REMEMBERING: Nuckles’ Legacy

Long-time Columbus track owner left his mark

By Paul Schaefer, NASCAR
November 29, 2013 – 9:30am

Jim Nuckles was a happy guy.

He was plain-spoken in business and friendship. To those not indoctrinated, he could playfully intimidate before letting a friend off the hook. He had a wry sense of humor, quick wit, a soft rasp in his voice and a comforting smile. He was proud of his family who provided him with an enjoyable view of a landscape his own life created.

Nuckles, 85, of Columbus, Ohio, passed away on Nov. 19 after a brief illness. Services were scheduled for Nov. 23 in Columbus. Nuckles’ life revolved around his family and its signature holding, Columbus Motor Speedway. Nuckles’ father John led planning and construction of the circular third-mile dirt track that opened in 1946. It was paved in 1957 and joined the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series in 1989.

Social and local media were flooded with tributes in recent days. Columbus television sports anchors paused to remember their city’s longest-running sports icon.

Nuckles, his late wife Barbara “Bobbie” Nuckles, their sons Jerry, John and Jeff, and their wives, late son Jamie Nuckles, and many grandchildren had involvement with the speedway. Although he worked in the office on a daily basis until recent weeks, Nuckles retired and turned the speedway over to his sons in 2008. That transfer of ownership assured seamless continued operation of the track.

“Jim Nuckles was a leader and weekly racing pioneer. He was a nationally respected member of the racing community,” said George Silbermann, NASCAR vice president, regional and touring series. “He was steadfast in leading Columbus Motor Speedway as a successful family business through decades of change and growth. He was proud that generations of his family had roles in the speedway’s success. Jim Nuckles was a good man. He will be missed. Our thoughts are with the Nuckles family.”

1-france_nucklesNuckles preferred to do business through personal relationships. Such was the case when he was exploring a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series sanction for Columbus leading up to the 1989 season. At the time, NASCAR had no weekly tracks in the state and was looking for the right track operators to form partnerships.

“It was important to dad that we work with people who had our trust,” Jeff Nuckles said. “The person we knew at NASCAR who was a big help behind the scenes was Bob Weeks.”

The personable Weeks was a NASCAR sponsor services representative. The Nuckles knew Weeks from the Quarter-Midgets of America sanctioning body. The Nuckles boys had raced with the group when Weeks was its public relations representative.

“Our friendship with Bob was a conduit to (NASCAR vice president) Jim Hunter who closed the deal with us. Brian France (then NASCAR administrative operations manager) came to the track to sign and announce the sanction agreement. It was all personal with dad. He liked to do business face-to-face.

“Mom was a tough as a business person, too; maybe tougher than dad. Their business practices were beyond reproach. When a bill showed up, they paid it.

“They were honest and straightforward and you never had to guess where they stood. They would have been terrible poker players. Their cards were on the table from the get-go. They were fair and honest to a fault,” Nuckles said.

Jim and Bobbie Nuckles were married for 59 years at the time of her passing in 2008.

The Nuckles family has been recognized with many honors and awards for their leadership. The most prestigious was the national Racing Promotion Monthly (RPM) Auto Racing Promoter of the Year award in 2010. They were selected for the award by vote of fellow promoters from coast to coast. They also received seven regional RPM awards and a NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Team Player award, among many others.

Jim Nuckles’ father John led a consortium that bought 50 acres of land on the southeast edge of Columbus in 1945. The track opened as a third-mile dirt oval for motorcycle racing in 1946. In 1947 it hosted its first automobile race for Roadsters. Stock car racing began in 1950. The track was paved in 1957. John Nuckles was track president until his sudden passing in 1965. Jim Nuckles became the facility’s sole owner in 1971.

Nuckles was long-known to use a golf cart to circulate throughout the speedway grounds on race nights. If a driver or crewman was invited to take the seat next to him and go for a ride, an admonishment for an infraction or stern word of advice was likely on the agenda.

Former touring series Late Model driver Buddy Schrock received such an invitation years ago, and it left an impression. Schrock calls the pit area visit “my favorite memory” of Nuckles.

“He stopped at the car once in his golf cart and in a stern voice said ‘get in,’” Schrock recalled. “I thought, oh (no). We took off and he said he just wanted to say thanks for coming to a race at our race track. Made me feel like a million bucks. What a great man.”

Second-generation driver and six-time NASCAR Late Model track champion Donnie “Zero” Hill said he felt conspicuous when he had a golf cart discussion with Nuckles, and that was part of the reprimand.

“He’d drive you all around the pits while he was talking so everybody knew what was going on. But with Jim, you were a race car driver one day a week and a friend on all the other days,” Hill said.

Hill grew up at the track watching his dad, the late Don “Heavy” Hill, race. The speedway has a constant presence during his entire life.

In present-day years when Hill raced series competition and didn’t have a weekly presence at the speedway, he’d show up at the track banquet venue in the afternoon during set-up just to visit with Nuckles.

“When I was a kid and Columbus was running on Sunday nights, Jim gave me one of my first jobs cleaning up the track on Mondays,” Hill said.

Pavement Late Model race cars evolved several times during Nuckles’ lifetime and he maintained his speedway as a leader in helping the division survive and flourish.

“Dad certainly oversaw changes at Columbus that were for the betterment of stock car racing in general,” Jeff Nuckles said. “We were among the first to have a track tire in the early 1970s with Hoosier as our sole provider. We were among the first to have a left side weight rule. We adapted to innovations that became industry standards. Dad always wanted a level playing field.”

Jim Nuckles could make studious business and competition decisions and get the desired results. The desired results were typically to maintain the speedway’s success or give participants an equal chance on the track. Those qualities brought him universal respect.

“There have been three men in my adult life that I struggled to feel comfortable with in calling them by their first names,” said motorsports defense attorney Don Anspaugh of Columbus. “The first two were my law firm mentors Sol Morton Isaac and Charles Brant. The third is Jim Nuckles. I knew if they said it they meant it. They had my respect.

“People can be impressive by their attributes; their mental strength, their authority or their attitudes, for example. Jim was impressive by his spirit. He always moved forward with a smile on his face. Look at the esteem his sons hold him in. He was their dad, but their esteem for him goes far beyond that,” Anspaugh said.

“James Nuckles’ greatest legacy is the family that grew up around him. They absorbed so much strength and wisdom over time. If you’re dealing with them, you just know you’re dealing with good people.”