Nellie Goins wasn’t the first female to ever strap herself into a supercharged, nitro-burning Funny Car – pioneers like Paula Murphy, Della Woods, and Shirley Muldowney all preceded her – nor the first African-American racer to try their hand at the volatile machines – Malcom Durham and his protégés, Lee Jones and Western Bunns, all were there before her – but hers is a story that transcends firsts, let alone gender and race.
The fact that she was both female and African American in a time when the sport, and even the world, was not always kind to either is not even the takeaway from the story of her brief time in the sport. I’d long been aware of “Nitro Nellie,” but it wasn’t until last weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals that I got a chance to spend some time with her. She was there, along with her beautifully restored Mustang Funny Car, as part of the event’s Hot Rod Junction and took part in autograph sessions and chatted with fans, some of who knew of her and some just learning. She got to sit next to legendary quarter-mile Don Garlits and met Antron Brown. It was quite a weekend.
Now 75, Nellie is just beginning to get the accolades of her long-ended career, including being honored late last year by the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame, and I was just as eager to see that she got due respect for her efforts in the sport. I had no idea of the story of family love and devotion that would unfold in our subsequent phone calls.
Nellie was just a teenager in high school in Indiana when she met the man who would change her life, Otis, a talented offensive guard on their school’s football team. He loved sports and cars, and they married not long after. She was just 16, and he recently graduated and headed into the service.
The two built a life together in Gary, Ind., and started a family that by the late 1960s had grown to four children. He toiled at U.S. Steel and she at the Joliet Army munitions plant in Illinois, where she worked her way up to building supervisor at the plant that produced 105 mm howitzer shells and other armament during the Vietnam War.
Through it all, Otis never forgot his passion for cars, and with fabled U.S. 30 Dragway practically in their backyard, it was only natural that the dragstrip would be a place for him to express that desire. And when Otis dreamed, he always dreamed big, and he wanted a Funny Car.
So the duo scrimped and saved, often working double shifts at their respective jobs. For Nellie, that meant 60-mile long drives to and from work – and one time getting stranded on the highway in a snowstorm for a day and a half, taking refuge with 95 others inside a tiny gas station – and doing without a lot of life’s luxuries one might want.
“We had a rough time getting started with money in general because I was only 16, but he always said we had to put money aside, no matter how little, until it finally got to the point there was enough to start something,” she recalled. “As the song says, ‘It was a long time comin.' "
The end result of all of that hard work was an injected-on-alcohol ’68 Barracuda that Otis dubbed the Conqueror. Otis was going to drive the car himself, but he suffered from diabetes and was not able to pass the physical. So Nellie did the only thing she could think of to salve his broken heart and keep the dream alive. She offered to drive it.
“Drag racing was not my first passion, but I did it for my husband and my family,” she admits. “I always believed that if a woman kept her husband happy, everything would be beautiful. This was the family dream.”
She also admits that she was unprepared for what she had signed up for.
“I had no respect at all for the car the first time I got in it,” she recalls. “We took the car to an abandoned airstrip near where we lived, and since neither of us had ever driven one of these cars, we didn’t know a whole lot about what to do. I was so nonchalant and relaxed that when I stood on the gas, a half-second later my head snapped back and I realized this wasn’t your grandma’s car. I found that respect pretty quickly.”
(Above) Otis and Nellie's first Funny Car was this Dodge Charger. A Challenger replaced it, but the body was damaged by a tire incident (below).
After a year of getting their feet wet on the various Midwest match race alcohol circuits, Otis decided to convert the car to injected nitro. According to Nellie, he was never shy about asking for help, even going as far as to approach the likes of Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme for advice, and he found an expert helping hand in former U.S. Nationals championship tuner Ken Hirata, who lived in Lowell, Ind., just 30 miles from Gary.
“Kenny became my husband’s mentor,” she remembers. “Whenever we had a problem we couldn’t figure out, we’d call on good ol’ Kenny, and he’d come down to help us. One of my funniest stories about Kenny was the time he drove down to help us get the car ready for a race one Sunday. Where we lived, there was a church on the other side of the alley from our garage, and catty-corner from us was another church, and across the street was another church. Roland Leong was staying with Kenny that weekend, so he came down, too. When we finally fired it up, it was right during the middle of church service. You have no idea how many cops and preachers showed up.”
The Goins' four children were at their feet at every event, the youngest around five, the oldest 12, and served as pit crew along with help from one of Otis’ friends and one of Nellie’s co-workers at the munitions plant. “They didn’t know much, but they were good at taking orders, and Mr. Goins was good at giving orders,” she said with a laugh.
“The kids were our pit crew; they were well-behaved because they were strictly raised, and they worked hard. It gets cold in Gary, Ind., in the winter, and the kids would be out there with us in the garage laying on the cold pavement, working on the car to get it ready for the next spring.”
Drag racing in the 1960s was not an especially welcoming environment to women, and race relations then are not quite what they are today, but Nellie says that they never experienced any troubles on either front.
“No one ever mistreated us because of our race,” she said. “In fact, we were pretty well ignored. We didn’t have the big money or big sponsor, and we certainly didn’t have time to socialize. We had a few fans, but because it was all business, nose to the grindstone to get the car ready, we didn’t have time to chat with them. We didn’t want them to think we were snobbish; we just didn’t have time to talk to them. We were just trying to hold it together.”
Nellie and Otis eventually traded the '68 Barracuda body in for a new '70 Challenger body, but their beautiful new treasure was heavily damaged on one of their first runs when the tire reached out and grabbed the right side of the body, tearing it off below the window.
“We were at U.S. 30, and we didn’t figure on the tire growth, and when I took off, I looked over and there was nothing but daylight on that side,” she said. “It was clear we were strictly amateurs.”
(Above) Otis and Nellie with their new Mustang, which made its debut, sans lettering, in August 1971 (right).
It was during this time that the Goins team received a shot of recognition in Ebony magazine. At Otis’ urging, Nellie had written to the magazine, providing them with a detailed story of their efforts. They rejected her article but decided instead to send a reporter and photographer to accompany them at a match race at Tri-State Raceway in Ohio. The resulting story spanned five pages and ran in the November 1971 issue, and she later also was featured in Ebony Jr., but the hopes of the articles attracting a sponsorship soon faded. “We never were able to get a sponsor of any kind,” she laments. “I think the most we ever got was spark plugs.”
Despite their steep learning curve, the goal was the AA/FC ranks of supercharged nitro, so in early 1970, they commissioned chassis builder Lee Austin to build them a new car, which they cloaked with a Fiberglass Ltd. ’71 Mach 1 Mustang body. The car debuted Aug. 29, 1971, at U.S. 30 in injected nitro trim and later was converted to full-blown nitroburner. The car was capable of running in the low sevens at speeds approaching 215 mph.
The dream ride came to an end one weekend a few years later at Bristol Dragway. The right front tire got off the track, damaging both the chassis and the body. Although Otis ordered a new Monza shell for the car, his health had begun to decline as the result of his diabetes, and the team could no longer afford to race, so the car was parked and sat in their garage for almost three decades.
“Even though he was sick and bedridden, he would still be going through his National Dragster and other car magazines ordering parts,” she remembers. “He always dreamed of getting the car back out.”
Otis passed away in July 2001, and a few years later, Nellie finally parted with the car. The first owner, Sam Ballen, kept it for a few years, then sold it to Rick Lucas, who wanted to do – with Nellie’s blessing and cooperation – a 100 percent accurate restoration of the car, which was showcased last weekend in the Hot Rod Junction at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.
“Rick was so dedicated to getting it right,” she said, almost in awe. “He calls me before he does anything and checks to see if the way he has it is the same as the original. Having the car at the Gatornationals was the greatest thing that could ever happen. Otis has been gone 14 years, but I know that he saw it.” You can see photos of the restoration at http://www.conquerorracing.com/current.html.
The Gatornationals was a treat for Nellie in so many other ways. She was able to reconnect with Hirata’s wife, Chiyo, for the first time since the 1970s and with his son, David, who was there to tune on Mia Tedesco’s Top Alcohol Dragster. And she got to meet Brown, who made history in 2012 as NHRA’s first African-American Pro champ and, like the rest of us, fell in love with him.
“He’s so sweet; he is the nicest guy,” she raved. “He’s already married so I can’t get him to marry my daughter, but I would consider adopting him and his whole family. He welcomed me like he’d known me his whole life and introduced me to the crowd [of fans] around his trailer. He took me inside his trailer and opened a cabinet and there were 16 pair of brand-new heads; what we would have given to have two extra pair of brand-new heads back then."
She also got to sit next to Garlits during the autograph session and was thrilled to know that he knew who she was. “He is drag racing; anyone who knows anything about drag racing knows Don Garlits,” she said. “He was a whole different person than I knew of when we were racing. He’s a very interesting man, and he just kept talking to me, and he had no idea how much I was enjoying that and getting to know him.”
The Gatornationals followed her East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame honors – her kids, the youngest of whom is now 47, and her sister all flew in from various parts of the country to attend that ceremony – and she still can’t believe she’s remembered all these years later.
“I cannot believe this; it’s all such a whirlwind,” she said. “It blows me away. I was so shocked I almost turned down [the Hall of Fame] because I never broke any records or anything and didn’t feel worthy of all of this praise, but my daughter told me, ‘It’s not about all of that; you opened the door,’ and I realized that she was right, because we were out there fighting and trying. The most common thing I heard from fans in Gainesville was ‘Thank you for what you did for the sport,’ which makes me feel good. There is such a thing as getting your roses before you die.”
In her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Nellie spoke only briefly, but poignantly. Her key remark being one that well suits her story: “Remember it is not just your ability to do something but your availability to get out there and try. Live your dreams."