The Shadow of his Smile

shadow-dn2

I remember the photo on the cover. It was the August 1969 issue of Road & Track magazine. Pictured is a slender, bearded man with a receding hairline. He is wearing a dark two piece suit and a skinny black tie. He is gazing downward and smiling. At his feet is a prototype of the flattest, lowest profile race car you have ever seen. It is the original Shadow Mk. I and man photographed beside it is its owner, Don Nichols.

Mind you, the concept was not his own. A 31 year-old designer named Trevor Harris conceived of the idea and Nichols decided to finance it. Nichols was a virtual unknown in the southern California racing scene at this time. He was a former Military Intelligence officer who had made his fortune in Japan. He had been a major motorsports figure over there, importing tires and parts, even promoting racing.

To achieve the ultra-low stance, the Shadow needed small (but wide) racing tires which Nichols convinced Firestone to make for him. The project generated a ton of publicity but the concept didn’t really work. The Shadow was entered in a handful of races in 1970 but failed to finish any of them. What was essentially a go-cart with a fuel injected Chevrolet V-8 engine, rocketed down straightaways and resisted turning. The Mk. I was parked before the season ended.

For 1971, Nichols hired two Englishmen who had proven track records. Designer Peter Bryant would pen and construct an all new Shadow and Formula One ace Jackie Oliver would drive it. The Mk. II had bigger wheels than the original but smaller than their competition. Other than that, the rest of the racer was pretty conventional. Nichols also procured Universal Oil Products (UOP) as a sponsor. It was an association that would forever link them with the Shadow racing team. The Bryant/Oliver effort was competitive from the get-go but failed to finish many races.

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By their third year racing, the Shadow Team had abandoned the small tire concept. The Mk. III was the Mk. II chassis reworked and fitted with normal size tires. Bryant and Oliver continued to run up front but couldn’t win and still suffered reliability issues.
Aspiring to race Formula One and feeling an obligation to his sponsor, changes were mandated for 1973. Nichols retained Oliver but released Bryant and moved his entire operation to England. There he employed the services of Tony Southgate to design a new sports racer as well as a Formula One car. The team had been experimenting with a twin turbo charged engine for the two-seater and Southgate designed the DN2 with that in mind. Unfortunately that engine was never fully developed so the new Shadow was forced to soldier on with a weight disadvantage. The results were predictable; Oliver remained competitive but zero victories were achieved. Meanwhile Shadow’s Formula One debut (DN1) in which Oliver also contested along with original Shadow pilot George Follmer, fared better. Both drivers captured third place finishes in an inaugural season filled with ups and downs.

Southgate refined his two seater design around the normally aspirated Chevrolet for ’74 and produced Nichols’ first winner. Oliver and Follmer dominated the final season of unrestricted sports racer competition, frequently bringing their DN4’s home first and second.

The team’s fortunes in Formula One were mixed. There were successes like when Jean-Pierre Jarier captured the pole position for the first two races in 1975. Brit Tom Pryce won a non-championship race for the team in ’75 but then was killed driving a Shadow in the South African Gran Prix two years later. Aussie Alan Jones claimed Shadow’s only Formula One victory in Austria in 1977 then left the team to drive for Williams. Both Oliver (who had stepped out of the driver’s seat and was now in a management role) and Southgate left Shadow at the end of that year as well, to form a team of their own. Ultimately Shadow lost UOP as their sponsor and by 1980 they were struggling just to make the starting grid. Late in the ’80 season, Chinese businessman Teddy Yip simply absorbed the Shadow team with his own and Don Nichols was out of racing.

Thirty six years later, the only place you’re able to watch a Shadow race car at speed is at a historic racing event like the Monterey Motorsports Reunion. Here, there are a surprising number of Shadows, between the sports racers and Formula One cars, they total nine.

But a bigger surprise still, is when we find Don Nichols himself hunkered down in a lounge chair in the Mk II’s pit. At ninety three, he is content to sit in the sunshine and simply soak in the atmosphere. On his face is a knowing smile, not unlike the smile that appeared on the cover of that magazine so many years ago. Out on the racecourse, a pair of DN4’s are pulling away from the field…

don-nichols

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