There was sad news to report this week that Don Nichols, the founder of the race-winning Shadow Racing Cars Formula 1 and sports car racing team, passed away on Monday at the age of 92.

Born in Missouri, Nichols was a man shrouded in mystery and intrigue, ideally fitting given the name he chose for his racing team which produced some of the most beautiful cars to have graced Formula 1 in the 1970s.

Don Nichols

Nichols was rumoured to have worked for the CIA…

After serving in both World War II and the Korean War, Nichols subsequently worked in Military Intelligence – there were even rumours he had a stint in espionage with the CIA.

After his military service, Nichols settled in Japan where his racing roots were forged as he helped the country create the foundations of its motorsport industry. He was involved in the project to build Fuji Speedway, which was originally conceived to be an oval circuit.

He returned to the United States in the late 1960s and founded his own company, Advanced Vehicle Systems in 1968.

He contracted Trevor Harris to design a highly unconventional black CanAm sports car and decided to call it a Shadow, with the car’s logo being a cloaked spy – a fitting nod to his alleged former line of work.

It was not until 1972 that his reworked car started to enjoy some success, and with that came commercial backing from Universal Oil Products.

He and UOP made the jump to Formula 1 in 1973, hiring George Follmer and Jackie Oliver to drive cars created by former BRM designer Tony Southgate; the March team’s co-founder Alan Rees was brought in to help manage the team. The DN1 (pictured below) was a solid and stunningly beautiful car, with Follmer taking it to sixth place on its debut in South Africa and backing that up with no less than a podium in its second race in Spain. Oliver also reached the podium, at the Canadian Grand Prix, helping the team to an impressive eighth overall in the Constructors’ Championship.

Jackie Oliver, Shadow Ford DN1 - 1973 Spanish Grand Prix

Jackie Oliver pilots Shadow’s first Formula 1 car, the Ford-powered DN1, in the 1973 Spanish Grand Prix at Montjuïc Park. While the Englishman would retire from its second ever race, teammate George Follmer finished on the podium. Pinterest

For 1974, Oliver moved out of the cockpit and into the team’s management structure, while he and Follmer went on to crush the CanAm opposition by finishing 1-2 in the excellent DN4.

For the Formula 1 team, Nichols hired McLaren’s Peter Revson and the promising Formula 2 champion Jean-Pierre Jarier. Southgate penned the DN3, in which Revson finished sixth at the Race of Champions before tragically being killed at Kyalami. Testing the car, it suffered a suspension failure and he was sent head-on into the barriers.

Jarier gave the grieving team some solace by finishing a fine third at Monaco, while Revson’s replacement Brian Redman lasted just a few Grands Prix before he was replaced by Tom Pryce. The Welshman scored the team’s only other points’ finish with a sixth at the Nürburgring Nordschleife.

The 1975 season saw Shadow become an increasingly competitive force, with Pryce winning the Race of Champions in the new DN5 chassis. He claimed five further points’ finishes, including a podium in Austria, while Jarier claimed two pole positions (retiring from both races) and finished fourth at the Spanish Grand Prix. A planned switch from Cosworth to Matra power fell through when the French engine builder inked a deal with the new Ligier team instead.

Tom Pryce, Shadow Ford DN5

The always spectacular Tom Pryce took Shadow’s DN5 to victory in the 1975 Race of Champions. The talented Welshman finished tenth overall in that year’s Drivers’ Championship standings with five points’ finishes. Tragically he would be killed in 1977.

Principal sponsor UOP caught the team on the hop in the 1975-76 off-season by ending its backing; Shadow also switched from an American to a British license and became the first ever Formula 1 constructor to change nationalities.

The loss of UOP’s backing meant that the team didn’t have the funds to design a new car, and despite a podium for Pryce in Brazil, the team steadily fell backwards in its older-spec cars. By mid-season the new DN8 was introduced, with Pryce showing its potential by finishing fourth in Austria. Funds were still tight, forcing the team to bring on Italian pay driver Renzo Zorzi.

Tragedy would strike the team once again in South Africa when Pryce was killed in the most freakish of circumstances. Zorzi retired from the race with an electrical fire which his car’s onboard extinguishers could not put out, prompting two track marshals to run across the start/finish straight to help put out the fire. One of the marshals was hit and killed by an unsighted Pryce, who was himself all but decapitated by the fire extinguisher he was carrying.

Nichols hired Alan Jones as Pryce’s replacement, and the Australian rallied in typical fashion to give Shadow its one and only Grand Prix victory with a brilliant drive at the wet/dry Austrian Grand Prix. Event organisers were so surprised by Jones’ win that they did not have the Australian national anthem on standby to place on the podium, and so a drunk fan played Happy Birthday on a trumpet instead.

Alan Jones, Shadow Ford DN8 - 1977 Austrian Grand Prix

Alan Jones gave Shadow its sole Grand Prix win with his maiden victory in the wet/dry race at the Österreichring. Sutton Images

The celebrations proved to be all too brief. By 1978, Jones had joined the emerging Williams team while the team’s key leadership figures – namely major sponsor Franco Ambrosio, along with Alan Rees, Jackie Oliver, Dave Wass and Tony Southgate – defected to form the new Arrows team.

Nichols commenced legal action, successfully proving that Shadow’s DN9 design had been copied by its designer (Southgate) in creating Arrows’ first chassis, the FA1. Nonetheless, the defections greatly damaged Shadow, despite the talented driving line-up of Clay Regazzoni and Hans-Joachim Stuck. For the first time, the team was failing to qualify for Grands Prix.

With little money to build new cars for 1979, the DN9s were reworked and the team was forced to take on pay-drivers Jan Lammers and Elio de Angelis – the latter was swiftly poached by Lotus, prompting another lawsuit from Nichols.

Nichols was forced to merge his team with Teddy Yip’s Theodore Racing concern to keep it going. A new ground-effect DN11 was built in 1980 and piloted by David Kennedy and teammates Stefan Johansson and Geoff Lees, but it proved to be a complete dog and it scraped onto the grid just once. A DN12 was hastily penned, but it proved unable to qualify. After seven races, Nichols and Yip agreed to pull the pin.

For Nichols, the dream was over. Yip attempted to re-establish the team in 1981 under its new Theodore Racing identity and it ran with limited success until the end of 1983.

Images via LAT, MoonEye, Pinterest, Sutton Images, WheelsAge

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Richard Bailey

Founder & Chief Editor at MotorsportM8
Hasn't missed a Grand Prix since 1989. Has a soft spot for Minardi. Tattooed with 35+ Grand Prix circuits.