Jim Nicoll - Drag Racing's 'Superman'
By Todd Hutcheson ©

If you have seen the opening of the ABC Wide World of Sports, 'The of Thrill Victory... and the Agony of Defeat', then you've seen Top Fuel driver Jim Nicoll. It was 1970 at the Indy Nationals. The final round, Nicoll vs. Prudhomme and an explosion similar to Don Garlits' March, 1970 transmission explosion. Only this time it was the clutch at 225 mph.

Five days the competition was as hot as the Indiana skies. 'TV' Tommy Ivo, Danny Ongais, Gerry Glenn, Pete Robinson, Marshall Love, and Don Garlits were all left behind the remaining two: Don 'The Snake' Prudhomme and Jim 'Superman' Nicoll.

Prudhomme wanted his second Nationals in a row, but Nicoll had beaten the best and was not in the mood to just hand it over. In the fourth round he faced 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits in his re-built #13, a red light kept Nicoll in the fight to face the 'Snake'.

Prudhomme had low ET for the day at 6.43. Nicoll was a Pro's-pro and to him the race is never over until the cash was handed over. There was no fooling around, they just staged and got to it. Maybe because it was so damn hot outside that going 230 mph seemed like a great way of cooling off.

The start had Nicoll in a slight advantage. At the 1000 foot mark it was almost even. At the timing traps Nicoll's clutch let loose and cut the dragster in half, reminiscent of the Garlits Lions incident earlier in March. Only Jim Nicoll was traveling at 225 mph. Nicoll in the driver's cage, bouncing over the guardrail into the soft grass, slowed by the parachute, Jim was lucky he didn't lose his foot. The other half, engine and front half with front wheels, slid around the track in front of Prudhomme's until it hit the sand trap at the very end. Don Prudhomme won with a 6.45 at 230.78 mph.

Don Prudhomme was emotionally upset, and wanted to quit racing. All he could see was half of Jim's dragster without the Jim Nicoll half. They have always been close friends and Don was deeply hurt by the sight of only half a dragster sliding in circles in front of him at 225 mph. The sight stayed with him for years and years.
Jim had landed safely into the grassy area with a swollen right foot and concussion. He was rushed to the hospital.


The most copied clutch in racing, the original "Crowerglide" incorporates a completely centrifugal design and is totally adjustable. It was the industries first real slipper clutch, which is why it is so prevalent in racing today.

Jim looks back and explains it all. "I was still in the experimental stage with a Crowerglides (Centrifugal CrowerGlides clutches) and had some bad heat treating in one of the stands to the clutch. It broke and came loose and cut the car in half. There were six bolts that held the pressure plate and the disc in; there were not enough pieces left to examine, but that's what we calculated". Jim remembers just before it let go, "I could feel the clutch slip a little bit, Prudhomme and I were about side by side, so I kept my foot in it, it exploded cutting the car in half. Lucky I had my hand on the parachute handle and it came out. All I had was a swollen right foot and concussion, not like Garlits had."

When TC Lemons saw the accident he remarked "That's why we call him Superman." At about this same time Team Garlits was assembling the parts for the Swamp Rat 14 between racing obligations.


Don Prudhomme on Jim Nicoll's Crash

Prudhomme remembers, "Back in those days we were traveling around with Jim Nicoll, the 'Mongoose' and Garlits, the 'Greek' Karamesines - all the guys running a lot of match races all over the country. Going to the U.S. Nationals was the end of our season, ya know. We were all beat and wore out at that point. It was like the last bat at the World Series."

"Jim's car was very fast that day, at one point we were neck and neck. I would move a little ahead of him and he would move a little ahead of me, all of a sudden he was gone. The next thing I saw out of the corner of my eye was this big flash of fire, then his car was spinning out of control in front of me. I popped my chute and decelerated as his car went out in front of me. His car had no chute because it was only the front half with the engine sliding around in front of my car. It touched my car at one point. The bad part was, I thought he was dead because he wasn't with the car. Through all the fire and flash I thought I could see parts of him or his fire suit or something hanging on the back of his car and because of all the sparks and fire, it went through my head that he was dead."

"But he was OK. He went over the guard rail into the grass and flipped around. It was probably scarier from where I was at then for him where he was at because he was just bouncing around and I figured he was killed.
So that kinda' shook me up. We ended up winning it by just a nose. He may have beaten me if he didn't explode, ya just don't know those things, it's hard to say."

"Jim was a rough tough guy, ya know. He was one of those Ed McCulloch kinds of guys. He was a rough tough Texan guy. I wasn't too surprised to find out that he walked away from the crash."

"We had lost a lot of guys along the way up to that point with these cars and the parts coming off and the clutches cutting out of the bell housings, blowing up and cutting the frame in half and that's what happened to Nicoll's car. We had what we call 'Slipper' clutches in the cars and his got so hot that it flew apart and cut the car in half. He had a Crowerglides, I had a Schiefer clutch. He was one of the first guys to be real successful with the Crowerglide. Back in those days, it was all trial and error. You build something, you should put it on the Dyno to test it, but you think naaah, it will be alright and you just ran it. That's the only way you learn things in the early days, if it blowing up or somebody gets hurt, then ya fix it."

Don continues, "Wide World of Sports only covered maybe one or two drag races a year and for the most part drag racing was not covered on TV at all. Keith Jackson the broadcaster of Wide World of Sports added lots of dramatics to the accident. That particular run stayed on Wide World of Sports for 25 years. Their 25th Anniversary of the Wide World of Sports showed that it was one of the pieces of footage that they used as the most spectacular accident in motor racing that someone wasn't killed."

Jim Nicoll built a new front engine dragster that week and raced Prudhomme on the next weekend, but lost again to the 'Snake'.

At the end of the year Jim Nicoll was named Drag News Top Fuel Driver of the year 1970.



For the full story on this and others stories, go to the book Don Garlits R.E.D.
at: BackintheDayStore.com

By Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson



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