'Dyno Don' Nicholson dies at age 78

Updated: January 24, 2006, 10:10 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

When Don Nicholson, better know as "Dyno Don" to drag racing fans the world over, died Tuesday morning at age 78, it signaled a bittersweet conclusion to a hot-rodding career which spanned five decades and will forever be acknowledged as a key element of the power-crazed factory racing frenzy of the 1960s and '70s.

Those who are old enough to remember will recall the heady era of Super Stock and Factory Experimental drag racing 40 years ago which laid the foundation for today's Funny Cars and Pro Stock machines. "Dyno Don" was an integral part of that explosive period in drag racing's growth with a memorable string of racecars -- Chevrolets first, followed by Fords and Mercurys -- bearing the bold block letters spelling "Dyno Don" on each door.

His incredible winning record on the quarter-mile, including his 1977 NHRA Pro Stock World Championship, will be his lasting legacy, but in a deeper sense, it is how he helped to popularize the then-emerging sport of drag racing and how his colorful nickname and crowd-pleasing showmanship drew enthusiastic fans to an endless mosaic of racetracks from coast to coast define the "Dyno Don" legend.

The NHRA was years away from providing a comprehensive national event schedule when Nicholson was gaining prominence. Rather than the mega-media extravaganzas upon which professional drag racing now draws its life, Nicholson's stage was the match race circuit, where local track owners and race promoters promised fans genuine, no-holds-barred, head-to-head grudge races fueled by the intense rivalry that was Detroit during the Muscle Car Era.

The racecars themselves were brutish, hairy-chested nightmares built by instinct rather than sophisticated technology and requiring a firm hand and razor-sharp reflexes to master. Many a fan was thrilled by the fearless bravado of "Dyno Don" as he power-shifted his racecars down the dragstrip, lifting the front wheels with every gear change and giving every onlooker in the crowded grandstands more than their money's worth.

As the years passed, Nicholson continued to race, although his advancing years and declining health reduced his ability to commit to a full-time schedule. After building an exhibition 1962 Chevrolet nostalgia entry during the mid-1990s, and making stops at several NHRA events and Super Chevy Shows around the country, "Dyno Don" retired from the driver's seat and his death at age 78 on Tuesday came as tragic news to his legion of loyal fans.

"Dyno Don" represented what many have called drag racing's "Golden Age" and those fortunate enough to have watched him race and win over his Hall of Fame career will remember this great driver for many years to come.