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Up North Racing: Win or not, Nelson stays atop Late Model, Modified standings

Darrell Nelson of Hermantown is having such a great year on area stock car tracks that he could almost coast and still hold the points leads. Almost.

Darrell Nelson of Hermantown is having such a great year on area stock car tracks that he could almost coast and still hold the points leads. Almost.
It's ridiculous to even try to think of Nelson taking it easy, because while most racers use up all their free time preparing and racing one car in any class, Nelson runs both Late Model and Modified race cars both at least three times every week. Last weekend was an interesting slice of Nelson's season.
At Superior Speedway, Donnie Copp won the Late Model feature, with Gary Meierotto second and Nelson third. But Nelson still leads in Late Model points at Superior. In the Modifieds, Dean Yrjanainen won the feature, with Nelson second, but Nelson also leads the season points race, over Yrjanainen at Superior.
On Sunday, at Proctor Speedway, Kelly Estey won both the Modified feature and the makeup of a previously postponed Modified feature, while Nelson finished second in one and fifth in the other. Still, Nelson leads Modified points at Proctor, while Estey has closed to within 5 points of his lead. In Late Model, Nelson won his heat and was victorious in the feature, and in Proctor Late Model season points, Nelson is third behind Gary Hanson and Tim McMann.
That's an interesting irony: Out of the two classes, the only one where Nelson won the feature -- Proctor Late Models -- is the only one he doesn't currently lead in points.
"I guess that's true," Nelson said with a chuckle. "I didn't win in either car down at Rice Lake on Saturday night, either, but we're still in the top five in points in both classes down there, too. We're also 12th in the nation in Wissota Late Model points, and sixth nationally in Modified."
Nelson has raced for 16 years, even though he's only 32, and he's always carried out the motorsports version of the sports cliche about playing "one game at a time." He's so focused in on his next race, or his last one, that he had to pause when asked how he did last year.
"We didn't do as well as we expected -- no, wait a minute, I won the point title in Modifieds at Proctor," he said. "I remember, because I won a champion's jacket for my 2-year-old daughter. I don't remember those things very well. I've raced long enough that they all seem to blend together."
There was never any doubt that Darrell Nelson would grow up to drive a race car. When he was a youngster in Duluth Heights, he could be found out in the garage, where his dad, Bill Nelson, spent all his spare time for 30 years building his own dirt-track late model stock car.
"He was one of the top dogs around here for a lot of those years," said Darrell. "He got me a go-kart, and I raced it at Buffalo House, at Proctor, or Ashland -- wherever they ran them. When I was 15, my dad bought me my first race car. It was a Chevy Chevelle."
The ripe old age of 15 is significant, because it's too early to have a driver's license on the street, but that didn't stop Darrell from going racing. "I didn't have a license, but all you needed was for your dad to sign a waiver," Darrell said. "It was automatic that I'd race cars. Some people go fishing; we go racing."
While working all day at Dave's Transmission, Nelson now has his own family and lives on a 10-acre place in Hermantown, where, naturally, he's building a race shop.
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"I used to be a city slicker," he said. "But now I've got those 10 acres, and we've got room to do some things. It takes a lot of work to run cars in two classes all the time, and I've got a lot of good people working on my cars. Besides, we've got a back-up Late Model, and another Modified, so I've got two of each, and we've got parts everywhere."
Nelson's wife, Missy, and his daughter, McKenzie, are supportive of his habit. While the sports pages are filled with stories about professional race drivers and other pro athletes making multi-million-dollar salaries, dirt-track oval racing is not a place to get rich. It is instead a passionate test of skill and courage, day after day, week after week.
"There are opportunities to make money, but a lot more opportunities to spend it," Nelson said. "We've got sponsorship from Amsoil, from Terry's Place, which is a West End bar the guys like to go to once in a while, and from Tarnowski's home builders. They sponsor both cars, but still, it's a break-even game."
Breaking even in the checking account is better than breaking things on your body, which is another lesson Nelson learned two years ago. He had won his share of races, and by the mid-1990s, he was the top gun at various tracks. "I guess 1996 would be my best year," he said. "I was track champion in both cars at both Proctor and Hibbing, and I was second at Superior. Since then, I've always won a championship here or there, and a few special events."
The bouncing, churning, swerving action is the primary attraction of dirt-track oval racing, but in 1999, the spewing chunks of rock and clay that are sent flying during a race caught up to Nelson.
"I was wearing a full-face helmet, but a piece of mud came through the window, cracked my helmet and my jaw, too," said Nelson. "It knocked me out and broke my jaw. These cars practically turn by themselves, and when I got hit, I was out, and the car sort of half-spun and stopped. I'd had a nosebleed once in a while from things flying into the car before, but that time I had to have my jaw wired shut, and I lost a lot of weight.
"I sat out half the season, and came back toward the end."
Typically, he came back during the Tri-State Fair at Superior -- which starts its annual run next week -- and he finished second.
"I've got screens on the front and sides now," Nelson said. "Back then I only had a couple of little bars in the way, but after having to get my jaw wired shut, I decided to go with the screens. Last year, I was 'hurt-free' -- that was our goal."
This year, Nelson has won a half-dozen features between the two cars, and his objective is more than staying hurt-free.
Nelson's Late Model is a new MastersBuilt with a 362 cubic-inch Chevrolet "Home Run" V8. His Modified has a 406 Chevrolet engine, built by John Heidman, his crew chief.
Nelson said he has no preference between Proctor and Superior, his two "home" tracks. The Superior track is longer, and Nelson estimates the Late Models get up to 110 mph at the end of the straightaway, while the top speed is closer to 80 at Proctor.
Whatever, Nelson runs with the top speeds everywhere, and he's done so consistently well that the point standings indicate he's a winner -- whether he wins or not.

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