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Charlie Nelson, at the June 26 KRA Speedway races, addressing scalemaster Keith Geer, left. When Charlie talked, he deployed his eyes, voice and animated index finger to get your attention. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton

The late Charlie Nelson to be honored Thursday

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WILLMAR — Charlie Nelson, who was found dead on Saturday in his home that is only  blocks from the stock car track, will be honored before Thursday night’s racing program at the KRA Speedway.

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If anyone is deserving of the laurel “Mr. Racing” in his hometown, Nelson gets the checkered, most will agree.

According to reliable reports, Nelson declined to attend senior dining at the community center on Wednesday, telling a caller that he would see him at the races the next day.

But he did not attend the races that night, a rarity. His wife, Jan, passed away after a lengthy illness in 2012. They had no children.

The Northsider graduated from Willmar High School in 1954, which would make him about 78-years-old at the time of his passing. No arrangements have been announced.

Charlie was a former racer, mechanic and KRA board member. He was a perennial advocate for the sport locally. Lanky and lean as when he was a 6-foot-4 back-up center on Willmar’s 24-1 squad in the winter of 1953-54, he had a gift for making visiting racers and pit crew feel important and welcome.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for being here,” he would say loudly in a deep voice, his eyes boring in.

While conceding a stock car track and a residential neighborhood were restless bedfellows, he never tired of pointing out racing’s long history at the fairgrounds and the economic benefits it provided to the city and the Kandiyohi County Fair Board.

His hand-made trophies were unique. He referred to them as “His clunkers,” but the gaudy monuments (one made for the “Jan Nelson Special” measured five-and-a-half feet tall), were treasured by any driver fortunate to win one.

A “Charlie Nelson Special” was planned during Willmar Fests but racing was canceled due to rain. It has been rescheduled for July 24.

Thursday’s tribute is expected to attract a huge car count. Not only will drivers show from all around Minnesota, plus the Dakotas and Wisconsin to honor a true friend, but the evening is also Night 1 of the Advantage RV’s Modified Sizzling Summer Nights Series, in itself a draw.

Sarah Isdal, a resident Northsider and a KRA board member, said the tribute planned for just before the first green flag at 6:30 p.m. will include a balloon release.

“We hope every driver, past or present, will come down to the front stretch and hold a balloon during a reading of the “Racer’s Prayer.”

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Rand Middleton

Covers Willmar and area high schools and Ridgewater College, plus amateur baseball, stock car racing and fitness events in summer. Writes weekly column since 1980. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 

(320) 214-4334
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