Bob Nichols, who has personally made nearly every internal part for his super-modified 9,000-rpm 1937 Indian Scout, has left this life, aged 97. I had pretty much expected him to live forever. Google "Bob Nichols Racing" to read what's in print about his life. Off to work in garages and machine shops from age 11, he also learned surfing at the same time—in the depths of the American Great Depression. He was always at the bike races.

Bob Nichols
Bob Nichols passed away at age 97.Bob Nichols Racing

Although his work in a World War II defense plant gave him an exemption, he joined the Army in September 1944, was shunted into the Corps of Engineers, and shipped to Tinian Island [part of the Northern Mariana Islands] in the Pacific, home of 500 B-29s bombarding Japan. There he was in charge of maintaining engines powering generators and water wells.

One day he answered an urgent call to Water Well 26, where he arrived in his 2-1/2-ton crane truck dressed in island style—shirtless, in cut-off trousers, and topless boots. He was stunned to find both Admiral Chester Nimitz and General Curtis LeMay in person, demanding to know if and how soon he could repair the blown head gasket on the well pump.

“Nimitz was all Navy, in gleaming whites, and there was LeMay (commander of the B-29 force) with his cigar, looking like he’d slept in his fatigues.”

Turns out Well 26 supplied the base photo lab, and the reason the two top commanders were there in person was that DC had radioed that the lab absolutely had to be usable pronto; see to this in person. Unknown to Bob at that moment, film from the first atomic strike would be arriving shortly for processing and immediate forwarding to ZI (the Zone of the Interior).

Yes, he could get the pump running, and right away. Yes, he had the gasket and tools on his truck. Nothing was said about his unmilitary appearance.

That crane truck had earlier allowed him to hook an out-of-service military bike out of a fenced compound to become part of Tinian’s informal dirt-track racing. Scrounging is a long and honored military tradition.

Nichols spinning figure eights
Nichols spinning figure eights on the beach around 1942.R. Nichols Collection

Nichols survived three airplane crashes during the war, including one which he survived only because 1) he’d been a strong competitive swimmer, and 2) he’d seen an island on the way down, and headed for it.

“I was pretty tired when I got there. They picked me up after a while.”

After the war he worked 24 years at Douglas Aircraft Company/Santa Monica “…in that mile-long building.” In 1964, he pioneered the first titanium connecting rods for Champ Car builder George Bignotti (for driver A.J. Foyt). The following year he saw that the new Vascomax 350 maraging steel (machinable but extremely tough) would make possible lighter tappets for the Offenhauser engine, enabling it to use cam profiles that picked up a bunch of horsepower. At this same time, Albert Gunter was making rods for his Matchless G50 dirt-track engines out of the same stuff. California was the hotbed of car, motorcycle, and aircraft innovation.

Nichols
Nichols with titanium connecting rods for A.J. Foyt’s Offenhauser.Bob Nichols Racing

Bob Nichols designed and machined rev-boosting aluminum con-rods for his Indian Scouts. He used investment-cast blanks to make high-strength pivoted roller cam followers, and made his own cams and crankshaft flywheels. With younger men riding, Bob continued to enter his bikes in races and speed trials as long as he lived. On Wednesday evenings he taught a course in CNC programming at a local college. A year or so ago he phoned in a state of high excitement to tell me he’d located and bought a set of the much-sought-after 648 “big-base” Indian crankcases, which he told me would allow him to use lower-friction ball main bearings rather than rollers. To Bob, being alive was always an exciting opportunity to think of something or make something happen.

1937 Indian Big Base Scout
Nichols with his 1937 Indian Big Base Scout.Bob Nichols Racing

I’ll miss Bob’s voice on the phone because it came straight out of the center of the do-it-yourself-and-do-it-now racing tradition that drew so many of us into this sport.