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Victory lap
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 09/01/2008

Nickel_kids Anyone who watches NASCAR is familiar with the barrage of ads and sponsors on the speeding packs of cars. From Pop-Tarts to Pennzoil, Office Depot to Old Spice, each vehicle is a shiny, revved up billboard for a smorgasbord of products. Among this riot of racing and sponsorship giants, there is one driver promoting something other than breakfast cereal or laundry detergent.

For the last 14 years, Tim Nickel has worked nights as a corrections officer at California's Fresno County Sheriff’s Department. He’s supervised many high profile inmates, including Marcus Wesson, a man convicted of nine counts of first-degree murder and 14 sex crimes. Despite this demanding and draining job, Nickel exudes that famously mellow California spirit.

“I’m kind of an average, low key, CO that does my time,” he says.

But the stress of the job, along with the accompanying overtime and the effort of raising a family, were becoming overwhelming. So, Nickel turned to his childhood passion for go-cart racing to relieve some stress.

He joined the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), a racing program for amateur and professional racers, and today is bona fide race car driver. Now, he races a Lexus IS300 in regional competitions all over California.

Transforming the luxury car into a lean mean racer was an automotive junkie’s dream.

“It’s a three liter, V6 Lexus engine,” Nickel explains, “and we’ve made some modifications. We put in a five speed transmission and made all kinds of suspension modifications. We also completely gutted the car and put a roll cage in there – that means all the upholstery has been taken out and safety features added in.”

Nickel's race car

Nickel, with his team of two mechanics, has raced five times this year and 11 times overall. He’s raced high profile tracks, including the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California, and the state’s Auto Club Speedway. He competes in road courses, which are oval tracks with various elevations and left and right turns. The races are 40-minute sprints without pit stops. The car making the most laps around the course at the end of 40 minutes wins.

SCCA awards points for each race won, and Nickel is currently in second place. While he currently races at the regional level, he may turn professional and race the club’s pro series in Daytona next January.

Nickel gets in the zone

Even with all of his competitive success, the CO is proudest of how he’s turned his passion into a vehicle for positive, community action. He uses his racing to raise awareness for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a move partly inspired by his work in corrections.

“I work on an administrative segregation floor,” he says. “It has a lot of child molesters and it’s just a negative environment. I wanted to do something positive for kids. I figured I’d put pictures of missing kids on my car.”

Nickel downloads a picture of a missing child from the NCMEC's website and places an enlarged, reproduction of it on his car. He also puts the picture on the towing transporter he uses to get his car from race to race.

“I wanted to do something good for kids and the community,” he says. “The kids that come down to the race tracks, they love to get in the car. It’s something positive I can do after dealing with the negative of working in a correctional facility.”

“Even if people don’t recognize the missing kid, we’re trying to get people to realize, ‘Hey, you know what I’m going to check out this website,’” he adds. “We also have the website listed on the car. When we go to the racetrack we post pictures of missing kids there too. And it’s great for raising awareness because racing is a pretty high-attended sporting event.”

The experience has been a major plus for Nickel both personally and professionally.

“When you get on a race track, you get so focused that you can’t really think of anything else,” he says. “That’s actually one of the reasons why I do it. You get in the zone. You can’t think of anything else when you’re doing 130 miles an hour with 50 other cars around you all fighting for the same spot. It’s such an adrenaline rush.”

At any given race, Nickel’s two children, ages 16 and 13, and his friends from work can be seen in the stands cheering him on. Next up for the aspiring professional driver is an August 31 race at the Buttonwillow Raceway Park. No matter who cruises to the most laps, Team Nickel is already a winner.

Related Resources:

Check out video from the driver's point of view:

Laguna Seca


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