An unconventional entrepreneur who built race cars to match

If you were fortunate enough to come of age while following auto racing in the 1960s and 1970s, you have likely heard of Don Nichols. Or if you haven’t, you’re likely familiar with the highly unconventional cars he built for several world-ranked racing series. Nichols, who passed on in 2017, should have had his image in the dictionary next to the word “iconoclast.” A World War II and Korea veteran, who had parachuted into France on D-Day and later was assigned to Army intelligence, Shadow sold Goodyear and Firestone tires in Japan and helped build the Fuji circuit there before returning to the United States and deciding to build cars for the Can-Am Challenge Cup, the fabled no-rules racing series for unlimited sports cars. Befitting his mysterious military career, Nichols appropriately named his cars Shadow. This excellent book of the same name is the benchmark story of the man and his machines, told by a close friend who really cares.

With the high-flying brain of designer Trevor Harris as an asset, Nichols started out in the Can-Am with one of the most insane racing cars ever unleashed in any series. The Shadow Mk. 1 that Nichols’ Advanced Vehicle Systems built in California was literally a go-kart – 10-inch wheels up front, 12-inch at the rear – stuffed with an all-aluminum, fuel-injected big-block Chevrolet engine good for around 900 horsepower. If you think Nichols was crazy, just consider the guys including George Follmer and Vic Elford who actually raced the thing. Before he was done, Nichols won the Can-Am title with Jackie Oliver in the seat, before going on to Formula 5000 and ultimately, Formula 1. Despite the ghastly death of team driver Tom Pryce in 1977, the Shadow team achieved triumph at the pinnacle of racing when future world champion Alan Jones won a soggy Austria round in 1977. Chronicling all of this, then and now, was the esteemed Pete Lyons, a living link to the fabled Can-Am’s history and a cohort of the Shadowman. Nobody buy Lyons, who I was fortunate enough to work with during my Hemmings years, could have pulled off this huge (464 profusely illustrated pages) biography with such authority and affection. This is a great book about the kind of guy this country doesn’t often produce anymore. It’s $99.99 from Evro Publishing and very much worth the admission price.

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