand, and sure enough, here comes two 1962 Pontiacs roaring down the front straightaway. The first a burgundy car with a white top, obviously a NASCAR stocker, and the second also set up the same way but in a black-and-white paint scheme with a little red light on top. Fastest police car I ever saw.

I managed to wangle my way into the garage and then the pit area and found out what was going on. Ray Nichels and his Nichels Engineering crew were doing a 24-hour endurance run. Ray had a big testing business, and he wanted to show that his cars could run faster and further than any in history.

I had read about the Stevens Challenge Trophy, which was awarded to those who set a record for a 24-hour run at IMS in a stock car. The last run had been by Chrysler in 1954, with Tony Bettenhausen, Pat O’Connor and Bill Taylor driving. I’m willing to bet those were also NASCAR cars, with the early hemi engines.

I’ve since learned through a friend on trackforum.com that the trophy was officially retired after the Chrysler run, but that didn’t deter Ray.

Incidentally, if there is ANYTHING you’d like to know about the Brickyard, go to that website and ask away in one of the forums. I guarantee you can find out anything, down to who put the sparkplugs in the car that ran last in any given year.

Drivers for the 1961 run were Paul Goldsmith, Joe Weatherly, Rodger Ward, Len Sutton, Marvin Panch and Fireball Roberts. Getting to meet those guys was the thrill of a lifetime, and I even got to carry some tires around.

The 24-hour attempt started at 3:00 p.m. that cold, dreary November day, with the Catalina and what Pontiac called the Police Enforcer carrying the ball from a standing start. On the second lap, Goldsmith set a new stock car one-lap record of 118.953 mph.

Not too much later, his throttle stuck headed into turn 4, and he slid along the wall, destroying the right-front tire and bending a lot of sheetmetal.

The choices were to start all over after repairing the car, or do a Chad Knaus number and work on it during pit stops.

After talking things over with three of his mechanical brain trust – Tiny Worley, Bud Moore and Cotton Owens (the team also included Smokey Yunick and Banjo Matthews), Ray decided to get the car in running order as soon as possible and work on a specific area on each pit stop. First on the list was the headlights, of course.

I left about that time.

The first pit stop was four minutes and 47 seconds.

Over in the police cruiser, Fireball knocked out a lap at 122.132 on the 205th lap.

Rain came at 4:00 a.m. The Nichels team’s long involvement with the tire companies paid off as they went to a softer compound. The last 11 hours were run in the rain, with snow and sleet at times.

When it was all over, the Police Enforcer had averaged 107.787 mph, covering 2,586-plus miles. Ward was at the wheel at the end of the run. Sutton brought the Catalina in with 2,576-plus miles at 107.343, coming within 10 miles of making up the deficit from the long pit stops.

Why a police car? Well, even then manufacturers were interested in selling cars to law enforcement agencies, and Pontiac knew that the International Association of Chiefs of Police was having its annual convention in Indianapolis. They were of course invited out to the Speedway to view the run.

Kind of ironic that until the 1990s, the track record for a stock car at IMS was held by a police cruiser.

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