Behind the Scenes with… Charlie Neilson

January 6th, 2012

By Bill Holland

Unquestionably, Charlie Neilson should be high on the BFF (Best Friends Forever) list of any serious NHRA drag racer. As the Association’s Contingency Sponsor Service Manager, Neilson is the guy responsible for amassing, organizing and overseeing distribution of some $19,000,000 posted this year at all NHRA Full Throttle (National), Get Screened America, Pro Mod, Jegs Sportsnationals, Lucas Oil (Divisional) and Summit E.T. Championship Series events.

Occasionally, though, Charlie loses his BFF status, as part of his responsibility is to make sure all of the claims are legit (normal contingency award requirements are use of product, display of approved manufacturer’s stickers on both sides of the race car, and sometimes proof of purchase). Not that any racer would ever attempt to “game” the system (grin), but Charlie must enforce the rules.

Neilson, a 14-year employee of NHRA, is one of the few staffers with deep roots in racing. The Windsor, Ontario, Canada, native spent much of his formative years in Florida, Massachusetts, Maryland and Indiana at race tracks. He attended his first drag race (Miami-Hollywood Speedway Park in Florida) at the tender age of 8 with his dad Charlie.  An associate of the elder Neilson, Bill Bushong, was friends with the late Clayton Harris and helped him on occasion. At the 1976 Springnationals in Columbus, Charlie got a chance to work on Harris’ crew. The hook was set on the 16-year-old. In the ensuing years, Neilson would attend races at various Midwest tracks and lend a helping hand to Harris, and also Don Garlits and Jim and Alison Lee.

Four of the fabled Brew Crew (L to R): Joe Barthlum (now with Morgan Lucas), Jim Male, Charlie and Doug Kuch (now Doug Foley’s T/F crew chief).

Higher learning called, and Neilson enrolled at Albion College in south central Michigan, focusing on business administration. Charlie earned his B.A. degree in 1982, with Economics and Management, Sports Administration and Physical Education as his majors. Time permitting, he also maintained a presence at the drags, befriending Geoff Scarp, who was a member of Kenny Bernstein’s Budweiser King crew. The friendship would prove to open a door for Neilson in the years to come.

In 1985, a full-time position with Bernstein’s operation became available and Charlie seized the opportunity. With Hall of Fame crew chief “AA/Dale” Armstrong as a mentor, Neilson quickly learned the ropes at one of drag racing’s most successful operations. Bernstein ventured outside the 1320, fielding both NASCAR and Indy 500 teams, with Charlie’s duties touching into those arenas, as well.

When asked what his responsibilities entailed during the 13 years spent with the Brew Crew, Neilson says, “I pretty much covered all the bases. At one point or another I did most everything—except be the owner, driver or crew chief!”

As for highlights during his time with Bernstein, Charlie replied, “Of course, winning races and a number of championships was great, but nothing beat the excitement of Kenny breaking the 300 mph barrier at Gainesville in1992. That was a once-in-a-lifetime moment of history.”

In 1997, he made career move to NHRA. His first job was marketing service manager, which made good use of his academic and practical experience. In 1999, Charlie was appointed division director of NHRA’s Division VII, a post he held until 2003 when he rejoined the Glendora headquarters staff in his current position.

Charlie learned from the best, Dale Armstrong. Here are Charlie and Dale’s son Brad (kneeling).

Today, when he’s not on the road attending NHRA National events and making sure all is well with the Manufacturer’s Midway, Charlie and his wife Jean live in Rancho Cucamonga, California. Stepdaughter Brittney (23), stepson Brandon (29), daughter in-law Summer and granddaughter Brooklyn round out the family. As proof that the drag racing bug is omnipresent, you’ll also find Brandon working NHRA events in a pit control capacity. Kinda reminds you of another Brandon behind the wheel of his dad’s dragster.

Drag racing is definitely a family sport.



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