How a wide-eyed new owner helped make Nelson Ledges better than ever

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Jun 20, 2021 | SCCA, Endurance Racing, Nelson Ledges | Posted in Features | From the May 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Mark Windecker

[Editor's Note: This article was written before the 2021 Longest Day of Nelson Ledges was canceled.]

Brian Ross, a lifelong motorsports fan from a racing family, grew up 20 minutes away from Nelson Ledges Road Course, once a stop on the Trans-Am circuit—back when the series featured factory-backed motorsports legends like Peter Gregg, Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert. 

Brian now owns the track, yet until a few years ago he’d never even heard of the place. That’s just how far the facility had fallen from grace. 

Born From Potatoes

Back in 1958, Marvin Drucker and John McGill turned a northeast Ohio potato farm into the Nelson Ledges Road Course. As the track’s current website explains, it was just two men, a dream and a bulldozer. “There was no design plan, no million-dollar study, and no million-dollar contracts with architects, engineers or planners,” the site continues.

They originally cut a 1-mile dirt course that was eventually paved. In 1962, they doubled the track to 2 full miles. 

Endurance contests started running there a few years later, including a 24-hour race for motorcycles in 1968. Trans-Am made three visits in the mid-’70s. Stadium acts like Heart, Steve Miller Band and the Electric Light Orchestra performed on the track’s grounds.

In 1980, Nelson Ledges launched something new: a 24-hour race for SCCA Showroom Stock cars—the day’s door-slammers fitted with bolt-in cages, street tires and giant rally lights. 

Photography Credit: Mark Windecker

“When we were there,” recalls Dave Wolin, head of Mitsubishi’s effort at Nelson Ledges, “the facilities were primitive and the pit lane was dirt. I think Dick Guldstrand paved his pit spot one year; we used sheets of plywood. And when it rained….”  Photograph Courtesy Nonnamaker Racing

“Ann McHugh basically invented showroom stock endurance racing with the 1980 ‘Longest Day’ 24 hour showroom stock race, at Nelson Ledges,” writes longtime Longest Day competitor Dave Wolin in “Showroom Stock: The Rise and Fall of Showroom Stock Racing.”

The event featured SCCA Showroom Stock classes plus a Prototype class for production cars prepared beyond the rules. That first year, the event welcomed teams from Road & Track and Car and Driver magazines. “Road & Track won in 1980 in a Saab,” Dave tells us. “A number of journos persuaded Detroit manufacturers to give them cars to race, and it grew rapidly.”

Just the 1984 event featured teams sponsored by Porsche-Audi, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Peugeot. Finishing third overall and first in class: a factory Mazda RX-7 driven by Jeff and John Andretti. That team took home $180—about $455 in today’s money—for their feat. 

Dave was the one behind that Mitsubishi effort. “In 1983, when Mitsubishi started marketing cars here under their own name—previously they were Dodges, Plymouths, etc.—they asked me about a place where they could race inexpensively and get some publicity,” he continues. “I made a presentation showing Car and Drivers and Road & Tracks and said I could win with the new Starion—show off the toughness and reliability by winning a 24-hour race—and convinced them.

“I went back every year through 1992, winning our class every year because a) I liked endurance racing and b) it was a good marketing opportunity for auto manufacturers, tire companies and aftermarket suppliers.

“One thing about Ann McHugh and Nelson,” he notes, “she understood why we were there, so all four classes racing got equal billing.”

The Longest Day attracted all types, from pros like Hurley Haywood (above) to Cleveland Browns players (and jack substitutes) Bob Golic and Tom Cousineau. Joe Nonnamaker ran the Nissan 280ZX Turbo one year—yes, with T-tops and an automatic—while Warren Mosler, the man behind the Consulier, dove the Honda CRX in 1984. Find past results at racinghistoryproject.com. Photography Credits: Mark Windecker

Also a regular at the Longest Day: Joe Nonnamaker. Joe and family are still racing with son, Will, a regular GRM contributor.

“Nelson Ledges should have went away two decades ago, but it didn’t,” Will says. “And here it is today, with the very rich history of what Showroom Stock endurance racing is at its core.”

But despite that rich history, the track’s flagship event wasn’t sustainable. For one, 24-hour endurance racing had gotten too expensive for privateers, Wolin notes, so the event officials eventually welcomed the older machines that filled the SCCA Improved Touring ranks. “Mitsubishi complained when my Eclipse at the time appeared in a magazine photo with a Pinto,” Wolin notes.

Warren Mosler’s Consulier GTP, theoretically a production car yet built in limited numbers, also proved hard to beat for overall honors during the middle of the ’90s. “After our third win,” he tells us, “they banned us to keep us from winning again.”

And the track had simply slid into disrepair. Lee Grimes, now the automotive product manager at Koni North America, experienced the event as both a driver and crewmember back in the mid-’90s. He confirms the story about a traffic pylon once used to mark a pothole on the back straight. 

In 1997, facility owner John McGill called the racing surface too trashed to host the Longest Day. Eventually, the SCCA pulled its sanction of the track. Attempts to revive the event in following years just didn’t get traction. 

Back on Solid Ground

In addition to motorsports, Brian Ross’s family has a background in real estate. One day, he recalls, his dad brought up the track in a conversation. Brian, intrigued, led a charge to purchase it. After five years, he finally consummated the deal in December 2015.

“It was this crown jewel in Northeast Ohio,” Brian says of the track. “You couldn’t see it anymore.”

He pauses: “I saw it. I thought that I could bring it back.”

Then the magnitude of the project sunk in. “I had no idea what to do,” he admits. “I was 26 years old.”

Real estate, he explains, is tough work, but at least there’s institutional knowledge to turn to: books, mentors, schools. “When you tell somebody that you want to learn how to run a race track,” he continues, “there’s nothing out there. So I have this track, and the pavement’s destroyed.”

Nelson Ledges held its first event under new ownership, a track day, in June 2016. “No one showed up,” Brian recalls. “It was a disaster. We didn’t know what we were doing.”

Photograph Courtesy Nelson Ledges

Photograph Courtesy Nelson Ledges

Photograph Courtesy Nelson Ledges

Photograph Courtesy Nelson Ledges

Photograph Courtesy Nelson Ledges

Brian Ross, far left, faced several challenges when he took over Nelson Ledges, including destroyed pavement, derelict mobile homes and outdated guard rails. Since starting the renovation work, though, the racing’s returning, with ChampCar adding the track to its schedule in 2018. Photograph Courtesy Nonnamaker Racing

Brian found himself in a catch-22: Clubs wouldn’t return without the fresh pavement, but those same event dates were needed to justify the work. Despite the quandary, the track repaving started that same month. “That was the first major improvement,” Brian says. Soon after, organizations started to talk to him. 

More facility upgrades followed. “We’re still cleaning to this day,” he notes. So far, he and his crew have filled about 40 construction waste containers with debris and hauled away some 60 derelict motorhomes and mobile homes—each one, in theory, connected to an owner who needed to be tracked down. “People just left stuff out there,” Brian says.

The facility’s electrical system had to be rebuilt as well. Instead of properly wiring the grounds, previous staff had simply buried extension cords. Other renovation work included replacing old guardrails, pouring a concrete walkway for pit lane, building a new tech center, extending runoff areas, and paving the access roads. 

“I’m simply the caretaker of this place,” Brian reports. He’s there most days, with Fred Wolfe managing the facility. 

During the rebuild, the track started to come alive. ChampCar returned during the summer of 2018, offering 60 slots for a 24-hour contest. They filled 56 of them. 

“As an auto racing sanctioning body, there was no way that we would ever miss out on endurance racing at North America’s home for amateur endurance racing,” explains Bill Strong, ChampCar’s marketing director. 

“While a lot of today’s race tracks are like country clubs with very sterile tracks and facilities, Nelson Ledges has a reputation for being the opposite. But that’s not a bad thing.” Bill adds, “I personally think that endurance racing is not just about driving all night and all day. It’s about beating everything that the track throws at you, that the weather throws at you, the darkness, and sometimes even the facility.”

Will Nonnamaker was one of those ChampCar entrants. “The track has always been fast, as we are lapping a 2-mile track in 75 seconds,” he says. “But now there are curbs and smooth surfaces to make this journey less of a blind journey from lap to lap—to a track where it is so smooth and flowing that, after a while, it is almost hypnotizing to keep driving around, especially at about 3 a.m.”

Then, last year, another big milestone: The SCCA recertified the track and sanctioned two races. “Had an awesome year in 2020,” Brian explains. “We’re this old little farm track. People were able to social distance.”

One of those SCCA events took place around Halloween. The weather was terrible, Brian recalls, but the track still welcomed about 75 cars. 

More renovation work: a concrete walkway for pit lane, proper utilities and drainage work. In addition to the racing surface, new pavement can also be found throughout the facility. Photography Courtesy Nelson Ledges

And after that event, a discussion began: Could the track revive the Longest Day? Well, it’s back on the schedule for June 11-13, and sanctioning will again come from the SCCA. In another return to the event’s roots, just four classes will be offered, all for production-based cars—with provisions, of course, for non-SCCA cars that fit in. 

Back in 1994, GRM sent a young contributor to the Longest Day: John Doonan, now the president of IMSA. After that first experience, he ended his report with a vow to return: “Once you get a taste of this one—just like when you commit to the center lane during rush hour—there is no turning back.” 

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benjschneider
benjschneider New Reader
6/16/21 11:00 a.m.

I was drafted to work the infield gates there in 1966 by Less Walters.  Lake Erie would tell me and a friend when to open and close them for traffic.  At another event, I got drafted into Lake Erie by Bill Brenen.  I later got my Lake Erie License in 1967 when working Mid-Ohio.   Then in 1970, Less drafted me and my girlfriend (later my wife) to be timers.  That was the last race she wanted to attend!

I remember waking to the sounds of bagpipes there.  Doc Wylie who raced an Bobsy piped us all awake when he raced there.  I remember pushing his Bobsy to a safe position after it lost oil pressure near my turn.  I could hardly understand his Scottish.

That track had some fine racing in the late sixties, and seventies.  Bob Sharp, Bob Tullius were two of my favorites.  The SCCA Nationals were very competitive there.  I remember sleeping under a Healey 3000 that was on jack stands one night.  It was raining, and I didn't have a tent.  The Healey belonged to Alec Fortuna, and Howard Walters.  During another evening, I helped a driver remove the engine from his Sprite and replace the rear seal; we used that big oak tree at the end of pit road to attach the come-a-long.

I found my racing puberty ant Nelson-Ledges.  It started a journey that lasted most of my life.  I no longer flag for Lake Erie; it got too political, and me too old.  I did enjoy the bonfires with them though, and appreciate the volunteers who do that work.…

slowbird
slowbird UltraDork
6/16/21 2:54 p.m.

I'm a big fan of the image at the top where the Mercury Capri is keeping up with a Porsche, at least for a while.

sir_mike
sir_mike New Reader
6/16/21 3:43 p.m.

Was there in 1974 with a friend for his drivers school.What a place it was back then.

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