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Don Nicholson and the Hottest 1961 Chevrolet Impala

From the Archives: Top Super Stock

Drew Hardin Sep 21, 2016 0 Comment(s)
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Not long after winning the Stock Eliminator trophy at the inaugural Winternationals in 1961, Don Nicholson was back at the dragstrip with his Impala. The editors of Motor Life magazine had invited him to Riverside Raceway to see what it was like to drive “the hottest stock drag racer in the country” and also learn from Nicholson what made the car so fast. “His best time (although he didn’t run this fast while winning) was 109.48 mph in 13.19 seconds,” wrote the magazine’s Wayne Thomas, “a speed which rocked the spectators no more than if a DC-3 had broken the sound barrier.”

A big factor in Nicholson’s success at Pomona was Chevy’s brand-new 409. “The 409 is Chevrolet’s newest, hottest, and biggest-ever engine,” Thomas wrote, “a bored and stroked successor to their highly successful 348-inch mill.” Southern California Chevy performance guru Bill Thomas had ordered a fresh 409 from the factory—“one of the very first on the West Coast,” said the magazine—and Nicholson spent a few days going over the motor, making what few modifications were allowed under NHRA’s stock-class rules.

Though he could have bored the block as much as 0.060 over, Nicholson opted instead to just “hone the cylinders for clearance,” said Thomas. The reciprocating assembly was balanced, valves were ground, and the four-barrel carb was rebuilt to “enrich the mixture at the top end.” Jerry Jardine provided headers that “are worth 20 extra hp at the rear wheels on the 348-inch engine, probably a bit more on the bigger mill,” Thomas said. “Strangely enough, the best power results have been obtained with header tubing 1/8-inch diameter smaller than the 1-3/4-inch exhaust ports.”

We were surprised to learn that Nicholson did all this work on the engine before he had a car to put it in. Don Steves, “a racing enthusiast and Chevrolet dealer in nearby La Habra, was fast-talked into furnishing the car, a brand-new stripped Impala that originally contained a 348-inch engine,” Thomas wrote. It also was equipped with an aluminum-case four-speed manual out of a Corvette and a Positraction rearend with 4.56 gears.

Nicholson swapped the engines on the Wednesday before the event’s Friday start and also modified the Impala’s suspension, raising the front an inch and a half and dropping the rear two inches in the quest for better weight transfer.

Nicholson had just Thursday to sort out the car before racing began Friday. He was edged out in the Super Stock class final by Frank Saunders on Saturday (whose 409 Nicholson had tuned), and then turned around and beat Saunders on Sunday for Stock Eliminator with a 13.59 e.t. at 105.88.

At Riverside, Nicholson took the magazine guys for a few runs before turning the car over to them for instrumented testing. “Don’s method is to rev the engine to 2,500, then release the clutch, simultaneously feeding as much power as possible just short of wheelspin.” And while the 409’s power peaked at 5,800 rpm, Nicholson found it more effective to shift at 5,200.

Nicholson’s tutoring helped the editors get a best e.t. of 13.9 at 103 mph, not bad considering the Impala was weighed down by test gear and a passenger. “The most remarkable sensation in a remarkable car is acceleration through Second gear,” Thomas wrote. “It takes less than two seconds to peak the engine in Second and seems even shorter; you’re no sooner in it than it’s time to reach for Third.

“There’s no question that this is the most exciting stock domestic we’ve driven to date.”

1961 Chevrolet Impala 409 Engine 2/3

Nicholson transplanted this 409 into the Impala just days before the Winternationals. Note the Jardine custom fenderwell headers.

1961 Chevrolet Impala Don Nicholson 3/3

Nicholson on his way to winning Stock Eliminator at the very first Winternationals in Pomona.

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