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Nelson heads south in search of tougher competition on the track

Darrell Nelson wanted to find out how well he could do against some of the top dirt track drivers in the nation, so he and his crew drove down to Florida last winter to compete against the powerful Outlaw Modifieds.

Darrell Nelson
Nelson

Darrell Nelson wanted to find out how well he could do against some of the top dirt track drivers in the nation, so he and his crew drove down to Florida last winter to compete against the powerful Outlaw Modifieds.

Nelson brought the same Modified he used on a weekly basis at the Proctor and Superior speedways, meaning he would be at a 200-horsepower disadvantage against the Outlaws.

"Kind of like taking a knife into a gunfight," said crew member Rod Fournier.

Even so, Nelson ended up fourth overall out of about 100 Modified race cars at East Bay Raceway Park in Tampa, Fla. This year, with a bigger engine and new car, Nelson plans on competing at more events throughout the South. Early indications are that his finish at East Bay last year was no fluke.

Nelson now is driving a Modified with a 420-cubic-inch engine that uses aluminum cylinder heads rather than steel. It produces 800 horsepower, or about 200 more than the 362-cubic-inch engines used on the local WISSOTA circuit.

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"I don't know how to explain it, except that it was fun," Nelson said of his first time driving with the larger engine. "It's kind of like running a Late Model engine in a Modified, which is huge. It's like hopping from a three-cylinder to an eight-cylinder. They're just crazy."

Nelson, 39, competed last weekend at the Battle of the Mods at Kentucky Lake Motor Speedway in Calvert City, Ky. After Thursday's racing was rained out, Nelson made the $5,000-to-win feature races on both Friday and Saturday after winning his heat races. He finished 21st on Friday after losing a fan belt. The next day, he blew a tire on the second lap -- but that didn't keep Nelson from rallying from the back of the pack to finish 10th.

"People hear about me racing in Kentucky and they ask, 'Well, did you win?' They just don't realize how tough it is," Nelson said. "There were about 130 cars competing each night, and they only take 24 for the feature, so that means 100 guys don't even get to race. So to make the feature both nights was a big boost of confidence for us."

Nelson will race this weekend in New Mexico and plans on competing at about five events this winter, a time of year most Northland drivers consider their offseason. Nelson used to be the same way, but he got enough financial backing this year to support his new endeavor.

"Things just worked out," said Fournier, 43. "Neither of us are getting any younger, and this was the right time to do this. We always have fun, no matter what happens, but it feels good knowing you have the equipment to compete. Darrell and the other WISSOTA drivers who are competing down there are representing this area well."

Nelson admitted it is a challenge juggling his racing and work. He bought Dave's Automatic Transmission from his father in March, and when he is away on a racing road trip, the "retired" Bill Nelson fills in for him at the shop.

Darrell Nelson estimated that between 50 and 60 of the 130 drivers he competed against last weekend were full-time professional racers. Nelson returned Sunday night and was still at the tranny shop at 7 p.m. Monday.

"After this experience, I've got a lot of respect for those guys who do this for a living," Nelson said. "I mean, each week I come back home and there is a paycheck waiting there for me. Those guys? If they don't make the show, they go home with 100 bucks and that's it.

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"Who knows how far we'll go with this, but at least we can say we tried it."

RANTA TO RECOMMEND ERICKSON

Superior Speedway promoter Arnie Ranta said he is planning on addressing the monthly meeting of the Douglas County Land and Development Committee today in Superior and asking out of the final two years of his three-year contract to operate the track.

Ranta said that he, along with concessions manager Mary Korich, will recommend that Larry "Butch" Erickson of Superior assume the contract. Erickson, who owns Badger Storage and Excavating, is a former Superior Speedway promoter who served as the track and grounds manager last season.

Ranta, who lives in rural Stillwater, Minn., admitted the track presented more challenges than he expected. He wants to spend more time with his 15-year-old son, Adam, as well as support his sponsorship of Lucas Oil Late Model Series driver Terry Casey.

Ranta said he has received interest from others about taking over the contract, but Erickson was the most logical fit.

"Butch knows every nut and bolt about that place," Ranta said. "He lives there five months out of the year in his motor home. That's why that track is so good, because he put the time and effort into it. He deserves it."

JON NOWACKI covers motor sports for the News Tribune. He can be reached weeknights at (218) 723-5305 or by e-mail at jnowacki@duluthnews.com .

Related Topics: NELSON
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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