Formula One, Can-Am and F5000 entrant and constructor Don Nichols passed away on August 21, at the age of 92.
Nichols was one of only three Americans ever to field a winning car in a World Championship Formula One Grand Prix—omitting, of course, the 10 years when the Indy 500 was a World Championship counter. Like Dan Gurney and Roger Penske, the other two, he was an ambitious and energetic man who was always looking forward. His Shadow operation existed for less than a decade, yet in that time won races in Formula One and Formula 5000, as well as taking further victories in the Can-Am and winning the last Can-Am championship.
Missouri native Nichols served with the U.S. Army during World War II and the Korean War, then stayed on in Japan after the war, ostensibly as a dealer in Goodyear and Firestone tires. He returned home in 1968 to establish Advanced Vehicle Systems, aiming to tackle the virtually rule-free Can-Am series. Upon signing Trevor Harris to design the first AVS Shadow, Nichols asked him to deliver a car with minimal frontal area for the 1970 season, and this direction led to the marque’s name. What would have less frontal area than a two-dimensional Shadow?
By 1973, Nichols felt ready to take sponsor Universal Oil Products Into F1, and the Tony Southgate-designed DN1 allowed George Follmer to score a point in his F1 debut and stand on the podium after his third GP, but then progress stalled. Peter Revson, signed to lead the team in ’74, was killed in a testing accident before the season’s third race. He was replaced by Welsh comingman Tom Pryce who, along with Jean-Pierre Jarier, gave the team a formidable lineup. Jarier flashed brilliance in the next year’s DN5, qualifying fastest for the season’s first two races before being let down by mechanical failures. Jarier departed at season’s end, leaving Pryce as team leader, but then he died in a freak accident during the South African GP. His replacement, Australian Alan Jones, gave Nichols his long-sought Grand Prix win in Austria later that summer, but that would be the pinnacle of the F1 effort as the team was crippled by crucial staff defections.
The story was brighter in the Can-Am, especially during the 1974 season when Follmer and Jackie Oliver dominated the wide-open series’ final season with DN4s as the Englishman took the title. Nichols filled the void by turning to Formula 5000, then enjoying its highest popularity, but the Southgate-designed, Dodge-powered DN6 was barely a match for the dominant Lola T332s, and Oliver managed but a single win with it in the series’ last season.
In recent years the reclusive Nichols had made himself more visible, attending many vintage races to enjoy seeing his cars racing once again.