Volunteer Spotlight: Tom Nelson

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Name: Tom Nelson

Volunteer Position(s): Docent

I started volunteering in: 2015, April 24, opening day

Q: When and how did you become a motorsports enthusiast?

It was a long and winding road. The first seed was sown in 1956, when my future brother-in-law came to our house in a MG-TC and gave me a ride. We lived in a rural area in Michigan, and sports cars were virtually non-existent. It wasn’t until 1960, when I went to Detroit for college, that I got more exposed to more exciting cars. I went to my first sports car race with a friend that had a Morgan. Another friend of mine had a 1960 non-stock Corvette. The enthusiasm was rising.

I majored in Mechanical Engineering, and the last three years (of five) were spent alternating terms going to school and working with a company for hands-on training. One of the people I worked for, who may have been the best boss I ever had, took me under his wing and we became good friends. One day in early 1963, he came to me and asked if I would like to go in his place to the Ford Styling Studio and pick up some blueprints. He said that he would call a friend of his there and arrange a little tour. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! After getting through security, we toured four studios (my badge limited me to one). We went into one studio, and sitting there was a full-scale clay mockup of a 1965 Mustang Fastback. I immediately set my heart on having one. The Fastback came out in early ’65, and I had one (custom ordered) in about a month. My pre-graduation gift to myself.

After college, I moved to Peoria, IL to work for Caterpillar, knowing that after training and a few years in the Service Department, I would receive a field assignment. I bought a Bug-Eyed Sprite to run autocross and got my first taste of driving a sports car. Maybe it was just a sip. That fall, a fellow employee and I went in his 356 Porsche to Road America in Wisconsin to watch the SCCA Nationals and the Can-Am races. The next year, a group of us went to Indy for a qualifying day.  

In 1967, I received my first field assignment to Fresno, CA, where I spent two very hot summers after driving across the country in February in my non-heated Sprite. Does that make me an enthusiast or an idiot? I made it to Laguna Seca for a SCCA race. Road America and Laguna Seca remain my two favorite tracks.

In 1969, I was transferred to Portland. That spring I bought a 1962 Porsche Super 90 for fun and to autocross. Shortly after, I joined the Cascade Sports Car Club and met fellow volunteer Peter Linsky.

Q: What kind of influence has that had on your life?

A large one. Joining Cascade Sports Car Club had two major impacts on my life. The first, and most important, is that I met my wife of 47 years in a blind date set up by fellow club members. Second, I was able to fulfill my dream of racing sports cars. I raced from 1970 until 1979, winning a championship in 1974 with a car that I had built.

It also influenced my married life. My wife was by my side the whole time, and wholeheartedly. She learned to both time and score my races. When I was named License Director by ICSCC, she became Novice License Director. When I became President, she became Secretary. When I had a very bad crash, I offered to quit racing, because I knew how it affected her even though I wasn’t hurt. She said don’t, because that wasn’t the way to quit. “Quit when you’re ready to quit on your terms.” I’ll love her forever for that, and so I built a new car — and quit when I was ready.

Q: What makes volunteering at World of Speed meaningful to you?

At age 75, it gives me a place to go, do something I love, meet interesting people, and work for an organization that backs up their motto of “Educate. Entertain. Preserve. Celebrate.”

Q: What is the most memorable experience of your time volunteering?

Being a docent from the day we opened, I can’t even begin to pick one. I have met many truly interesting people from all walks of life, seen how all our exhibits have educated and entertained people, and have worked many of the museum’s events.

Q: What do you wish other people knew about World of Speed?

I wish other people knew about the passion and dedication that our founders had when they conceived World of Speed, and for their vision in the continued education of children.

Q: If you could choose any vehicle to be displayed in the museum, what would it be?

Tough question with many possible answers, but since I can only pick one, I would choose one of the original McLaren Can-Am cars in McLaren Orange. I will never forget the race I saw at Road America in 1965. A grand display of raw power.

Q: What is your dream car?

I’ve always loved Porsches and we had a few in the ‘70s. I’m a little old and creaky to be getting in and out of a sports car. I used to lust after a 911, but now maybe just a Cayman.