Story by Dave Hudson and Joe VanHoose
Kenneth Nichols still has the helmet with the scrape.
The scrape starts above the visor on the left side and digs through the dark blue base color, widening as it stops just past a design of a gold torch – the same torch you see on the Indiana State Flag.
Nichols is a native Hoosier, and like many Indiana boys he grew up dreaming about becoming a racecar driver. On February 6, 1999, he nearly died living out that dream.
He was racing at Phoenix International Raceway in an open-wheeled car known as a midget, a smaller cousin to sprint cars that race around Midwestern short tracks. The Phoenix track is a mile long – too long to technically call it a short track – with sweeping corners. The oval with a dogleg was made famous by Indy cars and serves as the current home of NASCAR’s championship race. Speeds even in little midgets can easily exceed 120 mph.
Nichols’ car was doing 135 mph when he crashed into the wall at the wrong angle. With nothing between his head and wall besides a seat and roll cage designed for crashes at slower speeds, Nichols’ helmet hit and scraped along the concrete.
His longtime friend, Mike Fair, was quickly on the scene of the accident. He watched as the track’s paramedics quickly jumped into life-saving action.
“He wasn’t breathing so they had to shock him to get his heart started, ” he told Robin Miller of the Indianapolis Star. “It didn’t look good.”
Nichols’ wife, Sandy, and their two sons were back home in Indiana while Kenneth battled for his life in Arizona.
“Most drivers go through a progression. … I guess I missed a few steps.”
Dreams, Prayers and Opportunity
Kenneth Nichols grew up in Odon, Indiana, 100 miles southwest of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Odon, unknown to most of its 1,500 fine citizens, was home to Joe Dawson, winner of the second Indy 500 in 1912. Nichols knew nothing of Dawson until Donald Davidson, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s historian, gave him the news about another Odon native son.
Nichols was not born into a racing family. His parents never got him a go kart. But his uncle took him to the Indianapolis 500 in 1968, and that fueled his dream of being a race car driver.
Still, it was just a dream. After graduating from high school, Nichols worked on Pontiacs for a dealership in Washington, Indiana. Still, he wondered how he could get closer to his passion.
He told me from his Avon home, “I knew if I was going to be involved in racing, I had to get closer to the action, so I moved to Indianapolis.” He got a job in Indy working on forklifts and pursued his dream.
After a lot of prayer, Nichols found himself knocking on Mel Kenyon’s door asking Kenyon if he could be a gopher for his race team. Kenyon agreed to give Nichols a shot.
Nichols could not have asked for a better mentor. Known as the “King of the Midgets,” Kenyon won 111 USAC midget features and seven national championships. He even made it to the biggest race in the world, starting eight Indy 500s. Much of his success came after he nearly perished in a fiery crash at Langhorne Speedway in 1965.
“I did anything they wanted me to do,” Kenneth told me.
Knowing his desire to get into racing, Mel’s brother Don Kenyon told Nichols about a car for sale that might be of interest to him. With his grandfather’s co-signature, Nichols became the proud owner of a midget racer in the fall of 1976. He rebuilt the car while still working with the Kenyons and had it race-ready in the spring of 1977.
“Most drivers go through a progression,” Nichols told me. “Go karts, to quarter midgets, to three-quarter midgets, to midgets. I guess I missed a few steps.”
He was 22, starting in one of the most difficult and competitive levels of short track racing. He learned to race competing against others who started racing in their early teens. But Nichols soon showed that he had skill. He found speed.
Working full-time, volunteering with the Kenyons, and raising a family put a lot on Kenneth’s plate. I asked Sandy if she knew what she was getting into when they married.
“I really thought he would grow out of it, but he never did,” she said.
Kenny smiled. He knew where he was going all along.
He went on to win several races, including a few on the USAC National Midget Tour when the sanctioning body ran its “Thursday Night Thunder” series live on ESPN in the 1990s (he had some close calls on TV, too). Nichols drove to victory lane several times at Indianapolis Raceway Park and tamed the high banks of Salem Speedway not far from his hometown.
Nichols was in his 40s now, and he knew he was never making it to the Indy 500. But he loved racing at the short tracks, and he had found enough success to continue.
More success meant more traveling and more racing. He even started racing in a few big special events, including the Copper World Classic in Phoenix.
For 30 years, short track racers from around the country would bring their best cars to Phoenix in the winter to race for big prize money, many on the biggest track they would ever race on. The event was also an opportunity for a few NASCAR and Indy car superstars to get back to their roots.
In February 1999, Kenneth Nichols showed up at the track with his helmet for the last time.
“God does answer prayer—even if it is delayed for a while.”
Minutes after the crash in Phoenix, Nichols was airlifted to St. Joseph Medical Center in critical condition that February afternoon. Sandy flew out from Indianapolis to be by his side.
She told me the time in Phoenix was one of the most challenging times of her life. Kenny was in intensive care for about a week. He later moved to the Barrows Neurological Center, a world-renowned center for neurology.
Even still, Sandy knew Kenny was discouraged in the hospital. She felt a familiar face might do Kenny some good. She knew just the person to call.
Rev. Tom Haney married the Nichols family in Odon in 1978. A few years later the young couple moved to Indianapolis and there they reconnected with Haney, who had become the minister at the Creek Church on Franklin Road in town. Kenny got Mel Kenyon to speak at the church on a Sunday evening.
“Kenny came with Mel, and it was very moving,” Haney recalled. “Mel had written a book, Burned to Life, in which he detailed how his tremendous crash had changed his life for the better.”
Unknown to Tom and Kenny, it would be another crash about 10 years later that would bring them together in a hospital room in Phoenix.
Haney left Indianapolis in 1988 and was pastoring a church in Phoenix when he got Sandy’s call. Tom went to Barrows and remembers finding Kenny in a single room. The three of them caught up before the conversation quickly turned to the accident.
They talked about how Kenny’s head made impact with the wall and how it was a miracle that he survived. To Haney, it was a miracle not to be misinterpreted.
“I tried at that time to get Kenny to make a promise to God and his wife that he would never race again,” Haney remembered. “I said, he was not the right age for this style of racing and his boys (Dustin and Seth, both in high school at the time) needed a dad who was alive.”
But Nichols was not ready to make that promise.
“He would not agree and was somewhat evasive about it saying, ‘You never know’ and ‘I don’t think I can give up racing at this time,’” Haney said.
When Haney learned from me that the accident ended Kenny’s career, he was thrilled and thankful.
“God does answer prayer—even if it is delayed for a while,” he said.
It seems the answer came pretty quickly for Nichols. Pastor Haney just didn’t get the news.
God wasn’t done with me here on earth yet.
Back Home Again in Indiana
Two weeks after the accident, insurance required Nichols to rehab in Indiana, even though he was still at Barrows in Phoenix. I asked Kenneth if he flew back in a medical plane.
“No, but fortunately for us our Sunday School class gave us first-class tickets to fly home,” Nichols said. But he doesn’t remember anything about the flight – or anything about the day. In fact, he doesn’t remember the crash or any of his time in Phoenix. He doesn’t remember the conversation with Haney.
Back in Indianapolis, Kenneth spent another two weeks in the Rehab Hospital of Indiana. His 22-year racing career was over. At the age of 44, he was able to return to his job at Allison Transmissions.
Now he had more time to spend with his boys and Sandy. He began to restore a 1955 Chevy he had bought 12 years earlier. He missed racing, but he had his life. And it was good.
Today, Nichols’ crash and survival is part of his testimony. To read his Facebook posts is to read about a man who lost racing but gained a peace that surpasses all understanding.
From a 2016 post, he wrote:
When people ask about (the accident), I inform them that my heart stopped beating after the crash and they had to use a defibrillator on me to get my heart going again. They must have used a Sears DieHard battery to keep it charged because I’m still here!
Seriously, God wasn’t done with me here on earth yet and that’s the only reason I’m still here! I asked Christ into my life years ago. I raced because I had the opportunity and I loved it! I’m not braver than anyone else or have a death wish…I simply know where I’m going when I die.
I asked him this summer if he still feels the same way. He didn’t hesitate. He still knows where he’s going.
“Fear doesn’t stop death,” he told me. “It only stops life.”