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Ron Nielsen knows his Ford Escort ZX2 isn’t a typical racecar, but that doesn’t stop him from regularly beating cars that are competing in faster classes.
Grouped with Spec Miatas, Spec E30s and 944 Spec cars on track in NASA’s Southeast Region, Nielsen carries the flag for his Performance Touring competitors.
“He’s taken a car that anybody else would have walked by in a parking lot and he’s turned it into a racecar, and he’s racing it successfully,” said Jimmy Myers, Nielsen’s friend who races Spec Miata in the Mid-Atlantic Region. “That’s a grassroots racer in my book.”
Nielsen has made the most of his limited racing budget, winning Southeast regional championships in 2014 and 2015. He won the 2014 Eastern States Championship in Performance Touring F, qualifying for the Mazda Race of NASA Champions and finishing 16th overall in the race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Last year Nielsen took third at the 2015 Eastern States Championships, but was disqualified when a post-race dyno test showed the Escort ZX2 was one horsepower over the limit.
Spend any time with Nielsen in the paddock and it is easy to see his passion. Take his work life, for example. Before Nielsen took a new job with Warehouse Systems Inc. that required significant travel, he negotiated an agreement that allows him to work at home in Gainesville, Ga., one week a month during race season to prep and race the car in his free time.
If Nielsen isn’t at a NASA event, he’s often meeting up with his parents, Gary and Gail, at a track to run either his Mom’s 2014 Ford Mustang prepared by Holman & Moody or his Dad’s 300-horsepower MK II Roadster, a 1966 A/C Cobra replica.
Nielsen, 47, started working on cars with his dad at an early age, and the summer before high school he bought a 1974 Toyota Corolla station wagon from a neighbor for $50. He spent the next two summers rebuilding the engine, installing new upholstery and painting the car yellow.
“We do everything ourselves,” Nielsen said. “We never had a mechanic come to the house to fix something. We fixed everything in the garage, whether it was our own cars or the washing machine.”
Outside of the occasional street race or drifting in snow-covered parking lots as a teenager, Nielsen didn’t start road racing until 2006. Over the next several years, he raced his street car, and to keep racing affordable, Nielsen became an instructor to get more track time.
Nielsen got his competition license in 2013, borrowing Myers’ Spec Miata to run at Virginia International Raceway. Despite never having driven the track or run the car, Nielsen beat Myers’ best times in the car.
“I guess I wasn’t surprised that he did better times than me, but you always hate to loan somebody a car and that’s what happens,” Myers said with a laugh.
The following year Nielsen bought a dedicated racecar, a 1999 Ford Escort ZX2, the same model as his commuter car. Even though the ZX2 had spent its life as a racecar, Nielsen moved quickly to make changes to the car. He cut out a petty bar, added a passenger seat and swapped out the rear drum brakes for discs.
Finding replacement parts for a car that was built before the turn of the century isn’t easy, so Nielsen had to modify parts such as lug nut studs that were breaking on the car. He also went through several brands of bearings before finding something that could withstand more than a weekend of racing.
To stay within budget, Nielsen visits racecar shops to buy their takeoff tires. His first and only set of new race tires was at the 2014 Eastern States Championships.
“When their drivers are done with the tires, I put them on my car and use up the last 30 or 40 percent of the tire,” Nielsen said.
Last year when the original engine gave out on his ZX2 and Nielsen was short on time, he turned to a local engine builder to build him a new one. The engine blew up at the first race and Nielsen vowed then to do all the work himself.
“My wife (Eileen) said, you better not blow up the next one,” Nielsen said. “If I’m going to build an engine and it’s the last one, I better build a good one.”
Nielsen describes the front-wheel drive ZX2 as a momentum car that requires keeping up speed in the turns to stay competitive with other cars in the Performance Touring F class.
“I have no ABS, but it has power steering,” Nielsen said of the ZX2. “I have to actively drive that car. If you hit the brakes too hard, you lock up a tire, flat spot it, and you’re done.”
Nielsen’s father, Gary, said his son is a natural behind the wheel and is just as skilled at setting up and repairing cars.
“He’s really good because he knows the dynamics of the vehicle, and has a good feel for the car he’s driving. I can’t feel what he can feel,” Gary Nielsen said. “He’s not reckless or anything. He does the right things, but he’s fast.”
Ron Nielsen describes his driving style as “smooth and consistent” but he will only push his car close to its limits.
“I try not to drive at 100 percent because then there is zero room for error, whether it’s on your part or somebody else’s part,” he said. “Any given moment you can have a failure on a vehicle, so you have to have an exit plan.”
Like many competitors in NASA, Nielsen is drawn to the track because of the camaraderie among the racers.
“I like going to the NASA events because of the family fun. We’re all one big family, we like to have fun,” Nielsen said. “If you see a guy struggling, you go over and help him out. That’s the way it works.”