'Racing nerd' Dave Nicholas makes good as a 'BARC Boy' at Amelia Island

'Racing nerd' Dave Nicholas makes good as a 'BARC Boy' at Amelia Island

Racer Blog

'Racing nerd' Dave Nicholas makes good as a 'BARC Boy' at Amelia Island


ABOVE: Dave Nicholas in Honeybee.

Dave Nicholas is, or at least was, a self-described “racing nerd.” Like many racers, whether behind the wheel or a confirmed “railbird,” he got his start as teenager. In fact, an unlikely event during his youth triggered an undying interest in motorsports, especially the sportscar variety. His older brother was teasing him, as big brothers do, and ended by smacking him on the head with an issue of Sportscar Illustrated before tossing the rolled-up magazine aside. Dave picked it up, thumbed through the pictures, and was hooked. A lifelong love affair with racing ensued.

The year was 1956. In Formula 1, it was the era of Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss. The more Dave perused pictures and read articles, the more he craved more of the same. He eagerly awaited his subscriptions to magazines like Road & Track with thorough event coverage, albeit months after the fact. He could pour over the same article dozens of times, soaking in the details and later eagerly injecting the information into conversations with others – whether the people were interested or not. You can see the nerd label, right?

Inevitably his enthusiasm led him to engage others who shared his interests. He met three young men who became very special friends: Dave Zych, Joe Tierno and Steve Vail. Together they would perform much mischief of the variety that racers understand – like sneaking onto race tracks on off days in their parents’ cars – but more on that later. Residents of Binghamton in rural mid-state New York near the Pennsylvania border, they began attending sportscar races in the northeast and eventually on down the East Coast to Sebring.

The young men talked endlessly about the magazine articles and of course took pictures of racecars. Dave’s father was a photographer and that gave them access to a darkroom. Soon they were generating hundreds of images that swelled into a collection great enough to spawn a club with the four teenagers as founding members. With tongues firmly planted in their cheeks they soon began referring to themselves as, “the BARC Boys.” That was an acronym for the “Binghamton Auto Racing Club,” a clear play on the world-renowned British Auto Racing Club, BARC. Many of the images – like the one at right of Jack Ensley in a Jaguar D-Type at Watkins Glen in 1957 – that the young men captured so long ago survive today and are organized on their website, www.barcboys.com.

The enthusiasm and energy of the four teenagers was abundantly obvious to people a little older and more established in the sportscar racing scene of the northeast in the years following the Korean conflict. In 1958 Dave and his friends met Edwin E.W. “Spanky” Smith, a night shift IBM employee as well as a car owner, pit manager and one of the founders of the Southern New York Region of the SCCA. Smith was an insider who took an interest in the young men. Perhaps he saw a bit of himself in them from not so many years prior. He opened doors for them.

“Spanky became a great friend,” Dave says. “He got us into places the tracks didn’t let people our age enter.”

Smith also introduced them to Jacob Robert Bucher, known as Bob, and one of the top-notch drivers out the northeast. Bucher was destined to build a stout career in sportscar racing, winning several SCCA races on the national level with a Cadillac-powered Allard and Smith’s MGA. Among his contemporaries were Mark Donohue, Roger Penske, Denise McCluggage, Carl Haas and Bob Holbert. Bucher eventually became F Modified National Champion and later entered the Can-Am series with a Lola T70. A world of great racing personalities was opening up to the young men.

The BARC Boys ingratiated themselves to some of the great characters of the era. In 1959 they had the opportunity to crew for Archie Means and Charlie Kurtz at Sebring if they could find their own way south. Steve Vail “borrowed” his grandmother’s car but the BARC Boys only made it to Richmond, Virginia before law enforcement intercepted them. More successful in 1961, they worked as pit signalmen for McCluggage and Saxophonist Allen Eager, who also dabbled in racing. The duo finished 10th overall and took home the GT class win in a dark blue NART Ferrari 250 GT entry. Part of the charm of the BARC Boys was they were willing to do almost anything to be a part of the racing scene.

“We’d sleep outside, in the back of cars, a sleazy hotel,” Dave explains. “It really didn’t matter if we could be involved with racing.”

Their BARC club grew as well. Among their members was none other than two-time Formula 1 champion Graham Hill. That came about as part of one of their visits to Watkins Glen for the United States Grand Prix. In those days The Glen lacked service roads and people with trucks and trailers volunteered their services to haul the racecars up hills to the pit entrance. Never missing a bet, the BARC Boys provided their services to Graham and before the weekend was over he was a member of their club.

Inevitably their passion led to competitive driving – professionally sanctioned or otherwise. They used their parents’ cars to drive out to Watkins Glen and then sneak out onto the track for some “unofficial” practice. Nicholas had a 1957 Ford Interceptor, Tierno a ’54 Cadillac, Zych a ’57 Mercury and Vail a ’51 Mercury. In those days track management stacked piles of telephone poles across the running surface as a deterrent to interlopers. For four sturdy young men wanting to drive fast the barrier was pathetic. They quickly dispensed with the obstacles and set about wheeling their families’ daily drivers at the brink of control.

“The problem was the stock brakes,” Dave says. “We’d do about five laps and they’d give up on us.”

In 1963 Dave got more serious and purchased a 1600 MkII MGA from a dealer named Gordie Morris of Morris Garage. According to Dave, everyone who wanted to go fast in Binghamton went to Morris. That’s where Spanky had bought his MGA.

No surprise, temptation got the better of Dave and he went to The Glen for another “unofficial” test session. This time he got caught. He was banned from the track for a year but returned in 1964 and secured his racing license. He had some good races in regional club events, earning a couple of finishes in the top three.

The car was all stock and over the winter he made some legal modifications such as shaving the head for greater compression and horsepower. In 1965 Dave finished second in the region championship for F Production and earned a national license for 1966. He was fast, winning the pole for his class at Nelson Ledges and had a nice dice with Donna Mae Mims, the first woman to win an SCCA national championship in 1963. Mims ended up winning the race but Dave knew he had been beaten by one of the best.

Dave’s enthusiasm for driving never waivered, but the familiar story of not having enough money proved a huge obstacle. He went to work for the local BMW dealership, Autosport, owned by Czech immigrant Jiri Nechleba. Forget pronouncing his name, people just called him “Jerry” or “Autosport.”

The situation did provide Dave with an outlet for his racing ambitions. Autosport began taking racecars as trade-ins and then entered Dave in regional races. Dave would qualify many of the cars faster than they had ever been driven and win or finish very well in the races. Once proven as competitive, a car’s value increased and Autosport would sell them at a profit.

Dave’s relationship with Autosport led to probably the best opportunity of his racing career. Autosport had ties to BMW executives and was able to secure a level of support from the manufacturer, although nothing official was ever announced. In 1972 Dave found himself partnered with Formula Vee standout John MaGee in a BMW 1600 for the new Camel GT series race at Watkins Glen. Dave drove the first stint and was leading comfortably in his class until a pit miscalculation ran him out of fuel. Regardless, their performance pumped up his enthusiasm for 1973.

Autosport’s team entered the touring class for 2.5-liter cars in Camel GT. Partnering with MaGee, Dave won at Lime Rock, Mid-Ohio and Road Atlanta to take the 1973 class championship. At the close of the season the BMW factory officially entered the sport – but with another team. It was a decision made far away in the German headquarters, leaving Autosport behind.

Over the next few years Dave entered a variety of races when opportunities presented themselves. He drove a BMW in IMSA Rally Sport races and raced a 366 cubic inch V8 Chevy Nova in 1975 and ’76 at Shangri La Speedway. His last appearance in a Camel GT race came in 1981 at Pocono in a Mercury Capri. He was not competitive and faded away from race driving.

Dave turned to the reality of making a living and prospered as first an art instructor and then a leading salesman for Electrolux. He relocated across the country numerous times establishing sales regions and building up their customer base. In 1996 he made a bold change and helped found the Xterra, the global off-road triathlon and trail running series. He has a residence in Hawaii but spends much of his time in the continental United States.

At least part of the reason he is frequently in North America is that in 2012 Dave decided the time was right to return to racing. Sportscar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) racing and select other vintage events appeared like the way to go. Remembering his earliest days he began looking for the right MGA.

“I actually started shopping around in 2010,” Dave explains. “It wasn’t just finding the car I was comfortable with but also understanding the vintage scene. Friends had encouraged me and the more I ventured out, the more I saw the camaraderie. I knew it was right for me.”

Dave landed on a 1960 MGA in 2012. He took it to a test day at Lime Rock and promptly blew the engine. He got enough laps in to build up to speed and convince himself he could be comfortable racing a car after his long layoff of 21 years. Never discouraged, Dave sought out MG expert Kent Prather and purchased one of his motors.

“We changed out everything,” Dave shares. “We installed new brakes, brake and fuel lines, wiring, radiator.”

By this time Bob Schoeplein, a friend and the former owner of Dave’s car, had nicknamed it “Honeybee” because of its bright yellow color scheme. The nickname somehow fits with the jovial demeanor of the car’s owner – Dave likes to relax with Cuban cigars and Yuengling beers at the end of the day. On the track, the fun-loving driver who has a jiggling hula dancer figurine mounted to Honeybee’s dashboard (pictured, TOP) is all business.

Good proof of that is that results for the reconditioned Honeybee proved immediate. Dave scored a Group 1 win in just his second outing in 2013, the SVRA weekend at New Jersey Motorsports Park. Even better, he pulled it off with a last lap pass. Later he went to the SVRA event at Rockingham and won both of the weekend’s Group 1 races. He closed out the season at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) by coming home third to win the season championship for his class.

The highlight of his 2014 season was a win in the Group 1 feature race of the Lime Rock Historics. The low point came at the SVRA go at The Glen where he burned a piston.

Dave and Honeybee came back in 2015 with a vengeance. They scored four victories and a second in SVRA competition at Sebring, Road America and VIR. He also won all four races Honeybee was eligible for at the Lime Rock Historics. His 2016 SVRA season is off to a strong start as he enters the first Amelia Island Gran Prix with another sweep of both Group 1 contests at Sebring earlier this month.

There can be little doubt this BARC Boy is back in touch with his roots and has found a new home at the wheel of Honeybee.

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