“Dyno” Don Nicholson is a household name for countless automotive enthusiasts, but usually Don’s famous nickname isn’t associated with Chevrolet. Rather, Nicholson is known for his amazing drag racing career that occurs mostly behind the wheel of Ford and Mercury models. But as it turns out, Nicholson got his drag racing career started because of Chevrolet. And that famous nickname? That is something he received while he was working at a Chevrolet dealership.
Born May 28, 1927 in Halltown, Missouri, he was for the most part, in Pasadena, California. Nicholson always had a need for speed, and was constantly tinkering on and driving old jalopies as a youngster. Nicholson was right at home acing, as he tried his hand at every type of competition imaginable behind the wheel of a car, including circle-track and land-speed competitions. Though Nicholson could certainly hold his own on the dry lake beds of California, it wasn’t until drag strips started popping up in the area that Nicholson really started to shine.
Although racing was considered merely a hobby in its fledgling years, Nicholson supplemented his need for racing funds by working at the local Service Chevrolet. There, Nicholson earned his famous nickname, as Service Chevrolet was one of only a few service centers that had a chassis dyno. Nicholson quickly caught on to the process of dyno tuning customers’ cars, so much so, that he became known for his abilities.
Working for Service Chevrolet, Nicholson had access to some of the best offerings Chevrolet could offer, including the high-performance Bubbletop Bel Air. In 1961, Nicholson was one of the first people to take order of one of the new 409ci V8-powered Bubbletops, and quickly turned his tuning knowledge and skills into a force to be reckoned with on the track.
In the winter of 1961, behind the wheel of his tuned ’61 Bel Air, Nicholson won the Stock Eliminator class at the Winternationals in Pomona, California. In 1962, Nicholson had a repeat performance. By the time Nicholson won his second Pomona Winternationals, He was getting noticed by, not only performance-minded Service Chevrolet customers, but also from Chevrolet dealerships all over the country.
In 1962, Atlanta, Georgia-based Nalley Chevrolet made a play for Nicholson, offering him a package he couldn’t refuse. Not only was Nicholson offered a dyno-tuning position at the dealership, he was also offered a fully-funded race car, and the promise of money to be made in match racing. In turn, Nicholson moved to Georgia, fully immersing himself in factory-backed racing for Chevrolet.
Unfortunately, Nicholson’s stint with Chevy was short-lived. In 1963, GM pulled from all factory-backed racing in motorsport arenas, essentially stranding Nicholson and many of his fellow factory Chevrolet racers. This is where Ford, who was maintaining its position in factory-backed motorsports at the time, picked up Nicholson as a driver for their Mercury division.
The majority of Nicholson’s remaining drag racing career revolved around Ford and Mercury performance vehicles, including his transition into the newly established Funny Car scene in the mid ’60s and then into Pro Stock racing of the 70s. Nicholson retired in 1980, and then again in 1984 after coming back for one season with a race-prepped Oldsmobile. After his stint with an Oldsmobile, Nicholson return to his Chevy racing roots, campaigning a car similar to his original 409ci V8-powered 1961 Bel Air, in the nostalgia drag racing circuit starting in 1988. Unfortunately, Nicholson passed away in 2006, thus ending the reign of a true professional.