From Marvin Gray


How Do I Love Thee Nelson? Let Me Count the Ways

“Where is the Nelson Ledges Race Track?” I asked the Sheriff’s Department. I had met future FA National Champion Dan Carmichael around 1970 at my fraternity house at Ohio State. He said he would be racing at Nelson, and I was welcome to join him and his son at the track.  But nobody around Cortland, Ohio, where my grandparents lived only a few miles from the track, knew where it was. Finally the Sheriff’s Department had the answer. I made it to the track, and my love relationship with Nelson began as a spectator.

Reed Andrews, Trackmeister, read the story in Car and Driver Magazine before my first trip from Long Island to the Ledges as a driver in 1973. A one-track specialist, Reed was the king of Nelson in a Showroom Stock Pinto that later I would occasionally chase up through the traffic on Cedar Hill in Cleveland. But on that day my Baby Blue Opel was quicker; I beat Reed but I was still second to someone whose name is lost to the ages.

But my Baby Blue Opel turned to Baby Blue Bitch when my friend Ed Mandel borrowed it for a Nelson Driver’s School. Trying to turn down too hard in Turn 4 called for a roll. No trailer, no problem, but I bet it looked and sounded funny going back through Chagrin Falls, crunched with no windshield, back window, no exhaust and the driver wearing a helmet. Thank goodness there was no racing exclusion in my insurance policy back.

After I moved to Cleveland in 1974, I made regular trips to Nelson. On some occasions I raced my Pinto B Sedan against one of the two racing icons from Cleveland, Old Blues Eyes himself, Paul Newman. (That Roger Penske guy is the other.) He loved just being one of the racing folk, walking through the paddock with just some white shorts on drinking his Bud.

Nelson had a history of shorter endurance races in the 70’s when Steel Cities Region would host a 3-hour Enduro. It was at those events that my partnership with one the good guys, Bill Stables, began. Bill had a very fast Capri and needed a co-driver. He asked a mutual friend, who turned him down but suggested me. We hit it off well and shared in the enduros until I bought him his first set of new race tires. Then he totaled the car in practice when the new rears gripped and launched it into a roll in turn 3.  Bill and I would then consolidate forces with my Pinto to share driving and crewing. From Pintos to Mustangs we moved forward and came to be joined in the Mustang Corral at different times by Bill Thomas, Jim Morgan, Ty Noles, Bill Frieder, Bill Noblespiece, Greg Alley, Sterling Bradley and Larry Brockway. With our Fords, Bill Stables and I would win numerous Kryderacing and other Regional Championships. That is, until he died too young at 61 of prostate cancer. Part of his ashes were spread under the oak tree that was at Turn 4.

90.1 FM Radio Free Nelson first joined the airwaves during the first Longest Day. I was joining Fred Wolf, who went out on 90.1 FM, Nelson Public Radio. Partway through the race as I was watching from the tower while announcing, a couple of strange sights appeared. First there was an actual AMC Gremlin racing. Second there was a fan (or maybe two) standing on the dirt bank outside turn 13 clapping every time said Gremlin appeared. Its fame was cemented when virtually all the crew members stationed in all the pits on pit road helped push start that heavy beast so it could finish. Thus, was created the Legend of the People’s Choice Award that would become part of the fabric of the Longest Day and Nelson.

Love potion Number 4 hit the following year when I joined Ro Janssen and team as a driver in his Number 4 Ford Fiesta. A pretty young lady named Becky was invited by another to help crew. The potion worked as Becky later became Mrs. Jansen. I would drive 3 more LDs with River Road Racing, finishing as high as third in ITC. In 1983 I ran my own Mustang GT which had a 5th in class finish in the LD despite having part of the floor under the driver’s feet held together only by the carpet after track in the carousel offered up some of its pavement as a floor grenade. That was also the year Dave Despain on the TV Show Motorweek Illustrated did a great comparison of the 24 hours of Le Mans and Longest Day which were run the same weekend. Gran Marnier Crepes or Louie Muffins, which would you choose? At another Longest Day I brought my young sons Daniel and Matthew out as spectators and as night fell one of the Car and Driver Ford Contours tried to kill us as it lost a wheel and slammed into the dirt bank outside turn 13 just below us.

While attending Cleveland Grands Prix in the late 1980s, I saw fliers for Motorsports Ministries chapel services and started making them each year. I missed being able to worship on race weekends. After some discussions with the leaders, the first Motorsports Ministries chapel at Nelson was held the early Sunday morning of the Mahoning Valley Region Golden Harvest in October 1990. We did have to hold it outside since we were locked out of the tower. It was originally my intent just to organize the chapel services, not to lead them. But for some reason most of the professional clergy were busy fishing, playing golf or riding their motorcycle early Sunday morning so God gradually nudged me away from driving into being a chaplain. Pastor Steve Geitgey was a notable exception, as he assisted at times over several years. I changed my chaplain affiliation to Road Race Ministries when it was formed just to serve at SCCA Pro and Club Racing Events. During all my years serving I have led chapel services, performed the invocations, done counseling, performed weddings (every couple I married is still married, I always ask), visited the Children’s Hospital, and conducted funerals and memorial services.

One of the saddest funerals was for Glenn Miller, who was killed working corners at Nelson when hit by a race car. Prior, Glenn had been assigned to the Tower due to health issues prior to returning to corner duty. While there he constantly bugged me while I was announcing to go out and work corners. So, after his death, I took his place on corners during drivers’ schools when my announcing wasn’t needed. There Cindy Benchina and I avoided a similar fate when a Neon driver ran right through the worker standing positions at the Kink at Turn 11.  As I ran and shoved Cindy out of the way, she was hit by the cold air intake filter, but neither of us was seriously hurt.

One day some bike guy named Kevin Stolicny showed up in the tower for what could it be? an auto race, not a motorcycle doing? So, 90.1 FM. Nelson Pirate Radio joined air on sports car weekends too. Truth is he never let the truth get in the way of a good story. But with a mike in the front and one in the back of the tower we could tell a pretty good story of the races, and most of it was true. I did love it when the daughter of one of our more mature drivers told me she was waiting at a light one day, and when it changed, her young son yelled, “Green! Green! Green! We have start!” Occasionally we would invite driver’s children up into the tower to help call their parents’ event. You can’t start them too young.

A new era began when the Lamest Day of Nelson under the LeMons Racing banner brought $500 (supposedly) cheap endurance racing to the Ledges in 2009. Dan Moran had an old ITA Dodge Omni GLH non-turbo he had left sitting in barn for a number of years. With the addition of some new treads, voila! a LeMons car. With Dan, Kevin the Pirate, Dave Martin, Chad Squires and myself we had a competent team of drivers and a less competent car. Not only was it slow. but it was also fra-gee-lay (that’s Italian for it breaks a lot.) After slowly moving up the standings the “reliable” non-turbo motor puked around hour 19.  It would not be the last time.

UsedCar Racing replaced LeMons, and my team couldn’t put Humpty Omni back together in one year to be ready. Thanks to Fred Wolf I joined up with the Evil Minions of Nelson Team. Fuel flow problems hit hard again and again, but finally the team got it right. Despite missing hours of track time in the pits, the team allowed me to drive their quick Honda for one shift. For all their efforts getting back on track, the team was awarded that same People’s Choice award that, ironically, I had created years ago.

ChumpCar came in 2011 with the level of Competition ratcheted up dramatically. 7 rollovers and around 100 tows caused the race to be halted early Sunday morning with several hours to go.  We bad school children got the dressing down we deserved before restarting. We did finish the Longer Longest Day 2012 when Chump ran 25 hours, 25 minutes and 25 seconds recording a stunning 44 of 49 cars with the ministrations of Speedy Pete Smakula, Mike Cramer, Mike’s Dad and others.  Two more Chump races, one with spun engine bearing and one with a most unbeautiful hole in a piston, finally buried Resurection Racing for good and brought my driving career to an ignominious end when I piloted for just 1 lap before she blowed up.

Over the 57 years I have loved Nelson Ledges, The Friendliest Place to Race, as first a fan, then a driver, a crew member, an announcer, chaplain, and a corner worker. And now, I am excitedly looking forward to more years loving the “New Nelson!”