'Dyno Don,' factory drag racing and Cougar Eliminator
Q: Greg, what a great article in our paper's Car Collector Corner. I was stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina from 1962 to 1964, and the nearby town of Fayetteville, N.C. used to have an outlaw drag strip where on several occasions "Dyno Don" Nicholson showed up to thrill the crowds.
I remember his cars totally to this day. When I heard his car under power and saw the huge power under a very light car, I got and still get goose bumps from the thunder he used to make. Wheelies were big then and he thrilled the crowd with many of them over the two-years I saw him while stationed there.
"Dyno Don" was truly a great showman. This experience with him was my introduction to big power machines and even at my current age of 71, I remember it all well. When I got out of the Army in 1964 and moved to L.A. Don Gartlits was big then, along with Stone, Woods & Cook AA/Gas Willys Gassers, which were gorgeous cars with beautiful paint and body work. Those cars made huge ponies for that time in history. But "Dyno Don" I will always remember.
I always read your Sunday column and enjoy the wide variety of vehicles that you have chosen over the years as your weekly choice. Keep up the excellent columns. Jim Corcoran, Sagle, ID.
A: Jim, thanks much! I also remember "Dyno Don" Nicholson in person, as he was the first ever touring pro in the super stock class with his 1961 Chevy Impala 409. His history is legendary, and when you saw him near Fort Bragg from 1962 to 1964, you no doubt saw his '62 409 Chevy BelAir, 63 Z-11 A/FX Chevy Impala. However, due to Chevy backing out of racing, his switch to Mercury and the numerous Comet factory sponsored cars and wagons found him with Lincoln-Mercury in 1964. He would then join the ranks of funny car stars, thanks to his Mercury sponsored 1966 Comet nitro car.
After surviving several funny car nitro explosions and a few on track mishaps, Nicholson's 1968 Eliminator Cougar funny car would be his last, as he moved back to safer Ford and Mercury Super Stock style door slammers he started with in 1961. He also helped usher in the new NHRA Pro Stock category, always behind the wheel of Ford products until 1984, when he drove an Oldsmobile for one season only and then retired.
Along the way, Mercury produced a Don Nicholson tribute Cougar, called "The Eliminator" option, which appeared in 1969 and 1970. Engines included a Boss 302, 351 Cleveland, 390 (in 1969 only) and the powerful 428 Cobra Jet. These cars today command top dollar, especially in Boss 302 and Cobra Jet 428 dress. A Boss 429 appeared on some option lists, but only two were produced, one for Nicholson and one for teammate Ed Schartman.
After competing again in 1988 in nostalgia style Pro Stock/Pro Mod cars, his health and mental capabilities faltered, and he passed away from Alzheimer's on Jan. 24, 2009 at the age of 78.
Thanks much for your letter on "Dyno Don," and your kind words.
(Greg Zyla is a syndicated auto columnist and welcomes reader questions on collector cars, old-time motorsports and auto nostalgia at 116 main St., Towanda, Pa. 18840 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org).