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.

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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.

 

PART 1 – A REAL REDLANDS CONNECTION

Tiger Woods
Image credit: Tour Pro Golf Clubs

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, plus NCAA Final Four connections, 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

There seemed to be no master plan. Redlands has produced athletes. Coaches. Dramatic moments. Memorable moments. Historical moments. Connections beyond belief. Tennis & golf. Baseball & soccer. World Cup & the Olympics. Football & basketball. Bowling & auto racing. You name it. Children born to Redlands parents launched careers in various sports.

Sometimes, even outside legends came to the local area.

Think of Tiger Woods playing golf at Redlands.

Or these “connections”:

  • Pete Sampras played in a junior satellite tournament in Redlands.
  • Muhammad Ali never boxed here. But did he come to Redlands?
  • Former World Boxing Council welterweight champion Carlos Palomino did show up.
  • A couple of area second basemen – one from Redlands and the other from Colton – played against each other in the 1983 American League playoffs.
  • A Hall of Fame bowler once showed up once to roll a few practice frames en route to a PBA Arizona tournament.
  • Former NBA players John Block and Cazzie Russell, basketball’s overall No. 1 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 1966, brought in small college teams to coach against the University of Redlands.
  • Two years before Villanova won the NCAA Division 1 men’s college basketball championship, the Wildcats played on the same court at Redlands.
  • Landon Donovan, pro men’s soccer. A homegrown.
  • Heather Aldama, pro women’s soccer. Another homegrown.
  • A future NBA coach brought a horrible Pomona-Pitzer College team to beat Redlands, then launched a Hall of Fame career in San Antonio.
  • A former baseball Hall of Famer watched his grandson play center field at the University of Redlands.
  • One of college basketball’s greatest coaches spent two seasons in Redlands.
  • The original “Lucky Louie” learned to drive in Redlands around 1919 – then won three times at the Indianapolis 500.
  • Redlands produced a track & field Olympian in 1920. Eighty years later, there was a men’s soccer Olympian, a female high jumper, plus a male cyclist.
  • For a dozen years, a professional football team launched its season from the local university. The nostalgia was surreal. Names like Ollie Matson, Les Richter, Norm Van Brocklin, ElRoy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, Tom Fears, plus Jane Russell’s husband, Bob Waterfield, were among those that showed up on local turf. The numbers of Hall of Famers attached to that group, which includes Pete Rozelle, Tex Schramm and Joe Stydahar, is off the charts.
  • A veteran baseball player scouted Oakland so effectively that the scouting report he turned over to 1973 New York Mets’ manager Yogi Berra nearly helped topple the A’s dynasty in the World Series.
  • Wimbledon entries. Golf’s U.S. Open. PGA Championship. A Harlem Globetrotter? An area tennis coach once tended to a world-ranked star. Local photographers that shot Ben Hogan and Wayne Gretzky.
https://www.flickr.com/photos/slgc/21462832908/in/photolist-yGACtf-21QZTjP-am2XuR-am2ThR-am5AsJ-am2Ubz-am5FA7-am5TMu-am2UZa-am5Bfh-am5WXf-am5NoL-am2QEM-am2DpK-am5qTS-am5JSu-am38Ga-am5M5G-am5w3U-am5urq-am3842-am37mg-am2WCR-am2RWc-am5t8G-am38W4-am339p-am5LLG-am2Qz6-am2EDt-am5TvW-am2YUV-am2VVH-am2SGz-am33HV-am2YAr-am5qm3-am5P5A-am2VPM-am5EU5-am5CP9-am2LoH-am5x2G-am2YnH-am5Lg3-am2LPg-am5rvJ-am32Dz-am5HTq-am2M2k
Image credit: “Yogi Berra at Shea Stadium Closing Ceremonies” by slgckgc licensed, CC BY 2.0.

Heaven forbid, there’s so much more.

There is a good chance that most Redlands athletes aren’t included in this book. In fact, count on it.

There’s a Hall of Fame at Redlands High and another one at the University of Redlands. That’s good enough for multiple all-league, all-conference, All-CIF or NCAA Division 3 All-Americans in any sport.

There are great soccer midfielders, tremendous water polo goalies, ball hawking safeties on a football field, along with some catchers and pitchers, hurdlers and pole vaulters, hitters from both the gridiron and diamond, rebounders, shooters and great glove men, plus swimmers and tennis stars who won’t make it into these blogs.

Let’s not forget the golfers.

In over 100 years at Redlands High School and over a century of athletic tradition at the University of Redlands, some of sports’ most cherished and respected names have touched the lives of local spectators. Played memorable games. Won league or conference championships. Or barely missed. Many of those accounts made the local daily newspapers.

These blogs aren’t intended to list each All-American, every all-leaguer, local all-star, league MVPs, conference players of the year, or even the kids that had All-Pro or All-Star aspirations, only to hit a bump in the road. It’s not even to pay tribute to the mainstream coaches that have conceived, trained, managed, and inspired teams to impressive championship seasons.

The exceptions, of course, are these: If they reached the pro ranks, or major colleges, Olympics, World Cup, an All-Star game, a professional draft, or something of note beyond just their local community, well … They’re in! Hopefully. We’ve researched a ton.

It’s a long, arduous task to corral all the Redlands greats. We’ve got most of them.  I think.

MOTOR RACING, FOOTBALL, SOCCER,

AND SCARY VOLLEYBALL BANQUET

Would it occur to anyone that Redlands High product named Jim Weatherwax could count himself as one having been coached by both Vince Lombardi and Jerry Tarkanian?

Or that Redlands High’s Brian Billick can claim as onetime employers Bill Walsh, Tom Landry and Lavell Edwards?

Gary Nelson, a classic grease monkey, got his start in auto racing working for a local legend, Ivan Baldwin, later serving as crew chief for NASCAR legends Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison.

That’s noteworthy.

As a Sports Editor whose time measured from 1981-2002, one of my biggest pet peeves was against pushy parents. Throughout the life and times of area news media, parents of even the top athletes fought for respect given to their much-decorated sons or daughters in print.

A classic example: Hours before the season-ending banquet for a CIF-Southern Section championship volleyball team, no less than three parents of athletes from that team contacted me by telephone at the local newspaper office.

They were upset about the way their daughters were “coached” by the author of this championship team. Their feelings was that he had been unfair. This coach, Gene Melcher, substituted their daughters in and out of matches, replacing their daughters with someone else’s daughter.

These telephone calls were made to reflect the fact that “something” might happen at the banquet, if not an actual boycott, casting a gray cloud over this championship banquet.

Wow! These parents waited until banquet night to settle a score with a coach? Settle a score with a coach who guided their team to the championship?

Talk about pushy parents. See? This is what you deal with on the sports desk of any newspaper – small, mid-size or major daily publication.

Since I was invited to attend, and speak, at the banquet, I could hardly wait to see what would take place. There could be an actual story for the newspaper. Imagine the headlines: “Parents disrupt team banquet!” I couldn’t wait to see if these parents had the bitterness to pull it off. It would have been off the charts for sheer gall. Imagine undermining an event at which they were celebrating the ultimate goal – a championship.

More than one observer has uttered the now-cliché phrase: “These parents wouldn’t be happy if God were coaching their team.”

During each of those phone calls, I gently tried calling out these parents, making a game attempt to talk them out of their funk. Believe me, there’s nothing worse than a parent who thinks their kid has been wronged.

Thankfully nothing out of the ordinary occurred. During my remarks, I was nervous over the fact that something might take place. In fact, the banquet went perfectly fine. Parents of these high school-aged athletes sat in complete celebration about the achievements of their daughters’ team.

Pushy parents can’t get their kids’ names into these blogs.

I can just hear some of those parents: “We’ll see about that.”

Read Part 2 here.