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Women in Motorsports: Nikole Durbin

Pro Car Associates

You’d be hard-pressed to find another person as passionate about cars, racing and engine building than Nikole Durbin. You might think she’s been in this industry her whole life and never knew anything else, but you’d be wrong in assuming that.

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Nikole actually went to college to pursue a nursing degree. Unfortunately, when the school raised its out-of-state tuition, Nikole had no choice but to return home. At the age of 17, her dad was worried Nikole would find trouble or become unfocused. To keep her occupied, he thought she might enjoy getting involved in racing.

“My dad knew a guy named DJ Jans, who had a local race team,” Nikole Durbin says. “I went to one of his track days and I never left his side. I was DJ’s little helper for about 15 years. His bucket list was to run the Trans-Am road racing series, so we did that in 2011. He was the oldest Rookie of the Year.

“From there, I found a team in Elgin, Illinois, ECC Motorsports that was looking for another person. That was my first paying gig, working on race cars at ECC Motorsports. I was there for about five years when I met Chuck and Chris Wright. They were our tuner for the TA2 cars.”

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As it turned out, ECC was starting to change direction and wasn’t interested in competing anymore. Nikole was in her prime and starving for more.

“Chuck [Wright] actually offered me a job to be his engine building apprentice,” Durbin says. “I left ECC, moved to Akron to be with Chuck.”

Unfortunately, Chuck Wright passed away in 2018, but his son, Chris, stepped up and took Nikole under his wing to teach her everything about engine building.

“Nikole has road raced, both driven and crewed, with teams for most of her life,” Chris Wright says. “I stole her from a professional race team I was doing work for. She was one of the main techs working on the cars. Since coming here, she has been learning the art of tuning, assembling engines and more.”

The best student is one who wants to learn, and Nikole has been more than eager to learn everything she possibly can.

“I want to do everything,” Durbin says. “I want to be the ultimate Jack of this industry. I want to know how to tune. I want to know how to build. I want to know how to fab. I want to workout and be able to install a tranny all by myself.”

Nikole started working at Pro Car Associates in November 2018 and has jumped in with both feet.

“I was so nervous and so green trying to know all this street stuff,” she says. “I know race cars. I know tube-frame chassis. I know how to fix a fiberglass body in my sleep, but understanding the electrical and the creature comforts and all the ins and outs of all these street cars has been a learning experience. Pro Car, Chris and all the guys I work with are just amazing and I feel unstoppable being with them all.”

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With nearly two years under her belt, Nikole has set her sights on learning to drag race and is even building an LS-powered Camaro to compete in NMCA.

“The LS project started last year,” she says. “We had a customer who wanted to put a Procharger in his 2010 Camaro for the Daily Driver Street Outlaw class. Long story short, Street Outlaws outlawed that class and not enough people brought it. We never really got the data and the R&D that we wanted from it.

“I was a little heartbroken myself because I wanted to know what it felt like because road racing and drag racing are completely different. I was really excited to get in the seat and give it a try. I actually went online and found a 2010 Camaro in perfect condition in Florida. Chris and I went down, picked it up and started this project. I wanted to be the fastest N/A in the country. That’s a pipe dream, but we’re going to be the fastest in Ohio for sure. We’ll be running the NMCA Extreme Street class.”

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Nikole even attended the Roy Hill Drag Racing School in July this year to learn drag racing from one of the best.

“The first engine is a stock block and stock heads, so we’re going to maximize what those components can do,” she says. “We’re thinking we’re going to get about 850 horse out of it. We’re going to showcase what we can do with stock stuff. Probably mid next season, we’re going to be throwing in the Dart LSX block with Edelbrock cathedral port heads, top-end internals, Diamond coated pistons – all the good stuff. We’ll run the 10.5 class and be running with the twin-turbo guys and Procharger guys and show what we can do with an N/A package with that one as well.”

When it comes to proving herself in the male-dominated world of engine building and racing, Nikole stays focused on herself and her abilities.

“There’s always the skeptics who say, ‘She’s just a pretty face. She’s the front of the box, that doesn’t mean she knows what she’s doing,’ which I’ve gotten a lot. I’ve gotten it at the track, which I don’t mind because I like proving them wrong.

“I’m my hardest critic. I know I got started late. I know I don’t have any formal training. I know there’s 1,000,001 things that I don’t know. But if you could see my house, I have stacks of automotive books that I’m working up the motivation to read, because I want to know it all. I want to be able to talk on behalf of all technicians and mechanics and my fellow shop females and let everybody know that it doesn’t matter what I’ve got under my clothes. I still have a brain.

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I enjoy this industry. I love the smell of race gas. I love the smell of burning rubber. I don’t know how to explain it. That’s what I love.

“I never looked at myself as the girl who would bat their eyelashes to get a job. I will work harder than any man and that’s because I want to show you that I can do it. I know I fit in this industry.”

For now, Nikole has been more than holding her own at Pro Car Associates and is ready to get back on the track once racing is back.

“Some girls like to eat chocolate, which I do, but going to the track was always my pick me up,” Durbin says. “There’s a presence there that you can’t get anywhere else. I can’t wait to go to the track. I can’t wait to get the Pro Car Camaro done, which will be a tribute to Chuck and close to his paint scheme that he had on his ‘69 Camaro. I can’t wait to figure out drag racing because I’m going to kick everyone’s ass and make all my boys look good. That’s what I can’t wait for.

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I couldn’t ask for anything else in this life and I can’t wait for what’s in front of me.”

Favorite car?

Two parts to that question. I’m a Ford nut born and raised. My dad has never owned anything but a Ford when I was growing up. I actually have a ‘69 Mustang that I’m doing a full resto on. I’m rebuilding the engine right now.

My dream car – the sexiest car ever built – is a ‘71 Hemi Cuda. I would do anything for one of those. There’s something about that front end.

I think Chuck is on my shoulder, because I’m becoming a little bit more of a Chevy fan each and every day.

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