Mark Nickels - A Life Spent Racing

June 8, 2020

"Penske Material" provides an inside look at some of the personalities, stories and moments that make Team Penske so unique. 

Known throughout the NASCAR Cup Series garage as a perpetually positive personality, “Big” Mark Nickels is a staple in the premier series landscape. Growing up in Abingdon, Virginia, a mere 30 minutes from the “Last Great Coliseum,” otherwise known as Bristol Motor Speedway, Nickels witnessed the half-mile Tennessee short track transform into the colossal auto racing stadium it is today.

Penske Material Logo“Last Sunday was the first Cup Series race at Bristol that I missed since 1992,” Nickels said last week. “That’s a lot of races at that place.” Nickels continues to work at the Team Penske race shop in Mooresville, NC as lead engine tuner, but due to roster limits in place with the COVID-19 pandemic, he is not traveling full-time on the Cup Series schedule for the first time since the 1998 season.

Nickels introduction to the fast-paced world of motorsports world came when he was 14 years old, courtesy of a driver that was from his hometown named Darrell Holman. Nickels’ mother ran an in-home daycare service and one day when Holman was dropping off his kids, he invited the young Mark to his race shop. “That was the beginning for me. It was an awesome opportunity and I sort of just became a fixture there from that point on,” said Nickels. “Every day after school my mom would drop me off at the race shop and that’s really where my start in racing came from, working on the four-cylinder Daytona Dash Series cars.”

From 1985 through 1991, Nickels learned the ins-and-outs of racing at the grassroots and semi-pro national level. In 1991, Hollman won the Limited Late Model Sportsman Championship at Lonesome Pine Speedway in Coeburn, Virginia. In 1992, Nickels took the next step in his racing career with a move to Food Country Racing and NASCAR’s Xfinity (then Busch) Series.

Nickels also recalled a life-altering moment from 1991 that meant even more than being involved in his first championship in racing. “I met my wife Cynthia in ’91, and she’s been with me every step of the way in my career,” said Nickels.

Mark NickelsNickels spent the 1992 season with the Food Country Racing team, performing a number of jobs for the team, including painting and body work to engine tuning and pitting the car on race day. In 1993, during his second year with the team, Mark and Cynthia were married prior to the start of the racing season. “We took separate honeymoons,” laughed Nickels. “She went on a cruise and I went to Daytona.” Nickels remained with the Food Country Racing team through the 1997 season when he made the move to the NASCAR Cup Series with Morgan-McClure Motorsports.

“I made the move to Morgan-McClure Racing in 1998, and originally I’d taken a job where I wouldn’t be traveling. I was okay with that and settled in to doing engine tuning, installs and running the chassis dyno,” recalled Nickels. “Unfortunately, we had a crew member get hurt in a pretty bad car accident and the team asked me to go to Darlington for a test. Following the test, Larry McClure called me and said, ‘I’m going to need you to travel full-time. So from the second race of the season on, I was back on the road full-time.’

Mark Nickels First Cup WinIn 1998, Nickels enjoyed his first career Cup Series victory with driver Bobby Hamilton getting the win at Martinsville Speedway. The team returned to Martinsville in the fall with the same car and they were racing for another win when Nickels had his first experience with Team Penske.

“It’s actually a really funny story,” said Nickels. “We were running up front in the fall race and Rusty Wallace was running behind us, but he wasn’t fast enough to pass us and he finally got frustrated and wrecked Bobby. It was frustrating but we fixed the car and went back out to ride around and try to gain a few spots before the end of the day. Later in the race I heard the spotter come on the radio to Bobby and tell him the man that wrecked him was coming up to lap him, and I thought, no way he’ll wreck Rusty here. I couldn’t even finish the thought before the crowd was standing up and cheering – he wrecked him. Dave Munari (long time Team Penske crew member and now fabricator with the team) came running down. He was all by himself, all 120 pounds, and he was ready to fight all of us. I said, ‘old man, you better just go on back down to your pit, because I’m the smallest guy on this team.’ To this day, Munari and I are best friends.”

Nickels joined Team Penske in 2008 after Morgan-McClure Motorsports closed its doors. “It was a really sad day when they closed up. I’d have still been there today if they were still racing,” said Nickels. “I’ve been extremely blessed though. I was out of work for two weeks but ended up at Team Penske and it’s been a great 13 years.”

Nickels KodakWhen he first joined Team Penske, Nickels worked on the No. 77 car with former Indianapolis 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr. Nickels then joined the No. 2 Miller Lite team in 2011, led by crew chief Paul Wolfe and driver Brad Keselowski, who had won the Xfinity Series championship the previous season. The crew assembled by Wolfe quickly became one of the top teams in the sport as they captured Team Penske’s first NASCAR Cup Series title in 2012. “There’s still four of us together on that team,” said Nickels. “Jerry Kelley (car chief), Chris Hill (shock specialist), myself and then Paul Wolfe (crew chief).”

From 2011-2019, the No. 2 team won 29 races and the series title. In 2020, Nickels and the rest of the “2 Crew” as they were known, moved to the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Ford Mustang with driver Joey Logano. Prior to the Cup Series season being put on hold in March, the team had won two of the first four races, and Nickels can’t wait to rejoin the No. 22 squad on the road if and when roster limits expand.

Though he shakes off the title of “Ironman,” Nickels has been a part of every NASCAR Cup Series race weekend since the Daytona 500 in 1998. Through the fourth race of the 2020 season at Phoenix Raceway, that measures 789 race weekends. That number doesn’t include the various exhibition events on the Cup Series calendar. “I missed qualifying day in 2018 at Texas for my daughter’s college graduation, but the team flew me in on Saturday so I didn’t miss the race,” said Nickels.

Away from the track, Nickels has become an avid cyclist over the last three years, riding road and mountain bikes, especially on the Signal Hill trail in Statesville, NC. “At the end of the day, the best times away from the road are spent with my wife, my daughter Chanteyl and our friends,” said Nickels.

Mark Nickels Current PhotoWhen recalling the names of the drivers he has worked with over the course of his 35-year career, Nickels reflects on some of the sport’s top racers: Darrell Holman, Butch Miller, Rick Wilson, Glenn Jarrett, Kelly Denton, Jimmy Hensley, Tommy Ellis, Brad Teague, Bobby Hamilton, Rich Bickle, Johnny Miller, Johnny Sauter, John Andretti, Todd Bodine, Mike Wallace, Robby Gordon, PJ Jones, Bobby Hamilton Jr., Ward Burton, Scott Wimmer, Kevin Lepage, Jimmy Spencer, Sam Hornish Jr., Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

Thinking back on all those names and the team members that he’s worked with, Nickels added: “I am so incredibly thankful for all the people who’ve helped me get to where I am. This sport starts and ends with people and I’ve been so incredibly fortunate to have a life full of the best of them. It’s been an incredible ride and I don’t want to slow down anytime soon.”