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Unseen Vintage Photos from the Life of Dyno Don Nicholson
Dyno Don Nicholson was the consummate drag racer, and his crew chief, Jon Kaase, probably knew him as well as any man. Kaase came aboard at just the right time, helping Dyno win the 1977 NHRA Pro Stock championship. Kaase says, “He was my hero. I sometimes wonder what I’d be doing if we hadn’t connected at the SEMA Show in 1976.” Soon after the show, Kaase moved to Southern California, went to work with Dyno, and the pair spent practically every day of the next three years on the road together. As you can imagine, Kaase has a few stories.
In looking back, the drag racing world was a different place in the 1970s. “It’s a lot different today than it was back then,” Kaase says. “You have to remember there were no data loggers or other electronic stuff. We didn’t even run our engines on the dyno. Jenkins was probably the only racer who ran his stuff on the dyno. At the track, your only feedback was the e.t. and trap speed. They didn’t even have 60-foot times. You had to be a real racer to know what to do. Good racers really stood out.
“Dyno had decent parts, but they wouldn’t stay together” Kaase says. “My job was just to make sure they stayed together. I remember right after I started, the car was at [Dyno’s] shop in Orange, California. We loaded up the truck and trailer and I had four days to get to Gainesville. Dyno flew, so I had to drive by myself. There was barely enough time to get there, and that meant I couldn’t stop and sleep. [This combination] must have worked because we won our first race at the Gatornationals.”
The entire NHRA Pro Stock season in 1977 was only 12 races long, which left plenty of time for match racing. In the early days after his initial 1961 Winter- nationals Stock eliminator victory, Dyno began match racing, and while he kept his home in California, he moved to Atlanta to be closer to the heart of match race country. Dyno built a string of A/FX cars that eventually culminated in the Eliminator I Mercury Comet flip-top, nitro-injected machine that would soon be termed a Funny Car. Dyno was one of those rare racers who ventured down the path that eventually became the fiberglass nitro-fed Funny Cars only to return to carburetors and gasoline. When asked about his redirection from the nitro cars, Dyno merely said, “Too many of my friends were getting hurt driving those things.” It would be a fortuitous decision.
By mid-1969, Bill Jenkins, Sox & Martin, and a few others who were match racing hopped up Super Stockers with Dyno, who was driving a 427ci Cammer-powered Mustang that also ran in NHRA A/Modified Production. When NHRA created Pro Stock in 1970, Dyno showed up at the Winternationals with a Mustang, but he was overwhelmed (along with everybody else) by the juggernaut Mopar army.
Fast forwarding to 1977, Kaase says that soon after he arrived at the Gatornationals with Dyno’s car, fellow Pro Stock racer Wally Booth pulled him aside and told him that Dyno was a “diamond in the rough. He’s talented, he just needs help to win.” Wally’s words couldn’t have been more prophetic, as the team went on to capture the 1977 NHRA Pro Stock Championship on the strength of two more wins at the Springnationals and the U.S. Nationals at Indy. Dyno also took home the coveted Car Craft Ollie Award that same year.
While those indelible wins against the best Pro Stock racers of the day are now a solid part of history, they tell us very little about the man behind the wheel. Kaase says, “Dyno would talk to anybody. I remember a time in 1974. I was racing a Super Stock Mustang. Dyno just walked up and asked me about the track. I thought, Why are you asking me? He was that way.”
Match Race Madness
Jon Kaase may have only spent a couple of years as Dyno Don’s crew chief, but there’s one story that is perhaps indicative of life on the road with Dyno.
“We left Atlanta on Sunday morning headed to Suffolk, Virginia, for a match race, and we were runnin’ late. We were always leaving late. I was driving and Dyno had just bought this new Ford F-250 truck. We’d been on the road for a few hours and there was this guy driving a Gremlin and I kinda cut him off. Later I was watching the mirrors and I told Dyno, ‘Here he comes—you know what he’s gonna do—he’s gonna pull in front of us and slam on his brakes.’
“Dyno said, ‘If he does, hit ’em!’ “I didn’t have to be told twice. Sure enough, that guy comes blastin’ around us, hits his brakes, and I hit him pretty hard and he went flyin’ up ahead of us and then pulled off. I just kept going. We had a race to make. Farther up the road, we were approaching Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and we could see these two highway patrol cars sitting at the top of the hill. I told Dyno, ‘You know who those guys are waitin’ for.’
“We pulled off and they escorted us into town and took us right to the jail to see the magistrate. The guy with the Gremlin was there, too. It turned out the magistrate was a drag racing fan. He looked at the guy with the Gremlin and said, ‘Son, do you know who this man is? That’s Dyno Don Nicholson!’ We both still had to pay a fine, though. We missed the match race, too.”
The Alpine Slide
In another example, Kaase tells a story of how sometimes amusement parks were more dangerous that drag racing. “We were on our way to another match race somewhere in Maine or New Hampshire, and we had some time. We were in Connecticut, I think, and found this ski resort that had an Alpine slide. It was like one of those bobsled runs that are normally covered in ice. This was summer, and it was a cement channel track shaped like a one-third round tube. They had these little karts, like a bobsled with wheels. You lay down on this thing and it just takes off down the tube. Dyno was in front of me. If you went full speed, the tube wouldn’t hold you and would spit you right out. Well, Dyno hit the first turn flat out, and he went flyin’ out of the tube. His kart stayed in the track, and he realized that he had a long walk down if he didn’t catch that kart, so he started runnin’…you know what happens if you run too fast downhill, right? He made it a little ways and then started tumbling down the hill upside down and all that. I thought he was dead, but he got back up and finally had to start limping down the hill. That would have killed a normal guy, but not Dyno. We made it to the match race that night and he was still limping, but he had a great time tellin’ everybody the story.”
The Rest of the Story
They say life is a circle. If so, then even as a drag racer, Dyno Don’s history formed the classic circle. He started his legacy behind the wheel of a Chevrolet winning Top Stock at the 1961 NHRA Winternationals. Later, he was instrumental in helping Ford become a dominant player in A/FX and had one of the first flip-top Funny Cars driving for Mercury. After his return to carburetors and gasoline, Don was one of Ford’s earliest Pro Stock pioneers, giving the Blue Oval its first NHRA Pro Stock win in 1971 at the Summernationals. He continued to race Pro Stock until 1980, later attempting a comeback in 1984 with an Oldsmobile before retiring from Pro Stock at age 57. But that didn’t mean he quit racing. To complete the circle, Dyno returned to his match racing roots with an all-aluminum, W-motored 1962 bubbletop Chevy before retiring well into his seventies. Dyno passed away in 2006 at age 78, but his story lives on.