Editor’s Note: Bob Russo is a longtime public relations man, motorsports writer and historian
Editor’s Note: Bob Russo is a longtime public relations man, motorsports writer and historian who is contributing periodic looks at the history of motorsports for the AP. The following story is about the late Paul Russo, a friend but no relation.
Practical jokes have always been welcome in the auto racing community, probably because they serve as tension relievers in an environment filled with constant exposure to danger.
A well-conceived prank is something that can be appreciated not only at the time of its execution but in the retelling months and even years later.
Paul Russo was a genius in the art of practical joking. A rough, tough product of pre-World War II midget racing, Russo was one of the sport’s stars during its post-war boom and also became a regular Indy-car competitor through the ’40s, ‘50s and into the ’60s.
Once, while racing a strictly showroom-stock car in Milwaukee, Russo came up on the race leader and sounded the car’s horn. The driver of the other car was so startled he let up on the throttle and Russo whizzed past to win the race.
Few were spared from his pranks, but his favorite target was close friend and longtime mechanic Ray Nichels.
``I hated his guts when he started driving for us,″ said Nichels, whose father, Rudy, owned and operated a stable of midget racers from the family home in Highland, Ind., right after the war.
``Paul knew how to get my goat, and he loved to antagonize me,″ Nichels said. ``It took me quite a while to realize that this was his way of showing friendship. It also taught me a lot about life and how to handle tough situations with a smile.
``He was pretty rough on me at times, but I soon came to regard Paul as my best friend.″
The two teamed up after the war for a steady stream of victories with the Nichels midgets as they raced seven days or nights a week.
``Between towing from track to track and racing damn near every night, there was little time to do more than light maintenance on the car,″ Nichels said. ``After a while, Paul complained because an oil leak was spraying his feet and getting all over the bottom of the cockpit.
``I told him that as long as the car was running good and we were winning, he shouldn’t worry about it. That turned out to be a mistake.″
A few nights later they were in Chicago for a race at Soldier Field. Arriving early, Nichels slipped away and bought a new pair of dress shoes which he placed on top of his tool box when he changed into his work clothes.
They cleaned house that night, with Russo setting quick time in qualifying and winning the trophy dash, the heat race and the main event.
When it was over, Russo climbed out of the car laughing and pointed to his oil-smeared feet and legs. He was wearing his friend’s new dress shoes.
``The car never had another oil leak after that,″ Nichels said.
A few years later, when the championship circuit moved west for the final races of the 1950 season, Russo and Nichels set out from Indianapolis for Sacramento towing their car.
``The car needed some major repair work before we left for the coast,″ Nichels said. ``I went three nights without getting any sleep getting it ready, but we finally got on our way.
``Paul and I agreed one of us would drive for a tankful of gas while the other slept. Then we’d switch whenever we stopped to refuel.″
As the trip wore on, the exhausted Nichels couldn’t seem to get any rest.
``I could barely stay awake driving,″ he said. ``When I would pull into a gas station, I’d jump in the back seat and immediately fall asleep. No sooner than I’d doze off, it seemed, than Paul was shaking me awake for my turn at the wheel again. It wasn’t until we were somewhere in Missouri that I found out why.
``For some reason I didn’t fall asleep right away, and after I’d jumped in the backseat I heard Paul talking to the gas station attendant. He was ordering only five gallons of gas.″
End Adv for Thursday Aug. 3