Former Indy Racing League engine builder Mickey Nickos has died unexpectedly, according to his son Dale, who worked alongside the Chicago-based horsepower guru during the IRL’s infancy.
Through their family-run NAC Engines business, the short-track and dirt-racing motor specialists built a loyal customer base in the Midwest. With the IRL’s move to production-based, naturally-aspirated V8 engines in 1997, Nickos was given an opportunity to apply his knowledge gained with late models and sprint cars to Tony George’s all-oval open-wheel series.
Short, burly, and bearded, Nickos looked like he was destined from birth to become an engine builder. His thick, powerful hands, were rarely far from the motors he assembled; in the last era where IndyCar engines were owned by the teams and could be opened and cared for as desired, the NAC founder kept busy trackside by directly tending to the powerplants that wore his company’s name.
“He was definitely an innovative guy in an era of Ed Pink and Menards and bunch of well-funded engine builders,” said IndyCar team owner Sam Schmidt, who was powered by NAC engines at Blueprint Racing and LP Racing during his abbreviated IRL career.
“Here was a guy who had a really small shop — him and his son Dale — and wanted to win like all of us, but had to do it with considerably less money. For the better part of two years, we managed to compete in the IRL with a total rotation of two engines. It sounds ridiculous. He was extremely generous; almost worked for free. The world has lost a true original, a racer, and one of the classic characters.”
Nickos played a central role in one of all-time greatest upsets in IndyCar history. Facing the IRL titans at Menards Racing, whose in-house Oldsmobile V8 engine program powered Tony Stewart to the 1997 championship, and well-established IndyCar engine builders at Brayton Engineering and Speedway Engines, the tiny NAC outfit gave the even smaller Blueprint Racing team Jim Guthrie owned a clear power advantage at the dawn of the IRL’s new chassis and engine formula.
Pitted against Stewart, A.J. Foyt Racing, Cheever Racing, Galles Racing, Scandia Racing, Treadway Racing, and other imposing teams in early 1997, Guthrie appeared at the Phoenix 200 IRL event with his unsponsored yellow Dallara-Oldsmobile that was prepared in a shop behind his Chicago-area house.
The epic tale of Guthrie’s shoestring Blueprint team was memorialized at the time by the late and legendary Los Angeles times motorsports journalist Shav Glick.
“His crew isn’t paid a dime. His car doesn’t even have a spare engine. He has no major sponsor,” Glick wrote, before uncorking an epic quote from Guthrie following the Phoenix win.
“I was going to thank my sponsor after the race, the way all the winners do, but then I realized I didn’t have one,” Guthrie said.
With large NAC Engines stickers emblazoned on the rear wing end plates of Guthrie’s No. 27 Indy car to help provide value, in part, where outright cash was lacking, the team started off the 1997 season at Walt Disney World in Orlando, where the Blueprint co-owner used the horsepower advantage to earn a top-six finish. The strong result, as Glick reported, made driving across the country to Arizona for the Phoenix race a possibility.
“To get the car ready for this year’s opening race, Guthrie’s father borrowed against a $20,000 IRA to pay for insurance and living expenses in Orlando,” he wrote. “The rest of the money– a Dallara costs $263,000 — came from friends who paid $5,000 each for a share of the team, plus $30,000 each from the Santa Ana and Mescalero Apache tribes in New Mexico.”
Guthrie’s hand-to-mouth operation was never expected to topple the IRL’s finest after what was considered a fluke sixth-place run in Florida.
“The money got us there and we paid (the IRA loan) back with the check ($63,250) we got for sixth place,” Guthrie said.
After pulling off the once-in-a-lifetime win with Guthrie, the Nickos family was inundated as several IRL teams came knocking. Future 1999 IRL champion Greg Ray and others would rely on Nickos to give their smaller programs a fighting chance against the IRL’s original heavyweights. NAC’s presence in the series would taper off by the end of the decade, though, as boutique engine builders fell out of favor when the likes of Katech, Ilmor, and other firms invested heavily in motor development.
“I have nothing but praise for Mickey and his family,” Guthrie told RACER. “He was a simple genius who never got the accolades he deserved. So soft-spoken, but such a genius. I’ve built engines and know a lot about it, and he was in a different league. What he did for me — oh my goodness.
“We went and tested at Phoenix before that race, and I said the motor was flat, had no torque. I asked if he could do some new cams, and he and Bruce Crower talked, and came up with a different design. He calls me after testing them on the dyno and says, ‘Man, we lost some power.’ I said, ‘But did you gain torque?’ He said, ‘Oh yeah, like 70 pounds.’ I said, ‘That’s what we need to smoke ’em’ … and we did that day.”
Warm, with a ready smile and story to share, Nickos will be remembered for sending a message that, in George’s new alternative to the CART IndyCar Series, giants could be slayed without using the most expensive weapons.