He was outside the comfort zone of his own shop, tools and methodology, working under the mammoth J&L Fabricating trackside operation at the Rolex Monterey Reunion. It had been a rare free weekend for Nick Slade, who struggles to say “no” to a friend in need.
In this case, J&L Fabricating founder Louie Shefchik, with several immaculately-prepped Formula 1 cars to present at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, was the friend in need.
New Zealander Slade would barely have time to recover before a test session with the Arrow McLaren SP IndyCar team, which he’d work with the following weekend at the Laguna Seca finale, and would host a relaxed pre-race evening at his race shop.
Meanwhile, several current project cars were calling his name from his nearby Slade/Advanced Vehicle Systems shop, awaiting his attentions.
In a sport increasingly focused on specialization, Slade is something of a throwback—a generalist whose wide range of abilities and focus on “doing it right” has led him over more than 30 years to a spotless workshop just a few miles from Laguna Seca Raceway, a list of happy customers, and a handful of race team owners who have his number.
The shop, crowded with cars and tools, is kept immaculate—more like a museum than a busy prep shop.
“I opened [it] with Shadow’s Don Nichols in 2014, looking to help him prep and parcel off all of his Can-Am and Formula 1 cars and parts,” Slade explains. “When Don passed away [in 2017], he left me everything—all the trophies, all the photographs, driver’s helmets, all that. I have all that in a section of the shop—it’s all really nicely displayed.”
The walls, meanwhile, boast a massive art collection by noted artist and auto racing enthusiast Thierry Thompson. Slade, a big admirer of Thompson’s work, had rebuilt the latter’s Swift DB-1 Formula Ford.
And then there’s the scale model cars collection.
“A lot of the cars that I’ve worked on, I’ve been fortunate enough to find actual models of them,” he says. “So if I worked on an IndyCar, whatever, I like to try and find a 1:18 or 1:12 scale model.
“I’ve worked on a lot of cars, especially IndyCars, so I have quite a big collection now…”
Teenager Slade started off working on Subarus for Kiwi racing and rallying ace, Trevor Crowe for whom his dad, Bob, built race engines. In the early 1980s, Bob moved to America to build race engines, leaving Nick behind to finish school and serve out a long apprenticeship. He followed his dad to Southern California when he was 21 after a summer visit at 17.
“I worked for my dad for a couple years when I first came over,” Slade remembers. “One of his early customers, Tom Malloy of Trench Shoring, had a big collection of cars, and I helped look after them, restored a whole bunch of cars for him.”
In 1999, team manager John Anderson employed him to work for Bruce McCaw’s PacWest IndyCar team. Among the highlights of that early experience? Slade was on hand when fellow Kiwi Scott Dixon—23 years later a six-time champion!—got his very first laps in an IndyCar.
Slade would spend the next decade serving as a full-time IndyCar mechanic, first with PacWest, then, after brief stints at Patrick Racing and the fledgling PKV team, settling in for several years at Forsythe.
The connection with Shadow’s Don Nichols was made via his dad who’d been in charge of Kraco’s race engine department for a time before moving north, relocating Slade Engines in Salinas.
“My dad was doing a Can-Am engine for Don Nichols when I first came over here, and one of Don’s former F1 mechanics, Dave Luckett, was working on the car at Don’s shop. So I met Dave and Don when I was in my early 20s, and from 2000 to 2010, I would run into them from time to time.
“In 2010, Don had us get a DN4 Can-Am car running and put it into an auction for him,” Nick continues, “which led to a conversation, ‘Hey, can you manage all the projects that I’m doing?’”
In 2014, Nichols and Slade started the shop together, the latter helping to parcel out bodywork and car parts, find buyers for all the Shadow hardware in Nichols’ warehouse and putting together several complete cars.
Following Nichols’ death, with able front-office assistance from his wife of 25 years, Ardele, Slade has carefully acquired a vast amount of top-line equipment. Coupled with his IndyCar experience and a select group of friends, as well as his father (whose shop is right across the street), Slade/AVS has been able to take on a wide variety of restoration and trackside projects.
But the most enjoyable pursuit, he says, is running a team. His primary customer at present is Bruce Leeson, owner of The Ginger People, who runs select vintage races with a McLaren F5000 car as well as a limited schedule in the GT Celebration series with an immaculate Audi—a series which Slade hopes to take on full-time one day.
“I know where the sister car to Bruce’s Audi is, and I’d like nothing more than to get hold of it, get a bigger trailer, and take in the whole GT Celebration series,” he says. “It’s a great place for outdated but still very competitive GT3 and GT4 cars. I really enjoy it.
“I’d like to get a real race budget together with somebody that’s really wanting to do it properly,” he explained. “Keep it manageable, but also do everything to the premium, you know. I have [nothing but] high end equipment here at the shop—a lot of it custom made. Everything I have is at a level that the top sports car and F1 teams have. I’ve spent a fortune on that stuff, but that’s what’s important to me.”
Race weekends with Leeson and the McLaren IndyCar team have pulled him away this summer from several of his own rebuilding—“I don’t care for the word ‘restoration’”—projects. In addition to a very trick Subaru Legacy, he has three other builds including a ’62 Corvette (“that’s been out for paint so long I almost forgot about it!”), a ’79 Shadow F1 car and an ’83 Ferrari 308—“and that’s a lot of work, you know?” he adds with a laugh.
Stories, Slade has stories! But all too soon he was back to work—a stand-out “wrench” in a Northern California hotbed of vintage racing.