Five decades have passed since the mysterious Shadows first turned a wheel in motorsport. The brainchild of Don Nichols and his company, Advance Vehicle Systems, these fascinating, highly experimental race cars have a strong legacy in motorsport that started in Can-Am but later expanded to Formula 5000 and Formula 1.
Now, 50 years after their debut, Road America is hosting a Shadow car reunion this summer at the annual WeatherTech International Challenge with Brian Redman. The event, which coincides with a historic Can-Am race, will bring together 14 Shadows, including two of the three Formula 5000s and one of the 12 Formula 1 racers.
The primary force behind this gathering of Shadows is Jim Bartel, who has been planning the reunion for the past two years. “I had the idea, and I had the cars, too.” Bartel owns eight Shadows, all of which will be present and accounted for. Two of them, both Mk. Is, will be fresh off restoration and unveiled to the public for the first time. Ahead of running at Road America, Bartel brought out five Shadows from his fleet to M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan, for a shakedown session.
The Shadows fire up in the paddock—four Chevy big-blocks and one Dodge 5.0-liter—with an aggressive bark that makes a few onlookers immediately regret forgetting ear plugs. Bartel is unmoved, his arms folded, observing the cars with calm acuity. “I grew up around Road America and loved sports cars,” he half-shouts at me, raising his voice over the eight-cylinder din filling the air. “As for the Shadows, I was attracted to their mystique. They were generally unsuccessful but extremely radical, and Don Nichols was a marketing mastermind.”
Nichols founded Advanced Vehicle Systems (AVS) in 1969 and developed the first Shadow Racing Inc. vehicles according to a Trevor Harris design. These initial forays, the Mk. I Can-Ams, competed for the first time in June 1970 at Mosport, with George Follmer and Vic Elford driving. The Mk. I used small wheels, a wildly low profile, and reduced frontal area for minimal drag, but the car was not especially reliable. The cockpit was also incredibly confining, and owing to the low height and compact suspension, the ride was punishing. Later designs, with the help of Jackie Oliver and Brian Redman behind the wheel, brought Shadow greater success in Can-Am, including a championship in 1974 in what would be the series’ final season.
Bartel respects how, in Can-Am especially, Nichols’ underdog outfit took on big-time manufacturers. “Let’s face it, Don punched way above his weight. If you look at the other teams at the time, with Jim Hall at Chaparral and Gurney at McLaren, they had the benefit of major major corporate support. Shadow didn’t have a GM at its back. Nichols always ran his own cars under his own marque. He was a maverick, bucking against the odds. And he was innovative as he was secretive.”
About that. Nichols, who passed away in 2017, was inspired by the 1930s comic character “The Shadow,” but the name was a fit in more ways than one. Prior to his founding of AVS, Nichols was a military intelligence officer, and his penchant for cloak-and-dagger tactics didn’t falter in civilian life. Perhaps Britain’s Motorsport Magazine, in a 2000 article interviewing Nichols, summed it up best:
Rarely have a car and its owner been better matched than Nichols and his Shadow. Both were unconventional, provocative and, above all, mysterious. When Nichols showed up in southern California in 1968, a tall, bearded stranger full of strange notions, he seemed to have materialised out of nowhere. Actually, he’d been a major player on the Japanese motorsport scene as a tyre distributor, parts importer and race promoter. But he shunned publicity like the military intelligence officer he’d once been, and cultivated an image perfectly attuned to the team logo—a shadowy figure cloaked in a black cape. He named his company Advanced Vehicle Systems, which called to mind lunar rovers rather than race cars. The front door of his shop was locked to discourage visitors. “If people wanted to see us,” he explains, “they dumped their business cards through the mail slot.”
As Trevor Harris later attested, the critical resources limiting Shadow’s potential are familiar to any upstart racing venture: time and money. Bartel concurs with that assessment.
“Shadows are known as oddball cars,” he explains, “but the 5000 and Formula 1 DN4 were very successful despite the fact that the others were known to be fragile and finicky. They never had the opportunity to be developed the way they should have. Set up properly, as I’ve done, they’re great. Very quick and stable. Don was always up against the wall, battling the clock and budget. In the end, he was more interested in the art and artistry than the engineering.”
Seeing the Shadows briefly run around the track at M1 Concourse felt like tease for the spectacle taking place later this summer. The long weekend at Road America will include the traditional Friday parade from the track into Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, then the Vintage Car Concours d’Elegance, followed by practice sessions on Saturday and competition on Sunday. Eleven Shadows will be racing, and drivers will include Jim Pace and Dorsey Schroeder. There will be a dedicated hot-lap session exclusively for the Shadows to run at speed, as well as a photo session that will involve George Follmer himself. Jackie Oliver, who lives in the U.K., was scheduled to be involved, but like many others he is currently unable to make the trip due to travel restrictions in place to curb the spread of COVID-19. Also joining in the festivities will be Don Nichols’ daughter, Penny Michaels, who was an active part of the family racing operation from the time she was a teenager.
For Bartel, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind getting this event together, but the light at the end of the tunnel is close. The sight and the sound of 16 Shadows blasting around Road America—the track of his youth—will no doubt be a wonderful spectacle to behold.
The WeatherTech International Challenge runs from July 23–26, 2020. You can find more information on the event here.