In 1938, at the age of 15, Ray Nichels, went on the road as a midget car crew chief, racing at tracks across America. From 1938-1948, the drivers of the Ray Nichels prepared midgets (campaigned by his father, Rudy Nichels) were Ted Duncan, Tony Bettenhausen, Johnnie Parsons, Paul Russo, Mike O'Halloran, and Ray Richards. (All members of the Midget Racing Hall of fame.)
Following his time midget racing, Nichels moved on to Indy cars and eventually participated in 12 Indianapolis 500 races, as a chief mechanic and crew chief. In those twelve 500's, Ray Nichels won one Pole (1957 w/Pat O'Connor), garnered two top-five finishes ( a 3rd and 5th w/ Paul Goldsmith), and five top-ten finishes. Most notable of his top-ten finishes was the 9th place showing in the 1950 Indianapolis500 of the Russo-Nichels Special. Paul Russo and Ray Nichels constructed this car in the basement of Russo' Hammond, Indiana home during the winter of 1949-1950. Qualifying in the seventh row, the Russo-Nichels Special captured the imagination of the American racing public by running with the leaders for much of the day, before the rain-shortened race ended at 345 miles. The Russo-Nichels Special soon became affectionately known as "Basement Bessie" as it was campaigned an the AAA Championship during the 1950 season. In December, Nichels with Johnnie Parsons behind the wheel, won the first ever Indy car race at the newly built Darlington Raceway. On the season, Ray Nichels and Paul Russo and their hand-built "basement" creation missed the chance to win the National Championship only after a season-ending injury to Russo in the November AAA Indy car race in Phoenix.
Nichels then toiled as chief mechanic for Johnnie Parsons' entries in the 1953 and 1954 Indy 500 races. In June of 1954, Ray Nichels joined the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company as its chief mechanic for all tire testing. In their first test together, he had a drive-course speed record of 182.554 mph at Chrysler Corporation's newly built Chelsea, Michigan proving grounds in a Nichels prepared Chrysler Hemi-powered Kurtis-Kraft roadster. It would be the first of many world speed records that Nichels and his cars set over the next 20 years.
In 1957, Ray Nichels and Indiana-based Nichels Engineering won the pole (w/Banjo Matthews) and won the race (w/Cotton Owens) at the NASCAR Grand National Beach Race at Daytona. Two months later, Nichels traveled to Monza, Italy on behalf of Firestone, and set a series of world speed records on the world's highest-banked oval with Pat O'Connor behind the wheel of the Chrysler Hemi-powered Kurtis-Kraft roadster. Nichels and O'Connor then returned to the United States where they won the Pole position for the world's most important race, The Indianapolis 500. It is believed Ray Nichels remains to be the only mechanic to ever win the pole at both Daytona and Indianapolis in the same year.
With the 1957 Daytona win, Nichels expanded his stock car racing business becoming the "house" racecar builder for Pontiac from 1956-1963. Working directly for Pontiac Gen. Mgr. Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, Nichels managed Pontiac's involvement in stock car racing from his operations in Highland, Indiana. By 1961, under Nichels' guidance, Pontiac dominated America stock car racing. Nichels Engineering driver, Paul Goldsmith captured the USAC National Championship with 10 wins, 7 poles and 16 top-five finishes in 19 races. Overall Pontiac performance in USAC was 14 wins, no poles and 38 top-five finishes in 22 races. In NASCAR, overall Pontiac performance was 30 wins in 52 races. In 1962, Pontiac's dominance under Nichels became even further evident as Nichels and Goldsmith won their 2nd consecutive USAC National Championship with 8 wins, 6 poles and 15 top-five finishes in 22 races.Four Nichels Engineering drivers (Goldsmith, A.J. Foyt, Rodger Ward, and Len Sutton) finished in the seasons Top Ten. In NASCAR, overall Pontiac performance was 22 wins in 53 races, with Joe Weatherly winning the National Championship driving a Nichels Engineering built, Bud Moore prepped Pontiac.