Before the season even began, the man who would ultimately be crowned Super Chevy's 2002 Nitro Coupe Champion already had a very impressive drag racing career under his belt. Dan Nickelson started competing back in the mid-'60s with a 275-horse, 327-powered '66 Chevelle. For the next three years, Dan developed his skills on the quarter-mile running brackets and D/Stock Eliminator at Irwindale, Fontana, Lions, and other Southern California tracks. Next, he stepped up and purchased a brand-new, "no-options" '69 Chevelle SS. This one was campaigned in Super Stock, and Dan won the AHRA World Finals in 1973, stopping the clocks with e.t.'s in the 10.80s.
However, the car that made him famous on a national level was the absolutely awesome Nickelson & Lemond AA/Altered '62 Corvette roadster. Having quickly gained respect within the Competition Eliminator ranks, the topless Vette sported a supercharged 430-inch big-block Chevy, and captured the 1989 NHRA World Finals, carding times in the 7.40s at over 180 mph. This thing was a real crowd favorite. The team even held the NHRA speed record for two years after the car was sold in 1990!
Following the success of the topless Corvette, Dan and his crew decided they wanted to go faster. With aspirations of mixing it up in the West Coast Pro Mod series, a '94 Chevy Beretta was built. The switch proved successful, as the team landed in the Top 10. But it was 1999 when Nickelson decided to put some "pop" in the tank and headed for the Super Chevy Nitro Coupe wars. After learning (the hard way) what this new combination required for its fuel (30 percent nitromethane, 70 percent methanol) and clutch application, Dan guided the juggernaut to a fifth-place finish. The learning curve continued in 2000, and again in 2001, although the connecting rods were exiting the block every four or five passes (ouch).
Needless to say, lots of fuel system R&D was in order between the 2001 and 2002 seasons. And as they say, "knowledge is power." For Nickelson and crew, truer words were never spoken. Some of the newfound knowledge made the switch to Top Fuel-style connecting rods an immediate necessity. Looking back on the 46,000-mile, 2002 tour, they dropped a valve in Virginia and nipped a piston here and there. You might say they got a handle on their tune-up, and in doing so, dominated the competition by a tenth of a second, on average.
I asked Dan a few questions over a bottomless pot of coffee in a LaVerne, California, restaurant, and we gabbed almost non-stop, like the blower-car junkies that we are.
SC: What made you decide to switch from Competition Eliminator to Pro Mod?DN: "I got tired of the whining from the Comp guys. On the Corvette, we made innovative changes to cool the air or fuel, and NHRA always outlawed our changes. Plus, Pro Mod was heads-up-"run whatcha brung."
SC: What was the most difficult part of the learning curve?DN: "The fuel system and the clutch threw us a curve ball on a regular basis. Our old blown gas Comp motor wanted to run lean, so we'd take fuel away from it in order to build heat [heat equals horsepower]. On the other hand, our first Pro Mod combination needed more fuel, because the alcohol motor ran so much cooler."
SC: When planning your yearly racing budget, do you calculate an average "costper run?" If so, approximately what does that amount to?DN: "Well, figuring five passes per event-100 runs per season-fuel, parts, oil, etc.--it's about $600 per run. But, adding in hotels [for the crew], it's actually more like $800 per run. However, last year we didn't hurt a lot of parts, so we were able to keep our costs in check."
SC: Can a Nitro Coupe be run so it's "easy on parts" and still be competitive?DN: "Like with our initial learning curve, the key lies with the fuel system and the clutch. Last year, we ran several 6-teens and never hurt a bearing."
SC: Since Nitro Coupes are only allowed to run with one promoter (AutoStar), as mandated by NHRA, are you able to attract sponsorship, parts, and support assistance on the same level as the Pro Mods or Alcohol cars have?DN: In my opinion, [the Nitro Coupes] don't get enough exposure to attract sponsors. If Pro Mod were to become an actual NHRA professional class, I'd be back in a heartbeat. Payouts for the NHRA invitational Pro Mod series are not much more than we can earn at Super Chevy events."
SC: Which track is your favorite, and why?DN: "Maple Grove Raceway [just outside Reading, Pennsylvania]. It's a neat track with a great surrounding area. Maple Grove is right in the middle of a bunch of farmland, with rolling hills and tons of Maple trees that give off oxygen. The place has a history of providing great traction and super air."
Nickelson's new car is a '02 Corvette, built by Tom Vandergeld at Lowdown Hot Rods, located in Toronto, Canada. This is the same shop that built Gary Irving's '37 Chevy Nitro Coupe. The Corvette rides on a 115-inch wheelbase, and features a four-link rear suspension, as opposed to a "swing-arm," made famous recently with the Pro Mod crowd. The accompanying facts and figures will show you a bit about Dan's proven combination for power.
For a good part of his 2002 season, Dan suffered from nagging back problems. Well, maybe the word nagging doesn't really explain how bad it was. Dan told us that back pain not only affected his reaction times, it also caused numbness in his legs (!). Diagnosed with a herniated disc, Dan's doctors removed some floating particles and repaired the disc, following the season-ending event in Las Vegas. And after countless trips to what some people call the "Physical Terrorist," Nickelson felt good as new, and ready to challenge all comers in defense of his 2002 crown.