Off Road

Jon Nelson dies after cancer battle

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Credit: Carrera Photo

Jon Nelson, one of the greatest fabricators and masterminds of off-road truck racing, passed away Tuesday after a long battle with cancer.

Nelson began working for desert racing great Walker Evans in the late 1970s before being hired by Larry Minor in 1983. With Nelson’s expertise, Minor’s Class 8 trucks quickly enjoyed success with drivers like Steve Kelley, who won in his debut with the team at the 1984 HDRA Frontier 250 followed by the 1985 class championship. Minor and Parnelli Jones also raced the Miller American-sponsored truck, though Kelley was effectively the team’s star en route to his induction into the Off-Road Motorsports Hall of Fame.

In 1986, he and his brother Eric founded Nelson & Nelson Racing Products. Chevrolet enlisted the company to oversee their Class 8 and short course programmes, the latter of which entailed racing in the Mickey Thompson Entertainment Group‘s stadium trucks with Ricky and Jimmie Johnson, unrelated motocross riders who later became legends in off-road and stock car racing, respectively.

Jimmie Johnson got his start in four-wheeled racing thanks to Nelson and excelled in MTEG before going on to compete in SCORE International with Nelson & Nelson support. For the NASCAR Cup Series’ 2019 throwback race at Darlington, Johnson’s car was adorned with a livery emulating the “Butch” truck that Nelson prepared for him.

“When I got into the stadium trucks, I tore up plenty of equipment and drove Jon Nelson crazy by destroying his race trucks,” quipped Johnson at a press conference in 2003. “But I learned some hard lessons through that. Rick Johnson has influenced me through a lot of my career and so has my dad. I had some hard knocks along with way with Jon Nelson in particular being frustrated with some of his equipment that I tore up.”

Butch was previously driven by Larry Ragland, who slid over into a new Trophy Truck built by Nelson called “Arnold” that went on to win the Baja 1000 four times from 1995 to 1997 and 1999. While it was the only TT that Nelson constructed, it featured a unique reverse mounted engine.

“Most people just called his double torsion bar suspension, with rear mezzanine arm coil over suspension, genius,” wrote John Elkin in an obituary for Nelson.

Like Johnson and many of their contemporaries, Nelson dabbled on pavement in the late nineties. In 1996, he founded and raced in Spec Truck, whose vehicles featured identically prepared Chevrolet ZZ3 V8 engines and was in essence a little cousin of the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, itself developed with input from desert racing veterans such as Nelson’s early client Frank “Scoop” Vessels. Officially known as the Ultra Wheels Spec Truck Series, it competed in support of the now-defunct NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour at California short tracks like Mesa Marin Raceway and Irwindale Speedway, and even road courses in Buttonwillow and Willow Springs.

At the turn of the millennium, his focus shifted back to off-road again when he designed rock crawlers named “Scrapper” and “Tiny”, a pair of buggies which went on to win championships in the discipline. He also remained involved in short course as the crew chief for Greg Adler in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series.

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Justin is not an off-road racer, but he writes about it for The Checkered Flag.
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