Dave Nicholas ’77 shares thrills, risks of car racing

By Steve Seepersaud

October 11, 2018

What’s it like to take the wheel of a race car at 120 mph? Dave Nicholas ’77 says it’s like being a superhero in slow motion.

“There’s a ton of visual input as you have other cars around you,” he says. “When you’re on a straight-away, you check the side to make sure nobody’s coming up, check your gauges and you start to notice other things. Oddly enough, I can smell people’s barbecues!”

Nicholas recently returned to the Southern Tier where he and Honeybee, his bright yellow 1960 MGA, gave the grillers something tasty to watch. He won two races Sept. 8 at the U.S. Vintage Grand Prix meet held at Watkins Glen International; one of those races was the Collier Cup, open only to MGs.

“That was quite a thrill,” Nicholas said. “I’ve been trying to win [the Collier Cup] for five years. I had come close several times but the car had always broken down, many times while I was in the lead. That weekend was also the 60th anniversary of the club my teenage friends and I founded – the Binghamton Automobile Racing Club.”

Though his love of racing has spanned six decades, his career in the sport has made a few pit stops. With a two-year degree in hand, he faced the choice of going to Navy flight school or racing cars. He chose the second, but when the gas crisis of the 1970s caused sponsorship opportunities to drip dry, Nicholas enrolled in Harpur College and earned an art degree. The education would later be helpful to him in a different form of racing – triathlon.

“I was in Hawaii and my partner and I saw our business fail,” Nicholas said. “So, we went back to things we know. That was sports for me, and it was hospitality for my partner. We did swimming, biking and running events, and said ‘Why don’t we put these together and do Ironman for mountain bikes?’ And, that’s how the Xterra triathlon series started. My art degree helped me design the look and feel of the entire event. We got a sponsorship from Nissan and it really took off. Today, we have more than 200 races and we’re in 35 different countries, so the hometown boys have done good!”

His love of car racing – and for the MG, in particular – never went away. He returned to the sport in 2012 and bought Honeybee. The body and engine are the same as the MGA he had in 1963, but the results are more contemporary.

“The stock car had 78 horsepower and if we could mod it [back then] to give us 90 or 95, we were in the hunt. Today, we can make 140. The technology is so much better that we can nearly double the horsepower.”

With that much power, each time you can walk away from the race – win or lose – is something to feel good about.

“In my years of racing, the worst that’s happened to me is cracked ribs. We pull the safety harness as tight as we can, but the forces are extremely strong when you’re going fast and come to an immediate stop. Many times in a race, I’ve had the car unexpectedly slide on me. You’re going into a corner thinking everything’s okay, but there’s oil on the track or somebody has kicked dirt or sand and you have to be super-quick to catch the slide. That’s part of the game. You have to be ready for the unexpected.”