GARY NELSON: WALTRIP’S WRENCH-TURNING WIZARD

Redlands Connection is a concoction of sports memories emanating from a city that once numbered less than 20,000 people. From the Super Bowl to the World Series, from the World Cup to golf’s U.S. Open and the Olympics, plus NCAA Final Four connections, NASCAR, the Kentucky Derby and Indianapolis 500, Tour de France cycling, major tennis, NBA and a little NHL, aquatics and quite a bit more, the sparkling little city that sits around halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs on Interstate 10 has its share of sports connections. – Obrey Brown

For most of his 3 ½ years with 1981 NASCAR Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip, chief mechanic Gary Nelson had met one challenge after another.

And the 26-year-old former Redlands mechanic can look back on over 20 years of experience working with engines as his credentials for time spent with the circuit’s hottest driver.

436px-GaryNelsonNASCAR1985
NASCAR crew chief Gary Nelson wasn’t born in Redlands, but the eventual wrench-turning wizard spent plenty of time there as he got his racing career started (photo by Wikipidia Commons).

“I like to think I can look at a car and say ‘this area’s weak’ and then spend more time with that,” Nelson told me a couple days before the 1981 Winston Western 500 at the old Riverside International Raceway.

“This race,” he said, “is one of the toughest for mechanics because of the course.”

It’s a course that would cause any race team headaches.

Riverside’s 7-turn course each lap would depend on mechanics’ ability to maintain the clutch and brake systems.

“On a super speedway,” said Nelson, referring to the likes of Talladega or Martinsville or Bristol, “you don’t even use them. That is, until you come to a pit stop.”

Cars that pull into pit area at Riverside, well, it resembles organized mayhem. All that stopping, turning and rotating around that course.

Nelson was well-known around Redlands by all those race-lovers. I was urged by plenty, including newspaper advertising manager Jim Mundy, to produce a story for the locals as the Winston Western 500 beckoned. In fact, we rode out to Riverside Raceway together.

Nelson, born in Illinois before Arnold and Mildred Nelson moved to Redlands, started with engines when he turned five.

Arnold Nelson started teaching his son via motorbikes and race carts.

“My dad’s a real good mechanic,” said Nelson, who eventually got into racing with local legend Ivan Baldwin — “Ivan The Terrible.” When he was in his mid-teens, Nelson started sweeping the floors before working his way in as Baldwin’s lead mechanic.

Said Mildred: “He’s just like his dad. When Gary was 16, his dad gave him the family van. The first thing he did with it was take the engine out and put a bigger one in.”

She said Gary had always been interested in anything with wheels.

“I always worried about him, but I knew he was very careful. He wasn’t a wild driver.”

His early racing experience was local.

ORANGE SHOW SPEEDWAY SPECIAL

NASCAR had to be special, especially since the Ontario Motor Speedway and the Riverside raceway were so close to Redlands. To get there, however, required the paying of dues.

It was Saturday at Orange Show Speedway. Arguably, Baldwin might be the most successful driver that ever came out of OSS. Said Nelson: “We had a lot of fun.”

Baldwin, Nelson at 605 Raceway
At left, West Coast driving megastar Ivan Baldwin, while Gary Nelson checks the engine at Speedway 605 in the San Gabriel Valley (photo by legendsofnascar.com).

A connection to Baldwin was worth plenty in those years. Baldwin, later killed in a 1996 traffic accident, raced all over California’s racing circuit. That Nelson was part of his crew shouldn’t be a surprise.

“Racing was cheap in those days,” Nelson said. “And it wasn’t hard to do. But nowadays with the price of engines and tires, it’s hard to get into.”

All of which is why events led him into NASCAR. “I wouldn’t want to race unless I could go first class,” he said.

Waltrip and Nelson hard went after wins. At a race in College Station, Texas one week, a young driver named Dale Earnhardt., Sr. had a one-lap lead with 20 remaining. Nelson saved 10 seconds by replacing just two tires instead of four on the pit stop.

It saved the day. Waltrip won, leaving the driver praising his crew chief – typical comments. “Gary made the decision to change those tires. Goddammit, the kid is so good.”

Nelson countered by saying it had been a joint decision – crew, driver and chief mechanic each involved.

“We have a good crew,” said Nelson, noting future Hall of Famers Buddy Parrott and Robert Yates, plus Butch Stevens in the pits.

“Over the last three years,” said Waltrip, who won 13 races that season with Nelson as crew chief for DiGard Racing, “we’ve been successful because the good mechanics have stayed and the bad ones have left.”

Nelson’s teams won at Daytona and Riverside, Richmond and Bristol, Darlington and Michigan, Pocono and Martinsville, Wilkesboro and Charlotte, Richmond and Dover Downs – pretty much all the major stops on NASCAR’s fabled schedule.

WALTRIP CALAMITY NEARLY OVERCOME

In the 95-lap Winston Western 500, Waltrip crashed at the sixth turn on lap 65. The car limped into the pits. In 15 seconds, the crew changed two damaged tires and hammered out the dented body so Waltrip could drive his now-disfigured car back into contention.

Two days before that race, Nelson said Bobby Allison and Richard Petty would be the “toughest competition.”

He wasn’t necessarily ignoring the likes of Cale Yarbrough, Joe Millikan, Earnhardt or Benny Parsons.

Wasn’t it ironic that Allison took the race and Petty, with substitute driver Jimmy Insolo, finishing third?

DARRELL_WALTRIP_IMAGE
Darrell Waltrip was a stock car driving legend. Part of that success came with Redlands’ Gary Nelson running the team (photo by Wikipedia Commons).

Waltrip, his crew having made the quick-handed changes after the crash, took second.

Six laps were left. Waltrip was down 45 seconds. Crew member Don Sewell, another Redlands-based pit man, said, “It’s too much.”

Only an Allison mishap would cost him the race.

Allison knocked down his fourth win of that season.

Waltrip’s familiar green “88” car sped by some 32.9 seconds later. He was nearly out of gas.

“A few years ago,” said Nelson, “I wouldn’t have predicted I’d be where I am today. It’s hard, but I rely on a lot of luck.”

If that doesn’t leave you chuckling, consider that he was worried that a rebuilt transmission on Friday wouldn’t hold in Sunday’s race.

Tim Williamson, the driver who won the Hodgdon 200 just prior to the Winston Western 500, stood alongside Nelson. It was Nelson who said, “I was worried he’d run out of gas.”

Nelson didn’t last long with Waltrip, who left one year later for Junior Johnson’s racing team.

A portion of Nelson’s resume:

  • Crew chief for Allison, who joined DiGard when Waltrip left.
  • Turned up as Kyle Petty’s crew chief, 1989.
  • In 1988, Nelson was a part-timer with ESPN.
  • A West Coast Stock Car Racing Hall of Famer.
  • Worked for NASCAR in 1991 as its Winston Cup director. During that time, Nelson was credited with safety innovations – particularly after Earnhardt’s driving death.

Since April 2001, when he took on the safety portion of NASCAR, no life-threatening accidents have taken place at any of its speedways.

One final point: Isn’t it interesting that Nelson’s most prized racers, Allison and Waltrip, were tied for fourth place on NASCAR’s all-time victory list at 84?

All that wrench-turning started as a Redlands Connection.

 

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